[Author's Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of Military Images magazine. It has been updated with additional research for inclusion in this blog]
“Liquor flowed freely and there were ½ doz. fights.” Thus one Southern rustic described a late April 1861 patriotic rally in the mountain town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, aimed at garnering recruits to defend a newly forming Confederacy. Two community leaders of pronounced stature, Montfort Sydney Stokes, Jr. and James Brown Gordon, led the gathering. Their efforts produced an exceptional company of men known as the Wilkes Valley Guards or Wilkes Volunteers. When the unit left Wilkesboro on May 27th with Stokes as its Captain and Gordon as 1st Lieutenant, a proud member asserted: “The company on that day numbered 110 and nearly every man was over six feet tall.” Also named 1st Lieutenant was Gordon’s younger stepbrother, 23-year-old Hamilton Allen Brown.
At Warrenton, N. C. on June 3rd, the Wilkes Volunteers officially became Company B of the newly formed 1st North Carolina State Troops. The First was one of ten regiments of “State Troops” authorized by law whose term of service was to be for three years or the duration of the war. Confederate staff officer McHenry Howard of Maryland, who would later come to know the First well, thought the organization exhibited “something of the espirit, called by some ‘uppishness,’ of regulars.”
Naval Academy graduate “Sydney” Stokes, judged by one observer to be “a splendid officer, well prepared to drill in regimental or brigade maneuvers,” became the regiment’s first Colonel. When Gordon soon transferred to the cavalry arm, Lieutenant Brown assumed the vacant captaincy of Company B, to rank from May 16th. For the balance of the war, Brown’s distinguished service career would be inextricably linked with fortunes of the 1st North Carolina Infantry.
Known to his intimates as Allen, Brown was born at “Oakland” in Wilkes Co., N. C. on September 25, 1837, the second son of a marriage between Hamilton Brown and widow Sarah Gwyn Gordon. His grandfather was a participant in the Revolutionary Battle of King’s Mountain. Brown attended the U.S. Naval Academy as a member of the class of 1858, but did not graduate. When North Carolina seceded, Governor John W. Ellis called on the Wilkes Co. native to help train new recruits. This must have proven interesting, since Brown spoke with a pronounced stutter. One member of the 1st N. C. irreverently described a command from Brown as sounding: “A-a-a-a-a—damn—a-a-a—damnit—pst—pst—pst—a-a—forward, Company B!” His verbal orders were said to be often unintelligible to an untrained ear. However, subsequent events would soon demonstrate that Brown’s speech impediment did not diminish his ability to lead men in battle.
In the 1st North Carolina’s baptismal engagement at Mechanicsville, Va. on June 26, 1862, the regiment was brutally mauled while assaulting strongly fortified Union positions along Beaver Dam Creek. Colonel Stokes was mortally wounded and all other field officers either killed outright or severely injured. Enlisted casualties amounted to more than 150. While witnesses described initial Southern efforts to reform after the battle as “pathetic,” Brigade commander Roswell Ripley noted in his official report: “Captain [H.] A. Brown, of the 1st North Carolina, rallied the troops of his regiment, with other officers . . . and led [them] until relieved . . .”
In subsequent battles of the Seven Days, particularly at Malvern Hill, the young Captain again distinguished himself. For his performance in the fighting around Richmond, Brown earned promotion to Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st N. C. to rank from July 8, 1862. That same month he traveled to Raleigh to acquire 300 new conscripts for the regiment, men, he said, who “proved to be excellent material for soldiers, brave and willing . . .”
Brown capably led the revitalized First thru the subsequent Maryland Campaign. The Tar Heels escaped harm’s way at South Mountain but sustained losses of more than 50% on the fringes of the Miller Cornfield at Sharpsburg. At Fredericksburg in December, Brown and his regiment played a minor support role in the Confederate third line of battle and incurred only minor injury from long distance fire.
In early 1863, the 1st N.C. was reassigned to a newly formed, mostly Virginia, brigade in what was called the old “Stonewall Division.” It was a move that displeased Brown. Wishing to be in an all North Carolina unit, he later warranted: “Trouble and discomfiture were necessarily entailed by such an arrangement . . . we were often neglected and sometimes forgotten in the distribution of army stores, clothes, provisions, etc.,” Perhaps of more importance to the young and ambitious officer, Brown further observed: “The field of promotion was also narrowed, and our achievements on the field frequently shared by others.”
Yet, the new mixed brigade performed well enough at Chancellorsville in May. Brown led them briefly near battle’s end after successive commanders had fallen. It proved to be the 1st North Carolina’s bloodiest engagement of the war. “We captured piles of fat knapsacks and fatter Dutchmen,” Brown boasted of the action. During Lee’s second invasion of the North, the First gained further laurels (and booty) at Stephenson’s Depot near Winchester. They were less fortunate at Gettysburg where attacks against sturdy Federal works on Culp’s Hill proved both futile and costly. Brown later asserted that with proper and timely reinforcements, he might have seized the Baltimore Pike in the Union rear on the evening of July 2nd.
At the Battle of Payne’s Farm in November 1863, Lieutenant Colonel Brown lost the middle finger of his right hand to a gunshot wound. When infection subsequently set in, threatening lockjaw, he was forced to relinquish command of the regiment for a time. While recuperating, Brown received well-deserved promotion to Colonel of the 1st North Carolina to date from December 14th. He spent the balance of the winter bringing his unit to a state of “perfect discipline and efficiency.” The Spring Campaign of 1864 was very nearly the new Colonel’s last. At the Wilderness on May 5th, he personally assisted in capturing two guns of Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery in Sander’s Field. “It is . . . a fact known to the entire brigade that Colonel Brown, First North Carolina, with his own hands pulled the lieutenant in charge of the guns from his horse, and held possession of the horse until required to turn him in,” a witness recorded.
A week later, Brown suffered the most severe of his 13 war wounds. He was shot in both shoulders when the First was overrun in the “Mule Shoe” at Spotsylvania. All but 30 men of the regiment were captured, and her colors lost. The injured Colonel himself was captured and recaptured three times, “the last time from the enemy’s ambulance corps, who, in turn, were made prisoners,” he remembered. Brown’s wounds were deemed so serious that a nearby Chaplin conducted a burial service over him while he was still alive! In later years, Brown maintained that “hearing his own [funeral] . . . brought him back to life rather than laying him away.”
After a lengthy convalescence, Brown returned to the army in August 1864 to find his skeleton regiment reassigned to the North Carolina brigade of William R. Cox. Brown was given command of the newly formed sharpshooter battalion for Jubal Early’s Second Corps. He ably led the battalion through spirited engagements at Martinsburg and Third Winchester. In the latter action Brown narrowly escaped a severe wound when a bullet struck his pocket watch. He avoided capture by a Union cavalryman by begging off that he was too severely wounded to hobble to the rear. Brown then escaped to fight again. At Cedar Creek the aggressive Colonel spearheaded Early’s surprise assault on Sheridan and claimed the temporary capture of sixteen Federal guns. Following the disastrous Valley Campaign of 1864 the sharpshooter battalion spent the winter along the siege lines west of Petersburg. In March of 1865, Brown was captured in a free for all fight at Fort Steadman during “Lee’s Last Grand Offensive.” He was sent northward, ultimately taking the oath of allegiance at Fort Delaware on June 24, 1865.
Brown returned to Wilkes County after the war where, in 1868, he married his cousin Amelia Selina Gwyn. Later moving to Columbia, Tennessee, Brown became a “planter of modest means” and fathered four children. He died on April 9, 1917 and is buried in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in his native, Wilkesboro, N.C.
Of the courageous North Carolinian a later biographer wrote: “It was stated that Brown never ordered a man into battle, but instead always said, ‘Follow me.’” Hamilton Allen Brown clearly deserves an honored spot among the Fighting Colonels of the Confederacy.
By Bob Williams