Reese Brabson Was Among Stump Speakers In Chattanooga's Early Days

Tuesday, January 30, 2018 - by John Wilson

Reese Bowen Brabson was "a character - portly, jovial, lawyer, politician. He was an orator and scholar - polished and elegant.'' Whenever the Whigs wanted a Democrat denounced, they could count on red-headed Reese Brabson to mount the stump and do so. Like Col. Rush Montgomery, Reese Brabson predicted a great future for the city that had recently switched from Ross's Landing to Chattanooga.

The Brabson genealogy was told in an old family Bible: "The ancient and distinguished name of Brabazon had its origin in the castle of Brabazon in Normandy, whence Jacques Le Brabazon,  called the mighty warrior, came to the aid of William, Duke of Normandy, in his conquest of England, as appears by the name being inserted in the roll of Battle Abbey, which is said to have been compiled by William the Conqueror.

'' The family later settled in Ireland and Wales. John Brabson, grandfather of Reese Bowen Brabson, married Mary Bowen Reese, whose family came from Wales to Virginia. They had three sons and one daughter. John Brabson, the second son, was a soldier under Washington. He came to the future Tennessee from Baltimore in 1794. The site was 17 miles from Knoxville at a place that came to be known as Brabson's Ferry on the French Broad River. It was here Reese Bowen Brabson was born in 1817. He was named for Reese Bowen, who was "famous in history for his courage and daring at Bunker Hill and later at King's Mountain where he lost his life.'' This Reese Bowen was a great-uncle of Reese Bowen Brabson.

Reese Bowen Brabson was the fourth son of John Brabson Jr. The maiden name of Reese Bowen's mother was Elizabeth Davis. Her grandfather, Ben Davis of Camden, S.C., was in the Revolutionary battle at Camden with his seven sons. Her father was Ben Davis Jr., who married Priscilla Jones. Ben Davis had a brick mansion on the Nolichucky River. When Elizabeth Davis married John Brabson Jr. in 1808, her father gave her a hundred slaves.

The home of John Brabson Jr. was a log cabin, but it was no ordinary one. It had 14 rooms, which were lined with beautiful hardwood floors and ceilings. There was an enormous living room with a fireplace made of quarried stone that could take eight-foot logs. The Brabsons had furniture of massive mahogany and they entertained with glass and china imported from France. John Brabson Jr. kept his silver in a pocket in the ceiling of the house, while his wife kept her silver money in the cellar. When Brabson wanted to send money by mail and to make sure it got there, he would tear a $100 bill into three pieces and send each of the pieces in separate letters. The Brabson ferry was on the highway leading from the coast at Norfolk, Va., to the Gulf of Mexico. The charge was 10 cents for a man, 15 cents for a horse and 25 cents for a vehicle. If the traveler was coming to trade with the Brabsons, there was no charge for the ferry. The Brabsons not only had a store at the ferry,
but also at Maryville and at Birmingham, Ala. Goods were shipped to these stores by wagon
from Baltimore.

John Brabson Jr. had come to Tennessee from Baltimore in 1794. He was "a man of stern integrity and marked business ability. He was liberal with a magnanimous spirit.'' He was a Quaker, "though none of his children followed that persuasion.'' John Brabson aided many young men, including John A. Reagan, who started out as a laborer in one of his mills and later was a famous senator from Texas. Senator Reagan made a trip back to Tennessee to visit Brabson. The life of John Brabson Jr. was "singularly happy. There was no death during his lifetime in his immediate family. Everything he touched or handled prospered, and at his death he left an immense estate, mostly in farms to his children.'' He gave each of his nine children a fine farm and gave each daughter an additional $10,000 in cash. In all his 75 years, John Brabson Jr. never swore an oath or allowed any spirit to pass his lips. He told his family that if he became so ill he could not think for himself, the
doctor was not to administer one drop of liquor to him. John Brabson Jr. was an abolitionist and
he at one time proposed freeing the family slaves. However, his wife said with quiet firmness, "The slaves are mine.''

This was Elizabeth Davis Brabson, who was described by an admirer as "the most remarkable woman I ever met. To an executive ability of masculine vigor, she united an exquisite culture which has never been surpassed. When her husband was occupied with trading, he left the farm entirely to her.'' This included the hundred slaves, a tannery, a store, a mill "and innumerable industries by which southern plantations were kept in order.''

Reese Brabson attended an academy at Dandridge, studied law under a cousin, and completed the college at Maryville. At Chattanooga, his first law partner was the leading citizen, Col. James A. Whiteside. After Col. Whiteside was elected vice president of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, George W. Lyle was substituted as the Brabson law partner until his death in April 1861. As an attorney, Col. Brabson was "strong before a jury.''

The Brabsons first lived in the settlement centered around Walnut Street near where Unum is now located. Then they moved to a farm by the river in the Citico area for several years. They began construction of a two-story brick mansion on Brabson Hill in the spring of 1856. It was apparently the city's first mansion in the Italianate style. Hundreds of people came from far and near for the housewarming at the mansion on the hill. The Brabson home was "the center of a cultured and lavish hospitality.'' His wife, whom he had married in 1844, was "accounted among the most graceful and accomplished hostesses of Tennessee.'' She was Sarah Maria Keith, daughter of Judge Charles Fleming Keith and Elizabeth Douglas (Hale) of Athens, Tenn. The stately brick Keith home at Athens, "Elmwood,'' dated to 1820. A sister of Mrs. Reese Brabson, Elizabeth Douglas Keith, was married to Dr. William S. Bell, who was a mayor of Chattanooga.

Reese Brabson was a presidential elector in 1848 on the Whig ticket of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. He made a tour of the district with Samuel A. Smith, a prominent Democrat. On the stump, Brabson proved himself "an impulsive and vehement speaker, who pleased the people.'' He represented Hamilton County in the Tennessee Legislature in 1851-53. It was during his legislative term that he had a falling out with Felix K. Zollicoffer, editor of the Nashville Banner. Zollicoffer took exception to a speech made by Col. Brabson and confronted him on the front steps of the St. Cloud Hotel in Nashville. After Col. Brabson acknowledged that the newspaper account of his speech was
substantially correct, Zollicoffer said it was false and Col. Brabson struck him in the face. Zollicoffer then drew his pistol and fired, but the ball went into the hotel door. Afterwards, the pair made up "and were as good friends as before.''

Col. Brabson was an unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1855 on the American or Know-
Nothing party. In 1857, he was an alderman at Chattanooga. Col. Brabson tried again for Congress in 1858 and this time was successful, defeating the same Samuel A. Smith he had debated in 1848. Though he supported slaveholding, he proved to be a strong advocate of the Union and was opposed to any state seceding. He thought the southern states should stand up for their constitutional rights within the union. In 1860, Brabson went on the circuit in support of John Bell for president. Despite the war uproar, Col. Brabson stayed in Congress until the end of his term and the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861.

The Brabsons lost their only son, Bowen, during the war period when he died at age 16. Col.
Brabson was offered commissions by both armies, but he felt a loyalty to the Union and a
disinclination to fight against his neighbors. He was also incapacitated because of a lingering in-
jury from a broken leg when he had been thrown from a runaway buggy. He returned to his Brabson Hill mansion as the war clouds gathered around Chattanooga. When the Andrews Raiders were jailed a few hundred yards from his home, he volunteered as the lawyer for James Andrews and he loaned books to the raiders from his personal library. Mrs. Brabson came herself to Swaim's Jail to visit her husband's clients.

Just before the strategic battles at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge, Col. Brabson died at
Chattanooga on Aug. 16, 1863, of typhoid fever. He was only 45. An acquaintance said, "From
his ambition, energy and popular manners, his career might have become more distinguished
than it was, had he not died when he had scarcely reached the full maturity of his power. He
was of a warm, genial nature; frank, brave, manly and honest; hence he had the faculty of drawing men to him by love as well as by admiration. He was also public spirited, and did much toward laying the foundation of the growth of the flourishing city of Chattanooga.''

Mrs. Brabson retreated to the family's summer home on Lookout Mountain, and on one occasion she drove down with her youngest daughter, Rose, to her old homeplace that was then occupied by Union officers. Confederate General Braxton Bragg had previously used the home as his headquarters. One account says, "When the general saw the carriage drawn by a span of white horses draw up at the gate and a stately southern matron and a beautiful young girl alight, he hurried out to meet them. He was very much confused to find that the visitor was his hostess, who told him she was delighted to have him as her guest and expressed the hope that the servants who had been left in charge of the place and whose services the soldiers had commandeered, were doing everything necessary for his comfort and that of his officers.'' Later in the war, Mrs. Brabson stayed at Elmwood, then she was for a time at the home of Harriet Whiteside, the widow of Col. Whiteside. Afterwards, she was allowed to board at the John L.M. French home near Brabson Hill. Some of the Federal officers began calling on the Brabson girls, and Major Webster Colburn asked for the hand of Ada Brabson, who was only 14. Their marriage occurred two years later after Ada had been sent away to finishing school in Philadelphia. Her sister, Rose Douglas Brabson, married Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard. He was commander of the Second Army in France during World War I and was the third highest ranking officer of the American expeditionary forces in France.

Mrs. Brabson was returning one night from a ball she chaperoned on Lookout Mountain when she was thrown from a buggy. She was treated by Dr. Peter Cleary, a famous surgeon who had been overseeing a hospital at the Brabson residence. He was "a young Irish-born surgeon, whose ancestry was Irish and English and Italian, a romantic combination.'' When she was sufficiently recovered, she asked Dr. Cleary for his bill. He replied, "Madame, I will take you and the children in payment for my bill.'' Mrs. Brabson consented to this marriage proposal. Dr. Cleary resigned from the Army to live at Chattanooga. But he was unable to give up the Army life permanently, and the couple and the Brabson children later moved to several posts, including some in the distant West.

Catherine Douglas Brabson, who had musical talents, married Dr. Thomas Waggener, a Baptist minister. Mary Louise Brabson, a writer, was wed to John Littleton, who was owner and editor of a Nashville newspaper. The fifth daughter, Maria Marshall Brabson, was never married, though she had some famous suitors. A descendant said she was engaged to Gen. John J. Pershing, but the engagement was broken when she declined to join him in his battlefield assignment. It is said that Gen. Pershing once visited the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club and saw a niece of Maria Brabson (Maria Brabson Waggener Anderson Dunlap) who bore a striking resemblance to her. The general is said to have leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, saying, "You look just like my white rose.'' Maria Brabson was also engaged to marry a very wealthy man, but he dropped dead three days prior to the wedding day.

A fire struck the mansion on Brabson Hill in 1881, but the walls of the historic East Fifth Street home remained intact. Department store owner David B. Loveman then bought the property and reconstructed the house. A portico was added later. The stately house is still a Chattanooga landmark and is one of the few antebellum homes remaining here.

There are Brabson descendants still in the Chattanooga area, including Catherine Douglass Anderson Kain of Missionary Ridge, Grey Littleton Wagner of Signal Mountain, Charles Colburn of Lookout Mountain, George Brown and attorney Scott Brown, and attorney John Littleton. Mrs. Kain still has a family Bible that includes Keith and Brabson data as well as a rosewood dressing table that was passed down in the family. Her daughters were given the family names of Maria Brabson Kain and Catherine Douglass Kain. Her son was John Kain.

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