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Front Page - Friday, March 2, 2018

Elliott explores understudied Brown


As a civil litigation attorney with Gearhiser, Peters, Elliot & Cannon, Sam Elliott likes digging into the finer points of a case to uncover little known but important facts. In the same way, he enjoys delving into the recesses of local Civil War history to shine a light on the Tennesseans who inhabit its unexplored passages.

Elliott’s interest in local history and historical figures drew him to pen and publish a full-scale biography of John C. Brown, a little known but important individual in the American Civil War. A native of Pulaski, Brown was a Confederate general, Tennessee politician, railroad executive and lawyer who stood on some of the most studied stages of his era and region but until now had received no biographical treatment.

The latter criteria was of interest to Elliott, who’d already written biographies of Confederate General A.P. Stewart and Isham G. Harris, a governor of Tennessee. “Brown hadn’t been given any treatment, but he deserved it,” Elliott says. “He was a significant person.”

Indeed, Brown was an individual of considerable attainment during the Civil War, as Elliott details in the pages of his book. Not only did he achieve the rank of major general in the Confederate Army - a feat achieved by only seven other Tennesseans - he also served at the Battle of Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain, placing him in the thick of the fighting. Later, Brown and his brigade fought at the Battle of Resaca, which was part of the Atlanta Campaign.

“If you visit Chickamauga Battlefield, go to the Brotherton House, hang a left and walk toward the woods, his brigade fought in that area,” Elliott says. “His name is also on one of the markers on Lookout Mountain for fighting there on Nov. 23, 1863.”

Brown’s service in the Civil War ended when he was shot in the thigh during the Battle of Franklin.

Elliott liked rolling up his sleeves and shuffling through the scattered pages of history to put together a cohesive picture of the life of his subject. He culled many of the details that made up his chapters on Brown’s military career from reports the major general himself wrote during the war. (These are available online.) Elliott also pulled raw materials from newspapers at the Tennessee State Library and Archives and the Library of Congress.

A true bloodhound of history, Elliott even followed the trail of Brown’s life to the accounts of the soldiers who served under him. “It’s like gathering evidence as a lawyer, which makes it interesting to me,” Elliott says. “I enjoy figuring out who has the information I need.”

Published by the University of Tennessee Press, Elliott’s book also follows Brown through his post-military career, when he resumed his work as an attorney, held political office and worked for various railroads. Because Elliott’s knowledge lies primarily in local Civil War history, he found this span of time, which took place during the Reconstruction period, to be the most challenging in terms of research.

The ability to tap into the knowledge of his fellow scholars, however, opened the doors to vital sources of information. Like many academic presses, the University of Tennessee Press employs a peer review process in evaluating a manuscript. While reviewing Elliott’s draft, these outside readers made constructive comments regarding additional sources. The result: a book which not only follows Brown’s military career but also the fascinating latter years of his life.

“After the war, Brown returned to Pulaski to practice law, then he became instrumental in the effort to restore the voting rights of former Confederate soldiers,” Elliott says. “In 1869, he was elected the president of the constitution convention, and a year later, became governor and served two terms. During his time as governor, he tried to resolve economic conflicts that had begun before the Civil War.”

These chapters are filled with every interesting particular Elliott could dig up, including those related to Brown’s failed bid to become a U.S. senator. The opponent who defeated him: former U.S. President Andrew Johnson.

Elliott also explores also a few fine points Brown, if he were alive today, might wish to remain buried under the dust of the years - such as his possible involvement with the Klu Klux Klan.

“Although there isn’t any evidence, he was probably involved with the KKK,” Elliott says. “Pulaski is the birthplace of the organization, and five of the six men who started it served under Brown during the Civil War.”

Better established, and less scandalous, is Brown’s role as a leader in the anti-Brownlow movement, which sought to end Radical Reconstruction in Tennessee.

The notion of a former Confederate officer becoming governor of Tennessee might make some readers to a double take. But Elliott says it makes sense.

“Before the war, Brown was a Whig rather than a Southern Democrat, so he was considered a moderate,” Elliott explains. “And right up until Tennessee left the Union, he was a unionist.”

The most surprising part of the project for Elliott was exploring the final years of Brown’s career, during which he unsuccessfully lobbied, on behalf of his employer, to cull Federal support for a private endeavor to build a railroad from Texas to California. Elliott believes the stress of this work and his labors for another railroad led to his death from a bleeding ulcer in August 1889 at the age of 62.

“That was surprising for someone who’d survived five wounds during the Civil War, two of which were serious,” Elliott says.

Elliott began researching and writing “John C. Brown of Tennessee: Rebel, Redeemer, and Railroader” in 2011. He crossed the finish line in late 2017 after six years of part-time work on the project. “I have a real job,” he says. “I started it a few months after my term as president of the Tennessee Bar Association was over. I just felt like doing it.”

Elliott’s goals in writing the book were to accurately tell Brown’s story in a way readers would enjoy and to carve out a piece of Tennessee history no one else had covered.

Andrew Slap, author of “Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans of the Civil War Era,” believes Elliott succeeded on both counts.

“Sam ... has written a needed and thorough biography of ... Brown, an important but often forgotten figure of the Civil War era. As a general in the Army of Tennessee, probable leader of the Ku Klux Klan, governor of Tennessee and railroad executive, Brown was involved in many of the most vital issues of his time and helped shape the future of not just Tennessee but the nation,” Slap wrote in his assessment of Elliott’s book.

Looking back, Elliott is struck by the life of a man who attained many things personally but occasionally struggled to have an impact on the large stage.

“One of my conclusions at the end of the book is that while Brown was successful in life – he married two rich women, had four children and made a lot of money – many his endeavors were losing efforts,” Elliott says.

“He tried to keep Tennessee in the Union and failed, then he fought on the losing side of the war. As governor, he fought state debt related to financing the railroad inside Tennessee, and was only partially successful. Then he tried to convince the federal government to help build a railroad from Texas to California, and failed at that.”

Although the railroad never made it past Fort Worth, the details of Brown’s life survived for well over a century to reach Elliott and inspire him to write a book. With the hardcover edition available through Amazon, the author has no plans to tackle another tome on that scale.

“I’m thinking about writing shorter pieces,” he says. “Six years is a long time to wait for the payoff. Articles provide immediate satisfaction.”