Susan Brownlow, Civil War Hero

In honor of National Women's History Month

Posted by Nancy Lee on March 11, 2022

“. . .whatever is honorable, . . . whatever is commendable . . .” Phil. 4:8 (ESV)

We are living in troubling times. Such division within our country and the world! Our hearts and prayers go out to the Ukrainian people as we watch images of war instantly projected across the globe. 

In honor of National Women’s History Month, let me take you back in history to another tumultuous time and share with you the story of a young courageous widow who has gone down in history as the Heroine of Tennessee.



Imagine what it would be like to be a staunch supporter of the Union living in the South during the Civil War. 

Imagine your brothers going off to fight for the Union Army knowing they will be fighting against many of your neighbors and acquaintances. 

Imagine being driven from your home not knowing if you will have a home to return to. This was the life of my great-great-grandmother, Susan Brownlow Sawyers.

Susan, born in 1837, was the eldest of eight children born to Parson William Brownlow and his young wife, Eliza. Prior to marrying at the age of 31, William had spent ten years as a Methodist circuit rider in the mountains of the Carolinas and Tennessee (Coulter, 18, 19, 25). After settling down, he found his niche as an outspoken journalist and was heavily involved in politics.

At the age of twenty, Susan married a medical doctor, Dr. James Houston Sawyers. Only a year and a half later, James contracted an illness from one of his patients and passed away leaving Susan six months pregnant. Three and a half months later, she gave birth to Lillie Brownlow Sawyers, my great-grandmother.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Susan and her daughter were living with her parents in Knoxville, TN. Parson Brownlow was a leader in the fight to prevent Tennessee from seceding from the Union. He published pro-Union articles in his widely circulated paper, the Knoxville Whig, and he engaged in a speaking tour throughout East Tennessee championing support for his cause.

In June of 1861, Brownlow lost the battle when Tennessee became the last state to secede from the Union, but the Brownlows continued to proudly fly the American Flag above their home (Kirkland, 26).

This is the backdrop of the story which made Susan a Civil War hero. When her father was away, Confederate soldiers showed up at the Brownlow residence to take down the American flag and replace it with a confederate one. Susan stopped them at gunpoint. These are the basic facts, but, like the game of gossip we used to play as children, the story has taken on many interesting and differing versions. 

The Harper’s Weekly, a popular political magazine during the Civil War era, published an account of the event in their December 21st issue in 1861, bringing widespread popularity to the story, especially in the North. This is an excerpt from their account (Harper's Weekly, 805):

When a mob of secessionists attacked her father's house in his absence and insisted on the Union flag being hauled down from where it floated, this young lady seized a rifle and told them she would defend it with her life. The first who approached would be shot. They threatened her for some time, and tried in every way to frighten her. But she was firm, and after a time the ruffians withdrew, leaving the flag still flying." 

A highly sensationalized and exaggerated version of the story was published by William Reynolds in 1863. In this account, the name of the heroine was changed to Miss Martha Brownlow, though I never found any reason why. This further spread the story throughout the North.

The colorful dialogue used in two later versions helps me to imagine how the scene might have played out. Here is an excerpt from Michael Eagan’s book, The Flying Gray-Haired Yank which he published in 1888 (Eagan, 352-3):

The parson’s daughter answered their summons and, learning their errand, drew a revolver from her dress pocket and, leveling it at them, defiantly replied

“Come on, sirs, and take it down!”

As they backed off before her determined advance they said something about getting more men to do the work, to which she sneeringly answered :

“Yes ; go and get some men; you are not men.”

Flying Gray Haired-Yank

Another favorite quote is from Frazar Kirkland’s book, The Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, published in 1889. (Kirkland, 26):

Miss Brownlow, a brilliant young lady of twenty-three, saw them on the piazza, and stepped out and demanded their business. They replied:

“We have come to take down them Stars and Strips.”

She instantly drew a revolver from her side, and presenting it, said-

“Go on! I’m good for one of you, and I think for both!”

“By the look of that girl’s eye she’ll shoot,” one remarked: “I think we’d better not try it; we’ll go back and get more men,” said the other.

“Go and get more men,” said the noble lady; “get more men and come and take it down if you dare!”

The Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion

Whatever the details or precise dialogue, Susan acted with courage to defend her precious daughter and cherished flag.

The flag continued flying until, in April of 1862, the family was expelled from their home and escorted over Confederate lines. Susan then accompanied her father on a speaking tour of the North. The purpose of his tour was to promote a book he had written and to raise money to re-establish his newspaper, the Knoxville Whig, which he had shut down at the beginning of the war (Coulter, 222-231).

The story of Susan’s heroism had reached the North, and the crowds loved her. In Hartford, Connecticut, she was presented with a revolver by the Colt Armory, a manufacturer of firearms. Not to be outdone, the Ladies of Philadelphia gifted Susan with a silk flag in a special ceremony at the Academy of Music (Coulter, 230-31).

After the tour, the Brownlow’s stayed in Ohio for a while, then returned to Knoxville in 1863.

The Year 1865 had drastic ups and downs for Susan, her family, and the rest of the country. In March, William Brownlow was elected as governor of Tennessee. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered, ending the Civil War. Only five days later, President Lincoln was assassinated. Also that year, Susan married Dr. Daniel Boynton who had been a surgeon in the war. They had several children together.

After serving two terms as Governor of Tennessee, William became a U. S. Senator.

I would love to have a conversation with young Susan. What were you thinking? What were you feeling? How did you feel about all the attention? What role did your faith play in your courage?

I have not uncovered any personal journals written by Susan, so I can only speculate. The lack of detail sparks my imagination and intrigues me. 

Whatever her answers to these questions would be, I hold my head high, proud of the heritage she has passed down as a woman of courage and valor in the face of danger.

I would love to hear about the courageous women in your life. Reach out to me on the contact page or email me at

*If you enjoyed this story, you might like to read another true historic story: A Message from my Father: Blest Be the Tie That Binds.

*Portrait of Susan Brownlow Sawyers Boynton by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822-1896)

*Background photo by Pixabay

*Much of the information in this story is from oral family history.


Clements, Barbara. “Susan Brownlow: Heroine of Tennessee. Patrick and Brownlow: The Intersection of Two Families, Feb. 24, 2017.

Coulter, E. Merton, William G. Brownlow: Fighting Parson of the Southern Highlands. (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1999)

Eagan, Michael. The Flying Gray-Haired Yank or The Adventures of a Volunteer. (Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers, 1888)

Harper’s Weekly. (December 21, 1861).

Kirkland, Frazar. The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion or the Funny and Pathetic Side of the War. (Indianapolis: C. H. Stone & Co., 1889)

Reynolds, William D. Miss Martha Brownlow; or, The heroine of Tennessee. A truthful and graphic account of the many perils and peivations endured by Miss Martha Brownlow ... daughter of the celebrated Parson Brownlow, during her residence with her father in Knoxville. [Philadelphia, Barclay & co, 1863] Web.. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.