The Civil War’s #1 Pain in the Butt: The Life of William G. “Parson” Brownlow

By Dick Crews
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in the fall of 2000.

William G. Brownlow, Civil War editor and preacher was called by everyone “Parson Brownlow.” He was the editor/owner of the Knoxville, Tennessee newspaper, The Knoxville Whig and a circuit rider for the Methodist Church. He is best known as a southerner who strongly opposed session from the United States and was scheduled to hang for his attitude.

William G. Brownlow

He had a long list of enemies as he savagely attacked groups he did not like. On the top of his list were Mormons, Baptists, and secessionists.

His enemies did not take this abuse sitting down. Brownlow was threatened, sued, beaten up, shot at (and hit once), hanged in effigy, indicted, imprisoned, and exiled. Not only did this not silence him but it gave him more ammunition for his savaged broadsides.

About the Mormons he wrote: “If President James Buchanan would send an army to Utah, and exterminate the entire Mormon race, we will declare in favor of his administration.”

On witnessing a Baptist foot washing ritual: “Never did I, before or since, see as many big dirty feet, washed in one large pewter basin full of water.”

Isham G. Harris

On Isham G. Harris, secessionist Governor of Tennessee: “His complexion is shallow—his eyes are dark and penetrating—a perfect index to the heart of a traitor—with the scowl and frown of a demon resting upon his brow. The study of mischief, and the practice of crime, have brought upon him premature baldness and a grey beard…He chews tobacco rapidly, and is inordinately fond of liquor.”

Brownlow wrote this in his newspaper when the Confederate governor was in power. He was arrested for treason and sent to prison in Nashville. That didn’t stop Brownlow from smuggling out letters that were published in the North describing the horrors in a rebel prison.

The Confederates sentenced Brownlow to hang for his treason. However, the Confederates did not want to make Brownlow a Union martyr so they took him to the Union lines and dumped him.

An 1861 Southern Vigilance Committee in Memphis, Tennessee reviewing the local newspapers for disloyal material

Parson Brownlow was a hero in the North and immediately went on a speaking tour. He also rushed into print a book with his articles against the Confederate government. Even though a very disjointed book, it sold 100,000 copies. The Parson also removed from the book nasty articles he had written about Lincoln, northern members of Congress, and a dozen religions including Roman Catholicism.

After the Union army took back Knoxville, The Parson returned home to start printing his newspaper again. Following the war the people of Tennessee who could vote, ones who took the loyalty oath, made William G. Brownlow Governor of Tennessee.

By most accounts he was not a good governor. In 1982, a group of Tennessee historians named Parson Brownlow as the worst governor in the State’s history, ranking him below Ray Blanton, a 1964 Governor who was sent to prison for selling state liquor licenses.

Clearly William B. “Parson” Brownlow should win the award for the Civil War’s #1 Pain in the Butt. I am sure Jefferson Davis would agree. However, if courage is the measure, The Parson stacks up well. Faced with execution he spit in the eye of a Confederate general asking him to sign a loyalty oath to the Confederacy.

After all is said, Parson Brownlow is one of the people who make the Civil War so interesting to study.