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William G. Brownlow Papers

Identifier: MS-1940

  • Staff Only

This collection consists primarily of letters documenting William Gannaway Parson Brownlow's service as Governor of Tennessee and showing the problems that Tennessee faced during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The collection is arranged into three series based on correspondent:

Series I: William G. Brownlow Correspondence (1848 December 18-1878 March 20) consists primarily of letters documenting Brownlow's service as Governor of Tennessee. Among the correspondents represented are John Bell, O. P. Temple, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Tennessee Secretary of State A. J. Fletcher, General George H. Thomas, Horace Maynard, Ephraim Foster, James O. Shackelford, Clinton B. Fisk, Governor Joseph E. Brown, Alexander H. Stephens, Joseph S. Fowler, D. W. C. Senter, Governor Neill S. Brown, and General Ambrose Burnside.

Series II: John Bell Brownlow Correspondence (1866 March 13-1902 August 5) houses letters to and from Parson Brownlow's son, J. B. Brownlow. Among the correspondents represented are General William H. Carroll, Nathaniel G. Taylor, Joseph H. Blackburn, Green B. Raum, Horace Maynard, John M. Lea, J. M. Thornburgh, William Gibbs McAdoo, Isham Harris, John Morgan Bright, Washington Whitthorne, H. H. Thomas, John Sherman, William Brimage Bate, Daniel T. Boynton, A. H. Pettibone, Samuel Mayes Arnell, and Leonidas C. Houk.

Series III: Correspondence of Others (1861 May 8-1902 May 27) includes letters from other correspondents.

Abbreviations Used:

Autograph Letter Signed


  • 1848 December 18-1902 August 5

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Collections are stored offsite and must be requested in advance. See for detailed information. Collections must be requested through a registered Special Collections research account.

Conditions Governing Use

The UT Libraries claims only physical ownership of most material in the collections. Persons wishing to broadcast or publish this material must assume all responsibility for identifying and satisfying any claimants on for detailed information. Collections must be requested through a registered Special Collections research account.


0.5 Linear Feet (1 half box)


This collection consists primarily of letters documenting William Gannaway Parson Brownlow's service as Governor of Tennessee and showing the problems that Tennessee faced during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Also included are letters to and from Brownlow's son, John Bell Brownlow.

Biographical/Historical Note

William Gannaway Parson Brownlow (1805-1877) was an influential East Tennessee minister, journalist, and governor. On the eve of the Civil War, his newspaper, popularly known as Brownlow's Whig, reached nearly eleven thousand subscribers across the nation. The Parson was a prominent spokesperson for the Whig Party and a staunch defender of the Union during the United States Civil War.

Born the son of yeoman farmers in 1805, William Brownlow was orphaned at the age of 11. In 1825, having tried his hand at farming and carpentry, he had a religious experience at a camp meeting and entered into a career as a circuit riding minister in the Holston Conference. After 10 years riding through the mountains preaching to all who would listen, Parson Brownlow married Eliza O'Brien and settled down to work for her father in the family iron mill at Elizabethton. Soon the former preacher, who had proved himself in the religious warfare carried on by Appalachia's Protestant churches a sharp man with a word, was approached by members of the local Whig Party to edit their failing newspaper, the Republican and Manufacturer's Record. Parson Brownlow accepted the offer and, as his biographer noted, found his greatest love after his wife, journalism. Operating on the advice he gave another editor in dealing with enemies (lather him with aqua fortis [nitric acid] and shave him with a handsaw), Parson Brownlow became, because of his wit, venom, and violent rhetoric, one the most noted or notorious journalists in American history. The Republican and Manufacturer's Record, after name changes and moves to Jonesboro and Knoxville, became known as Brownlow's Whig, the most famous newspaper in Tennessee.

With the coming of secession, Brownlow found himself a major force in the attempt to maintain the Union. With the Whig as his platform, Brownlow put all his effort and all his vituperative skills in the service of Unionism, but despite his efforts Tennessee joined the Confederacy. Losing the immediate argument with the secessionists did not silence him; Brownlow continued to use his paper to denounce the Confederacy and its leaders without restraint.

At last, exasperated by his abuse and facing in East Tennessee a rebellion generated by Brownlow's vitriolic words, the Confederate authorities in Knoxville arrested him and ultimately expelled him from the South. Exile did not end Brownlow's war with the Confederacy. Due to the publicity generated by his resistance and arrest in Tennessee, he found himself a hero to the North and used this new found fame as a weapon against the South. He lectured across the North, urging the reconquering of the seceding states. Those people he did not reach with the spoken word he reached with the printed word through the medium of his famous Parson Brownlow's Book, which recounted with vivid language and self-dramatization the story of his resistance in Knoxville to the Confederacy.

With the war's end Parson Brownlow and fellow East Tennessee Unionists formed a state government with Brownlow as governor. Publicly, as governor, his attitude was one of unremitting revenge upon the Confederates, though privately his attitude was charitable and forgiving toward individuals. Unfortunately for his reputation this attitude of revenge put him in opposition to the overwhelming majority of Tennesseans, who wished to forgive and forget. Damaging also to his reputation was that fact that, while he was personally the most honest of men, many of his allies were not and proceeded to take advantage of his frequent illnesses to raid the state coffers and engage in massive fraud and corruption. Despite this, Brownlow, because his party and the Federal army controlled the state, was elected in 1868 to the Senate, where, due to his extreme weakness born of years of illness, he made little mark.

After his service in the Senate, Brownlow returned to East Tennessee, where, unlike in the rest of the state, he remained popular. People had been expecting him to die while governor and senator because of his illnesses, but, almost through strength of will alone, Brownlow lived on, only to at last die in the spring of 1877.


This collection consists of one box divided into three series:

  1. Series I: William G. Brownlow Correspondence, 1848 December 18-1878 March 20
  2. Series II: John Bell Brownlow Correspondence, 1866 March 13-1902 August 5
  3. Series III: Correspondence of Others, 1861 May 8-1902 May 27

Acquisition Note

Special Collections purchased these materials in August of 1992.

Related Archival Materials

Interested researchers may also wish to consult:

  1. MS.0225: William Gannaway Brownlow Papers
  2. MS.0266: William Gannaway Brownlow Papers, 1831-1877
  3. MS.0936: William Gannaway Brownlow Letters, 1836-1862
  4. MS.1187: William G. Brownlow Appointment of Joseph C. Gold, 1866 April 10
  5. MS.1790: Carte de Visite Depicting William G. Brownlow, circa 1860
  6. MS.1956: William G. Brownlow Letter, 1863 January 17
  7. MS.2088: William G. Brownlow Letter to George W. Childs, 1863 March 25
  8. MS.2285: William G. Brownlow Carte de Visite, undated
  9. MS.2663: Love Letter mentioning Parson Brownlow, 1862
  10. MS.2699: William G. Brownlow Letter, 1863
  11. MS.2750: William G. Brownlow Tennessee Bonds Circular, 1866
  12. MS.3230: William G. Brownlow Family Cartes de Visite and Envelopes, undated

Repository Details

Part of the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Repository

University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Knoxville TN 37996 USA