John C. Brown of Tennessee: Revel, Redeemer, and Railroader

By Sam D. Elliott | The University of Tennessee Press | $43 | 2017

Reviewed by Daniel J. Taylor

This book was honored with the 2017 Tennessee History Book Award by the Tennessee Library Association.

Today, few probably know the name of John Calvin Brown of Pulaski, Tennessee. Attorneys who have studied Tennessee Constitutional law might be familiar with his role as president of the important Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870. Others may recollect that he served as a post-Civil War Governor of Tennessee from 1871 to 1875.

Civil War enthusiasts may recall his service as a Tennessee Confederate soldier who rose from the rank of Captain to that of Major General by the war’s end.

However, Sam Elliott, a practicing attorney in Chattanooga, and past president of the Tennessee Bar Association, has written the recent definitive biography of Brown in The University of Tennessee Press publication of John C. Brown of Tennessee, Rebel, Redeemer, and Railroader. Elliott has previously written biographies of Tennessee Civil War Governor and post-war Senator Isham G. Harris; and also Confederate General Alexander P. Stewart of the Army of Tennessee. He also edited the war-time memoir and diary of Doctor Charles Quintard, Chaplain of the Army of Tennessee. With this new work, Elliott continues to fill a void as to biographies of important Tennessee war-time and post-war military and political figures.

Brown, the younger brother of a pre-war Whig Governor of Tennessee, became an attorney in Pulaski. At the time of the Tennessee Succession debate in 1861, Brown, who was politically a Whig and moderate, actually gave speeches and took positions supporting Tennessee remaining in the Union and against succession. A reluctant confederate, Brown, like other Tennesseans decided his loyalty had to remain with his home state when Tennessee did leave the Union in May 1861. Being a prominent attorney in Giles County, he was elected the captain of the “Giles Boys” in what became a unit of the 3rd Tennessee Infantry Regiment, C.S.A. Brown and his unit fought in almost all the major battles of the hard luck Army of Tennessee. Brown rose through the ranks to the position of major general. He was viewed as a competent officer and his war-time experiences are completely covered by Elliott in this book. Included are his capture at the surrender of Fort Donelson in 1862, his wounding at the Battle of Perryville, and his being seriously wounded at the Battle of Franklin in November 1864. He had the misfortune of being shot in almost the same part of the body that he was wounded at Perryville. Brown returned from medical leave to join his unit just in time to be present at the surrender of the Army of Tennessee in North Carolina in 1865.

After the war, Brown returned to Pulaski with $2 and “a badly damaged wardrobe.” Brown resumed the practice of law and actually gave speeches supporting President Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies. Realizing the Whig party was dead, Brown became a leader in the conservative anti-radical wing of the Tennessee Democratic Party. He also had a probable role in the Ku Klux Klan. Nevertheless, Brown spoke out publicly along with several other prominent ex-Confederates leaders on several occasions to try to stem the violence and lawlessness that continued in the years after the war.

Brown was elected a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870. At the start of the Convention, he was unanimously elected president of the Convention by delegates who viewed him, because of his views and war service, as a rising star in Tennessee politics. Voting rights became the dominant issue of the Convention, specifically, the issue of voting for African Americans and for those ex-confederates who had been stripped of their voting rights following the occupation and war. The Convention’s main achievement was the approval of a provision for universal voting rights for those males over the age of 21. The voting right came with no distinction as to race. However, the right came with the stipulation that the legislature might provide a poll tax for the exercise of that vote. This led to the return of voting eligibility for many of those white Tennesseans who had been disenfranchised by the radical factions following the occupation of Tennessee. Even though the Convention adopted the universal male suffrage report, the poll tax provision had the effect of stifling potential African American voters who could not afford the tax. 

Following the changes in suffrage rights, Brown, with his prominence as president of the Convention, and a leader of the conservative faction of the Tennessee Democratic Party, was nominated and then elected governor of Tennessee in 1870. Brown’s victory was viewed by most Tennesseans as the redeeming of the state from the outside and inside radical and reconstruction elements. Because of this, Tennessee would be the first southern state of the former Confederacy to be redeemed. Brown would serve two terms and his terms were primarily known for issues dealing with a reduction of the state debt and with creating Tennessee’s first public school legislation, primarily by establishing local school superintendents and enacting a property tax to support the school districts. His term was also marked by a reduction of the violence that had taken place in the years after the war.

After losing a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1875 to former President Andrew Johnson, Brown returned to the practice of law and became a railroader by serving as vice president and attorney for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. When Jay Gould, the famous speculator, took over the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1881, Gould recognized Brown’s talents and legal ability and offered him the position of “general solicitor” for his organizations. Brown spent several years in this capacity and much time away from Pulaski, eventually rising to become president of the Texas and Pacific Railroad.

Elliott’s book is an extremely detailed and well written account that brings to life an important Tennessee lawyer, soldier, politician, leader and railroader. It also examines in fine readable style the issues and personalities of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870 and the political redemption of Tennessee following the Civil War.


DANIEL J. TAYLOR, a  longtime student of Tennessee history, practices law as a partner at Spragins, Barnett & Cobb PLC in Jackson, Tennessee. He is certified as a Criminal Trial Specialist. 

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