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Union County Historical Society Blairsville Georgia

Union County Historical Society
Blairsville, Georgia

Joseph Emerson Brown
1821 - 1894

Brown was born in Pickens County, South Carolina. He was the eldest of eleven children. At a young age he moved with his family to Union County, Georgia. (The family farm was at the site of the Woody Gap School in present day Suches. The area then was part of the Gaddistown Militia District.)

Article from the Dahlonega Signal newspaper, 1888

Famous Citizen Traded in Dahlonega,
From the Signal,
January 6, 1888.

Dropping into the store of Mr. A. G. Wimpy probably the oldest merchant in Georgia, be gave us this item: Along in 1838 and after, when Mr. Wimpy, was doing business at his present stand, the father of Senator Joseph E. Brown lived with his large family in Canada district, Union County. He was a poor farmer with a large family to maintain, and the duty devolved upon his son Joe to bring the produce here for sale, this being the nearest and best market, and with the money thus received to buy the necessaries of the family.

When it came time for the visits here Joe would saddle the only horse, and with palls of butter in a sack, a string of chickens thrown over the horse and several baskets of eggs, the now great “Uncle Joe” would come here and dispose of his stock of goods, usually selling them to Mr. Wimpy and 'in return he would buy whatever the family needed, and without tarrying or idling around, go back to his home. Mr. Wimpy says that many a dollar's worth of these things has he bought from the, then, young and gaunt looking Joe Brown.

Young Joe was always regarded as a shrewd young man, but little did any one suspect that he would become one of the foremost men of the South. . . . as Joe's thirst for an education had to be satisfied he was sent to a high school in Pendleton, South Carolina. After going there some time he was sent to a college where he graduated. He came back to Georgia and from then on his success was marvelous.


In 1840, he decided to leave the farm and seek an education. Brown, with the help of his younger brother James and his father's plow horse, drove a yoke of oxen on a 125-mile trek to an Academy in South Carolina, where Brown exchanged the oxen for eight months' board and lodging.

His paternal ancestors were Scotch-Irish, his immediate ancestor the descendant of emigrants, of honorable descent, to Virginia upwards of a century ago. The grandfather, Joseph Brown, was a whig rebel, and took active part in the War for independence. The father, Mackey Brown, was a native of South Carolina, to which State the ancestors had removed. In early life he removed and became a citizen of Tennessee where he joined the army in the brigade of General Carroll and served under General Jackson in the campaign of New Orleans. There was a consequent family admiration of Jackson as a hero and statesman.

His mother's maiden name was Sally Rice, who was also of Virginian ancestry. The Rice family having before emigrated to Tennessee, Mackey Brown and Sally Rice were married and resided in that State until a short time before the birth of Joseph Emerson, which took place on the 15th day of April, 1821, in Pickens district, South Carolina, whither the parents had removed. During his boyhood they removed to and settled in Union county, which is in north-eastern Georgia.
Joseph Brown's father did not own slaves. It was in that remote mountain home, under the control of and in dutiful and affectionate obedience to steady religious Baptist parents, that he passed his early youth. He labored in the field and attended stock to aid in the family support until he was nineteen years of age. He had been sent to the country schools, had learned to read and write, and had acquired some knowledge of arithmetic and the elementary branches of ordinary education.

He heard of Calhoun Academy in Anderson district, South Carolina, under Wesley Leverett, a distinguished teacher, and seeing the light as its rays came from the east, he planned the grand enterprise of reaching and passing a year in that school. He had no exchequer, never had revelled on cash, the gift of parental bounty, or from any source whatever; never had clothing except the common but neat domestic manufacture, had no horse of his own to ride over the long mountain road to Anderson, had no money to pay for board and tuition after he should reach the place. His worldly estate consisted of a yoke of steers.

He set out with the oxen with his younger brother James,(later, an eminent lawyer at Canton) to ride alternately his father's plow-horse and drive the steers, and to carry back the horse after the main part of the journey was completed--a distance of about one hundred and thirty miles. He sold his steers after arrival for eight months' board, entered the school and went in debt for tuition. There was no danger in trusting him. His earnest manner gained him credit, his energy and enterprise enabled him to meet its demands promptly. At the end of his board-contract
he returned to Union County, Georgia, and taught a three months' school, with the proceeds of which he paid his tuition-debt and had some money left to apply to the expenses of another term. . . .

In 1844, Brown moved to Canton, Georgia, where he served as
Head-Master of the academy at Canton. Joseph Emerson Brown capped off a solid middle-class education in private academies with a year at Yale Law School in New Haven, Connecticut (1845-46). He went on to study law, and in 1847, he opened a law office in Canton. Very able and ambitious, Brown quickly prospered as a lawyer and businessman. Brown was elected to the Georgia State Senate in 1849 and soon became a leader of the Democratic Party in Georgia. He was elected state circuit court judge in 1855.

In 1857 Brown (a former Whig) edged aside better-known politicians to become the Democrats' gubernatorial candidate. He won decisively, beginning a two-year term in November.

From then on he was unbeatable in statewide elections. He never was fully accepted by the established planter elite, but the white male masses of Georgia never wavered in their support. Governor Brown clashed with the state banking establishment, compelled the state-owned Western and Atlantic Railroad to operate efficiently, and generally championed the common white people of Georgia. As governor, he diverted state railroad profits to Georgia's public schools. In 1859 he was easily reelected.

As the sectional conflict intensified, Governor Brown became an
ardent secessionist. He prodded the legislature to strengthen the unprepared militia and to make other military preparations. After President Abraham Lincoln's election, Brown called on Georgia to follow South Carolina out of the Union. He ordered the seizure of the undefended federal Fort Pulaski even before a popularly elected convention voted by a narrow margin to secede.

Governor Brown had been concerned about the growing power of the central government in Washington, D.C. Soon he became increasingly concerned as well about the growing power of the Confederate government, which had moved to Richmond, Virginia, in June after the war started in April 1861. The first disputes over controlling and equipping Georgia forces were ominous, for the Confederacy could hope to win only by a centralized, unified war effort. Soon the disputes escalated, and in April 1862 Brown directly and openly challenged the new Confederate draft. It was the first national draft in American history, a revolutionary but necessary action to mobilize limited Southern white manpower against a vastly more populous enemy. Despite a lack of support by the state supreme court and the legislature, Governor Brown tried to exempt state military forces. As the draft kept expanding and drawing more manpower out of the state, the governor kept resurrecting his forces with Georgians too young or too old for conscription. This became a kind of ritual struggle between the governor and Confederate president Jefferson Davis, accompanied by bitter correspondence, as Brown's defiance set an example for other states to further cripple the faltering draft. He also provided exemptions for thousands of Georgia men who found jobs in a rapidly expanding state bureaucracy.

Under Brown the state established a mini–welfare system with officials traveling far and wide to supply necessities for soldiers and civilians. He set up an efficient system to distribute scarce salt so meat could be preserved. Salt also could be traded as its value can pace with inflation and therefor was better than money.
(Part of the Union County “Salt List” has been preserved.) As more and more breadwinners marched off to war and fell in battle, needy families multiplied, and the bureaucracy grew to render aid. All this required higher taxes, but Brown made sure the well-off citizens paid their fair share. Neither he nor the Confederate leaders, however, could tame an inflation that was undermining the Rebel home front. Within his state, Brown was often efficient and intelligent; indeed, the Confederate government could have learned from the governor's concern for the men who were doing most of the fighting and dying. These people formed the mass of the white male voters, and they decisively returned Brown to the governor's mansion in the fall of 1863.

Nevertheless, the hallmark of his wartime administration was his resistance to the authority of the central Confederate government, a policy that was soon copied by some other Rebel governors as it helped to undermine the overall war effort. Governor Brown's opposition surfaced in many fields. He opposed the army's impressments of goods and especially slave laborers. He frustrated Confederate efforts to seize the
Western and Atlantic Railroad (The Western & Atlantic Railroad, owned then by the State of Georgia, runs from Atlanta to Tennessee. The line is still owned by the State of Georgia,) to impose occasional martial law. He bitterly criticized Confederate tax and blockade-running policies. Over time the war-weary legislature backed him more often, and influential politicians like Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens and former Secretary of State Robert Toombs became his open allies as morale slumped in Georgia.

Even General William T. Sherman's massive invasion of north Georgia in the spring of 1864 did not moderate Brown's disaffection. He still struggled specifically to maintain control of his evolving state militia and generally to resist Confederate authority as Atlanta fell. As Sherman's host marched virtually unopposed from Atlanta to the sea, breaking the back of Georgia's war effort, Sherman offered a separate peace for Georgia if she withdrew from the Confederacy. Brown refused. Inevitably he denounced the Confederacy's belated plan to arm slaves in exchange for their freedom. His opposition had become almost instinctive; Jefferson Davis could do no right.

Earlier in the war Governor Brown had lost one brother serving as a Physician in the Confederate Army. [more info to be added] Later,
the Governor's younger brother, John M. Brown who was born the site of the Woody Gap School was killed. Lt. Colonel John Brown (He had enlisted early in the war as a private.) was commanding the "First Regiment Georgia State Line" at Battle of Atlanta when he was mortally wounded.

The Confederacy collapsed in April 1865. Governor Brown was
arrested and briefly imprisoned in Washington, D.C. Paroled, he backed President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction policy and received a full pardon in September. Then a Republican, Brown served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia from 1865 to 1870, when he resigned to become president of the Western and Atlantic Railroad. As Reconstruction ended, he swung back to the ranks of the Democrats and again prospered in law and business. During his postwar career Brown was a member, along with John B. Gordon and Alfred H. Colquitt, of a group known as the Bourbon Triumvirate*, which held much of the political power in the state from 1872 to 1890. From 1880 to 1891 Brown served in the U.S. Senate, until poor health forced his retirement. Soon after his election to the Senate, Brown became the first Georgia official to support public education for all children—not a popular position at the time. He died in 1894. He is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.

Joseph E. Brown, was one of the most successful politicians in the state's history. His son, Joseph Mackey Brown, would also become governor of Georgia (twice).

*The term Bourbon Triumvirate refers to Georgia's three most powerful and prominent politicians of the post-Reconstruction era: Joseph E. Brown, Alfred H. Colquitt, and John B. Gordon. This trio practically held a lock on the state's U.S. Senate seats and governor's office from 1872 to 1890: Brown as senator from 1880 until 1890; Colquitt as governor from 1876 through 1882, and as senator from 1883 until 1894; and Gordon as senator from 1872 until 1880, governor from 1886 until 1890, and senator again from 1891 until 1897. The political careers of all three men benefited from their service during the Civil War (1861-65); Brown had served as the governor of Confederat Georgia (He was first Governor under the U.S.), and Colquitt and Gordon had both risen to the rank of major general in the Confederate Army by the war's end.

from various sources.