Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

JOSEPH EMERSON BROWN (April 15, 1821–November 30, 1894)

Jon L. Wakelyn

As governor of Georgia throughout the Civil War, Joseph E. Brown became, in the eyes of Confederate President Jefferson Davis (q.v.) and his allies, the supreme state’s rights villain who sabotaged the government’s war effort. That accusation has nearly sealed Brown’s reputation and has made most difficult any realistic reappraisal of his amazing public political career. But Brown himself claimed that his defense of the parochial interests of Georgia actually assisted the Confederacy. In truth, his life story encompassed a number of contradictions, and he should be judged on his ability to have survived and even to have thrived in those most confused political times of the period of national separation. Destined by his family to become a preacher, he learned to wallow in the stink of antebellum politics; a man of the people, he nevertheless grew wealthy through railroad speculation; committed to the Democratic party, for a time he flirted with the postwar Republican party; and most challenging, he began as a vehement secessionist but spent the war obstructing the new Confederacy. Perhaps these seeming contradictions are clues to the true motivations of Joe Brown. Certainly, his life activities reveal much about the contradictions within the slave states themselves.

Joseph Emerson Brown came into the world in the dirt-poor hill country of Long Creek in Pickens District, South Carolina, on April 15, 1821. His ScotsIrish ancestors, originally from Derry in northern Ireland, moved often in search of better farmland in the Appalachian region before they finally settled in Union County, Georgia, not long after his birth. Young Joe took great pride in his grandfather’s heroics during the American Revolution and that of his father, the dour and stern Mackay, who had fought alongside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. Mackay married Sally Rice, also from a poor farm family but imbued with ambitions for her eldest son. Young Joe took on the tasks of a farmer and soon learned to make profit from the sale of excess produce in the local villages. He also was a bright young man, and his family managed to send

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