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Civil War History 48.4 (2002) 294-312

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Contesting Secession:
Parson Brownlow and the Rhetoric of Proslavery Unionism, 1860-1861

Robert Tracy McKenzie

During the American Civil War there were few Southern Unionists better known in the North than Rev. William G. "Parson" Brownlow of East Tennessee. A regionally prominent figure before the war, the controversial Methodist minister and newspaper editor became something of a national celebrity during the conflict itself. Brownlow denounced "the vile heresy of secession" in the Knoxville Whig for as long as Tennessee remained in the Union. After the state voted in favor of separation in June 1861—against the wishes of a large majority of East Tennesseans, though not of Knoxvillians—he shifted his focus to a vitriolic critique of the "so-called Confederacy" and its "reign of terror" over Southern Unionists. 1 Local authorities finally arrested him and charged him with treason in late 1861; and after an imprisonment of three months, he was banished beyond Confederate lines in March 1862. Shortly thereafter he began a triumphal speaking tour of the North, addressing large and enthusiastic audiences from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Portland, Maine. 2 At the same time, his speeches were widely published in pamphlet form, a dime novel was written about his "heroic" daughter, and Brownlow himself took time from the lecture circuit to pen a hasty account of his experiences as a Unionist martyr. Known popularly as Parson Brownlow's Book, the volume sold more than 100,000 copies before the war's end. 3 [End Page 294]

Despite his wartime popularity, Brownlow has attracted surprisingly little attention among historians. Sixty-five years have passed since E. Merton Coulter penned the only full-length biography of Brownlow by a professional historian. Writing from a neo-Confederate perspective, Coulter questioned the Parson's mental stability and condemned him for "treason" against a "long-suffering" Confederate government. 4 Since 1937 only a handful of other scholars have examined Brownlow closely, and although less openly partisan than Coulter, they have evinced the same basic dislike for the editor and their assessments have been almost as imbalanced. 5 Discussion of Brownlow is now largely relegated to brief, obligatory references in works dealing either with the Civil War in Appalachia or with Southern unionism more generally. 6 For the "Fighting Parson"—who relished controversy perhaps as much as anyone in his day—this would have been the unkindest cut of all. [End Page 295]

Three factors may help to explain both the quantity and quality of scholarly work on Brownlow. To begin with, there is the sheer rawness of the prose in the Knoxville Whig. The former circuit-rider could "pile up epithets" with the best of them, and this talent may well have discouraged scholars from taking his ideas seriously. 7 Indeed, most have seemed more concerned with judging his character than with analyzing his arguments. Second, very little of Brownlow's personal papers survive, which prevents any serious analysis of his private world and necessitates an almost total reliance on his polemical newspaper. Finally, there is the long-standing marginalization of Southern Appalachia that traditionally has characterized the grand narrative histories of the Confederacy. 8 In the light of such factors, perhaps it is not so surprising that we know so little about an individual who, during his lifetime, was almost synonymous in the public mind with Southern unionism.

Happily, over the last decade or so scholars have begun to turn their attention to the Civil War in Appalachia and have produced a number of impressive monographs on this long-ignored region. Works by Daniel Sutherland, Kenneth Noe, Noel Fisher, Todd Groce, John Inscoe and Gordon McKinney, and Martin Crawford, to name the most prominent, are dramatically altering scholarly understanding of the Civil War in the Southern mountains and of Southern unionism more broadly. A comparison with the small body of older literature on William Brownlow is instructive. Most studies of Brownlow have portrayed unionism in East Tennessee as utterly devoid of complexity, a simplistic attachment to the national government grounded...


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