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Jump to Part II of the Civil War Letters of William Laban Brown

The Civil War Letters of William Laban Brown

Private, Third Tennessee Cavalry, Company B (Union)

(An effort at deciphering the letters by his great-grandson Eric Blackwell)
Last update 4/20/2008  - This is very much a "work-in-progress" (and a labor of love).  Each time
I re-read the letters I am able to fill in a few more of the "blanks" and correct my previous errors.

A few more letters have been located and "translated" by Betsy Deal Smith with input from many
relatives.  These letters will be uploaded to this website in the next month or so.  They are
actually some of the most interesting letters and had probably been set aside for this reason
at some time in the past, which would explain why they were not with the larger bundle of letters.

Heartfelt thanks to my Aunt Jodie Brown, grand-daughter of William Laban Brown and
daughter of Albert Rosecrans Brown,  who provided almost all
of the historical material used on these pages, and to my cousins Martha Carol Brown Stromberg and Rob Stromberg
for their continuing diligence after Jodie's death in preserving the material, with most of the original
documents now in the archives of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee.

ADDITION August 26, 2018:
My niece Jody Blackwell who is a talented singer-songwriter was moved by William Laban Brown's
repeated references to his love for the hymn "There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood" and has
released a moving version of the hymn which, with her permission, can be heard at this link:

Detail of a letter from Nancy Colvin Brown to her husband William Laban Brown
in which she refers to "the ship blowing up that had had left Vicksburg with some
prisoners on it."  The letter was returned to her, for both her husband and her cousin
David Cusick were among the more than 1,500 people killed in the Sultana tragedy.

View the letter from William Laban Brown to his wife from mid-October, 1863

View the letter from William Laban Brown to his wife from late December, 1863

(Use your browser's back arrow to return to this page after viewing each letter)


A little background:


William Laban Brown   

The picture above left is probably the "likeness" referred to in several
of W.L. Brown’s letters to his wife.  The picture to the right is a photo
of the portrait of W.L. Brown which hangs over the living room
mantle in the A.R. Brown home in Erwin, Tennessee.  It would appear
that the artist used the soldier photo as the basis for his painting.


Nancy Colvin Brown, wife of W.L. Brown, probably about the time
of their wedding

The children of William Laban Brown and Nancy Colvin Brown
From left to right Mary Melissa, John Judson, Albert Rosecrans,
William Henry and Martha Louisa
Photo c. 1865-1866 by T.H. Smiley's Photographic Gallery, Knoxville, Tennessee
After the death of their father on the Sultana the children were placed in
the National Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphan Home in Washington, D.C.  All except
Albert Rosecrans and William Henry died of tuberculosis in their late teens
or early twenties.

Albert Rosecrans Brown's name was suggested in a letter from his father.  The "Rosecrans"
part is certainly in honor of  William S. Rosecrans, Major General in charge of
volunteers for the Union army.  I strongly suspect that the "Albert" is in honor
of Major Albert C. Catlett, referred to as "a fine man" by W.L. Brown in
his letters.  Major Catlett died of smallpox and the camp near Nashville
where W.L. Brown spent much of his tour of duty was renamed "Camp Catlett"
in his honor.

Above: Cabin of William Laban Brown and Nancy Colvin Brown in Knox County,
Tennessee, where my maternal grandfather Albert Rosecrans Brown was born

Below:  Map of Knoxville and the Cumberland River.  The small house icon shows
the approximate location of the William Laban Brown home near Twin Creek.
Note also Mount Olive, slightly above and to the left of the house icon, location
of the Mount of Olives Baptist Church and Cemetery where a Sultana Memorial
Monument was erected in 1916.  W.L. Brown often addressed his letters
to his wife "Mrs. N.C. Brown, Knoxville, Tennessee, South of the River".
The Brown home and farm were about four and a half miles south of the
Cumberland River where it passes Knoxville.

Click here or on small map above to see a more detailed version.
(Then use your browser's back arrow to return to this page)

Map Courtesy of

My great-grandfather William Laban Brown was born 28 May 1834 and died 27 April 1865 in the explosion of the steamship Sultana.  In his late twenties when he went to war, he was older than many of his fellow soldiers who good-naturedly referred to him as "the old man".  His wife, Nancy Colvin Brown, was born 30 March 1834 and died 3 April 1913.  Her father was Benjamin Brown (no, that is not a mistake - her maiden name was Brown before she married W.L. Brown - enough to drive later genealogy-interested folks nuts…) and her mother Martha Cusick.  Her cousin David Cusick also died in the Sultana explosion.  (There is a major road bearing the Cusick name near Knoxville even today.)

The letters, saved by his widow Nancy Colvin Brown and provided to me to copy by her granddaughter Jodie Brown (daughter of Albert Rosecrans Brown), were mostly from W.L. to his wife and to his parents John (Jhon) and Mary ("Polly") and his brothers and sisters.  One letter from Nancy Colvin Brown to W.L. Brown survives because it never reached him and was returned to her after his death on the Sultana.

William Laban Brown was a private in company B of the third Tennessee cavalry (Union) and David Cusick a private in company H.  They were most likely taken prisoner when the confederate forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest forced the surrender of the Union fort at Athens, Alabama (where 571 Union soldiers surrendered) and the nearby Sulphur Branch railroad trestle fortification where an additional 400 soldiers (all with the Union 3rd Tennessee Cavalry) surrendered on September 24-25, 1864.  These prisoners were then taken to the Cahaba prison camp on the Alabama River 12 miles from Selma.  After what must have been a truly horrible experience there they were moved to a parole camp (Camp Fisk or Four Mile Camp) about 4 miles from Vicksburg, Mississippi to await transport to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio where they would receive their official discharge from the Union army (a trip requiring both river transportation on the Mississippi and a train trip on into Columbus).  Much of this information is from the excellent book The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 1992.

Photograph of the horribly overloaded Mississippi steamship Sultana made at Helena, Arkansas on April 26, 1865, the day before the ship exploded a few miles north of Memphis, Tennessee killing more people than died on the Titanic. From the book The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 1992, p, 72.

An artist’s drawing of the Sultana disaster (Harpers Weekly) from the book The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 1992, p. 82.

Clues to some of the people mentioned in the letters:

*** ***

Above, left:  Gilbert Crittendon (or Crittleton) Brown, brother of William Laban  Brown, referred to as "Crit" or "G.C." in the letters.  Above center: John Madison Brown, brother of W.L. Brown (probably the "Mat" referred to in the letters).  Above, right:  Hamilton M. Brown, another brother of W.L. Brown, who was referred to as "Ham" in the letters.  He was only 15 or 16 years old at the time the letters were written and was at home with his parents, along with his brothers James Rogers Brown and Robert B. Brown.


Above, left:  Mary "Polly" Gossett Brown, mother of William Laban Brown.
Above, right:  Benjamin Brown, father of Nancy Colvin Brown 


Click here or on the preview picture above to see a larger version.
(Then use your Browser's back arrow to return to this page.)

Above: Picture made at a family reunion held at the home of Hamilton Brown, probably
in the early 1890's.  Seated in the wheelchair is Mary "Polly" Gossett Brown, mother of
Hamilton (and William Laban) Brown.  Behind her in the black dress with the shiny trim is
Nancy Colvin Brown, widow of William Laban Brown.  Hamilton Brown is the tall gentleman
to the left at the back of the picture.  In front of him in the checked dress is his sister
Harriet Elizabeth Brown (Mrs. John Quaid).  The man to the right in the back is Henry
Davis and the woman next to him possibly Margaret Ann Brown, sister of Hamilton
Brown.  The remaining woman may be Judith Katheryn Tarwater,
wife of Robert B. Brown (a brother of Hamilton Brown).

<>Sara Hitch Brown, Wife of John Madison "Mat" Brown

William Laban Brown was the son of John (Jhon) Brown (18 Jun 1813 - 28 Sep 1882) and Mary "Polly" Gossett Brown (21 Oct 1812 - 21 Jan 1896).  He was the oldest of 10 children and was about 29 years old when he joined the army.  He had three sisters: Margaret Ann, born 5 Jan 1835; Harriet Elizabeth, born in 1837; and Mary Jane, born in 1853 and only 10 or 11 years old while he was away in the army.  He had six brothers:  John Madison ("Mat"), born 1840; Henry A., born 1843 and died at age 3 in 1846; Gilbert Crittleton ("Crit"), born 1844; James Rodgers, born 1846; Hamilton M., born 9 Dec 1848;  and Robert B., born 1850.  William Laban Brown, "Mat", and "Crit" were all in the Union volunteer forces.  Their ages were about 29, 23 and 19 when they enlisted.  The other three living brothers were about 17, 15 and 13 years old when the older brothers left for the war.

The children of William Laban Brown and Nancy Colvin Brown were Martha Louisa (22 Oct 1856 - 29 Mar 1875), Mary Melissa (4 Mar 1858 - 27 Mar 1871), John Judson (25 Sep 1859 - 20 Aug 1877), William Henry (1 Aug 1861 - 25 Jul 1934) and Albert Rosecrans (7 Jul 1863 - 29 May 1937).  The oldest four were about ages 7, 5, 4 and 2 years when W.L. Brown left for the war and the youngest (my grandfather) was born almost exactly nine months after his father left for the army and was probably named for Major Albert C. Catlett and Major General William S. Rosecrans.  In his letters W.L. Brown refers to his children as Marthey, Mary, Juddy (which he spells Judy in all but one letter), Willy (which he spells Wiley) and little Albert.  He often speaks of Mat and Crit, almost certainly referring to his younger brothers in the army.  He mentions Mat's wife "Sary": Sara Hitch was the wife of John Madision Brown.

W.L. Brown mentions several times that he misses the preaching of "Brother Hines", probably pastor of the Mount of Olives church in Knox County, Tennessee.  It is likely that pastor Hines had a son in the army, Josh Hines, and W.L. several times says "…tell Brother Hines that Josh Hines is well".  Listed among the survivors of the Sultana tragedy is a Samuel J. [Joshua?] Hines, private, Co. B, 5th Infantry.

Other soldiers he reports on include Anderson Davis, Boyd Sharp, Wade Johnson, Mat Rodgers (possibly a relative) and he reports the deaths of Carson Anderson [could this be Anderson F. Carson of Co. F?], James McClanihan, John Rodgers, (Isaac?) Price, Jonathan Houser and others including a Shane MacCullie reported as drowned.

The term "Butternuts" shows up a few times in the letters - this seems to refer to local confederates or confederate sympathizers.  In addition to the gray uniforms of the Confederacy there were some wearing brown homespun uniforms which took their color from the butternut used in dying the cloth.

Below are some pictures probably illustrating scenes that would have been
familiar to William Laban Brown.

Click on the small pictures below to see larger versions
(and then use your browser's back arrow to return to this page).

Federal troops camped by the Tennessee River near Chattanooga

Federal Cavalry guarding the train depot near Chattanooga, Tennessee

Letter written by Nancy Colvin Brown to William Laban Brown with entries on May 2, 4, and 5, 1865.  The letter was returned to her since, unknown to her at the time, he had already died on the Sultana on April 27, 1865.  Below are photographs of the letter, followed by my best effort at transcribing it.


Continue to part II

Last Update August 24, 2018

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