Veteran J. Thompson Brown, the Virginia Monument and General Lee

The 76 year-old Confederate veteran could hardly contain himself as he answered a letter from his Union friend Henry Moyer of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Moyer had been corresponding with the man for several years and his latest letter included a very troubling clipping from the National Tribune, (the official newspaper of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization of Union veterans); troubling in that it mistakenly described a lackluster ending to the Virginia Monument project at Gettysburg in October 1916, where “in the presence of a small gathering,” the project was deemed complete and unceremoniously left without a proper dedication.

Nonsense! “The clipping does not bear the semblance of truth,” the veteran responded, “and I am sorry to say, in this respect, and in this day of good fellowship and fraternal feeling, it is not dissimilar to many other Northern publications whenever publishing article(s) pertaining to the South.”

J. Thompson Brown

General J. Thompson Brown in 1913, ardent defender of the Army of Northern Virginia’s record. (Fiftieth Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Report of the Pennsylvania Commission, Harrisburg, 1915)

The words came from a man who had not only struggled to see the monument completed but who also worked diligently for fifty+ years to uphold the honorable record of the Army of Northern Virginia and its beloved commander. The Virginia Monument encompassed all of his goals- honor Virginia’s native sons who served at Gettysburg, the Army in which they served, and preserve in bronze his idol of southern manhood, Robert E. Lee and J. Thompson Brown, former commander of Parker’s Virginia Battery, was not going to let this slanderous article degrade the work he had accomplished or diminish the proper dedication ceremony planned for the coming year.  Likewise, Brown could not hide his exuberance over the heroic bronze equestrian statue of the general, destined for the top of the monument. “This Monument to General Lee’s memory will be unveiled and dedicated May 1st, 1917, in the presence of an immense gathering of his loving and devoted soldiers and civic admirers,” Brown reassured Moyer. “I most cordially invite you and the author of your enclosed clipping to come and behold the ‘small’ gathering of the Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by the immaculate and peerless Lee.”

Born May 4, 1840, John Thompson Brown grew up in Richmond. His parents were active in the city’s social circles and secured an excellent education for their son prior to his enrollment at Randolph-Macon College at Boydton, Virginia. A member of the class of 1861, Brown volunteered for service in the 20th Virginia Infantry and saw his first battle at Rich Mountain that summer. The company in which he served was disbanded soon after and Brown turned his attention to the artillery and a battery being raised in his hometown by Dr. William W. Parker. Brown’s enthusiastic assistance earned him the rank of lieutenant in Parker’s Virginia Battery and by the summer of 1863, the 23 year-old college graduate commanded the battery during the Gettysburg Campaign.  Severely wounded in the throat in 1864, he returned to duty just before the Appomattox Campaign. A raspy voice and terrible scars on his neck were testaments to his four years of service with the Army of Northern Virginia, which he evidently bore with grace through the rest of his life.

After the war, Brown returned to Richmond and worked in his father’s harness shop until a chance meeting with a northern entrepreneur netted the young veteran with a financial bonus from real estate investment. Seven years later, he opened his own real estate agency that provided additional services including collection of rents, loans, and auction services. The business grew and likewise did Brown’s investment in other interests, among them the first electric rail (trolley) system in Richmond that opened in 1887. His public service began in 1872 when he was elected to the Virginia legislature and worked to rebuild and improve public buildings in the city. Active in affairs with the Virginia Historical Society and Masons, Brown was, more than anything,  passionate about his wartime record and quickly embraced the informal gathering of veterans in the city that led to the organization of the Richmond camp of the United Confederate Veterans. Brown would rise through the organization to become commander of the Virginia Division of the U.C.V., and was bestowed with the honor of Honorary Commander for life in that division.

If anything, it was Brown’s sense of humor, hearty laugh, and his ability as an “accomplished teaser and perpetrator of practical jokes” that drew others to him, especially at reunions where his memory of the war and his raspy-voiced observations on General Lee’s greatness drew crowds of hushed listeners. (Robert K. Krick, Parker’s Virginia Battery, C.S.A. Berryville, VA: Virginia Book Company, 1975, p. 356) Likewise, it was Brown’s dedication to the United Confederate Veterans and preservation of the record  of General Lee  that drew the attention of many northern veterans such as Henry Moyer.  Brown was appointed as the Virginia representative to the Pennsylvania Commission for co-operative planning for the 50th Anniversary and Grand Reunion at Gettysburg in 1913 and wholeheartedly lent his time and support for what he truly believed a worthwhile cause, and what turned out to be a most notable battle anniversary.  Holding the rank of lieutenant general in the U.C.V., Brown held court in the Virginia camp during the reunion and gleefully shared his stories with fellow veterans and onlookers.

His only disappointment that summer was the unfinished Virginia Monument at Gettysburg. The stone work had been finished but the bronze figures sculpted by F. William Sievers would not be completed until 1916. Delivered that fall, representatives of the state’s monument committee visited Gettysburg in October to oversee the final steps of the monument project, mistaken by the unnamed author of the aforementioned National Tribune article as the uneventful conclusion of Virginia’s gift to the battlefield park. By the time Henry Moyer’s letter and newspaper clipping arrived at Brown’s Richmond home, the old veteran’s patience was frayed having dealt with the agonizingly slow progress of the project and just when it seemed that everything had reached his expectations, some unknown and uninformed Northerner had spoiled what was to be a grand and proper dedication and even went so far to question its proper location on Seminary Ridge where “legend has it” that Lee watched Pickett’s Charge.

Brown responded to his northern friend with more than simple criticism of the National Tribune article, and he should know. The battery commander saw the general there, at that spot, on July 3, 1863:

“As to the location of the monument… It is properly located, and at the place where General Lee was during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. I was with General Lee after Pickett began to move his charging column, and before he finished his charge through and beyond the Federal lines. Parker’s Battery, Alexander’s Battalion, Longstreet’s Corps, was in the line of artillery, opening the way for Pickett’s Charge. In rear of the charging column, on the hill in Spangler’s woods, whence the charge started, I came upon General Lee, no one with him, his staff all out in the field at work. ”

Virginia Monument at Gettysburg, 1920

The Virginia Monument, ca. 1920. Located on Seminary Ridge, the monument was dedicated (much to the satisfaction of J. Thompson Brown and others), with a formal ceremony on June 8, 1917. (Library of Congress)

The Virginia Monument encompassed many things to the aged J. Thompson Brown, a successful businessman, entrepreneur, state politician, proud southern veteran, and no misinformed person was going to degrade the symbolic meaning of the monument or its commander astride Traveler that overlooks the field of “Pickett’s Charge” for eternity.

John Heiser
Historian, Gettysburg National Military Park

 

[The letter from J. Thompson Brown to Henry S. Moyer, dated December 1, 1916 is in the collection of the Library & research Center, Gettysburg NMP and was provided to the park through the courtesy of Ms. Kathy Finkel, a descendant of Henry Moyer. For further reading on J. Thompson Brown, we suggest the excellent history, Parker’s Virginia Battery, C.S.A., by Robert K. Krick (Berryville, VA: Virginia Book Company, 1975)]

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
This entry was posted in Great Reunion of 1913, Historical Memory, Monuments at Gettysburg, Veterans. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Veteran J. Thompson Brown, the Virginia Monument and General Lee

  1. Rochelle Ebling says:

    Very interesting article, thank you John!

  2. Steven Pacholyk says:

    Enjoyable reading. Virginia should be proud of her beautiful symbol. Thank you John. Nice work as always!

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