John Calvin Brown, Confederate general and governor, was born in Giles County on January 6, 1827, to Duncan and Margaret (Smith) Brown. He was the younger brother of former governor Neill S. Brown. After graduating from Jackson College in Columbia, Brown was admitted to the bar in 1848 and launched a successful law practice in Pulaski.
In the 1850s, as Tennesseans wrangled with the question of secession, Brown emphatically supported the Union. With the outbreak of war, however, Brown joined his fellow Tennesseans in the Confederacy. Enlisting as a private in the Confederate army, he was soon elected to captain and by May 1861 he became colonel of the Third Tennessee Infantry Regiment. At Fort Donelson, he commanded the Third Brigade of General Simon Buckner's division. When the fort surrendered on February 16, 1862, Union troops captured Brown, and he remained imprisoned at Fort Warren, Massachusetts, for six months.
After his release through a prisoner exchange, Brown was commissioned as a brigadier general and assigned to duty with General Braxton Bragg in the Army of Tennessee. During the Kentucky campaign Brown was wounded at the battle of Perryville in 1862. The following year he saw action at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. For his heroic efforts in the Dalton-Atlanta campaign, Brown was promoted to the rank of major general in August 1864. Brown commanded Cheatham's division during General John Bell Hood's Tennessee campaign. He last served at Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864, where he was severely wounded.
After the war Brown resumed his Pulaski law practice. President of the 1870 Constitutional Convention, Brown was elected Tennessee's nineteenth governor after voters adopted the new constitution; he was reelected in 1872. Formerly a Whig, Brown joined the Democrats and was leader of the party's Bourbon faction.
When Brown took office in 1871, he faced an overwhelming state debt of forty-three million dollars (bonded) and a floating debt of three million dollars. The state had begun to incur such an enormous debt in 1833, when it issued interest-bearing bonds for the establishment of a bank and other property purchases, including the construction of the capitol. By 1861 the state's debt had climbed to three million dollars. The desire for internal improvement in the late antebellum era had prompted the state to lend its credit to turnpike companies, plank-road companies, and railroads. When the Civil War destroyed these companies, their debt of nearly fourteen million dollars fell to the state. Between 1865 and 1869 bonds issued to pay the interest on the former bonds created what has been called the “Brownlow debt.” In the early 1870s Brown and the state legislature reduced the state debt to twenty million dollars, paid the large floating debt, and reestablished the state's credit.
In 1873 Brown's administration also sponsored legislation that provided for a state superintendent of public instruction, county and city superintendents, a board of directors for each school district, and the organization of separate schools for black and white children. To support these schools, Brown levied a small state tax and gave cities and counties the power to raise additional taxes.
After serving as governor, Brown ran for the United States Senate, but lost to former governor and former president Andrew Johnson. Retreating from political life, Brown returned to his home and law practice in Pulaski.
Brown married twice. His first wife, Anne Pointer of Spring Hill, died in 1858. In 1864 Brown married Elizabeth “Bettie” Childress of Murfreesboro, who became the state's first lady. While in Pulaski the Browns lived in a Greek Revival mansion which is now on the campus of Martin Methodist College. They were the parents of four children. Their oldest daughter, Marie, married Benton McMillin, who was Tennessee's governor from 1899 to 1903 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1879 to 1899.
In his later years Brown accepted positions in industry. He moved briefly to Texas to serve as receiver and then president of the Texas Pacific Railway Company in 1888. A year later he became president of the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, then the largest industrial company in the South. On August 17, 1889, Brown died at Red Boiling Springs in Macon County and was buried at Pulaski.