Tag Archives: Lloyd Branson

A closer look at Branson’s Sycamore Shoals painting

If you haven’t seen the special exhibit of Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society yet, I highly recommend it.  I’ve been twice, mostly to get a closer look at Branson’s masterpiece: his painting of the muster at Sycamore Shoals, on loan from the Tennessee State Museum.


Completed in 1915, it’s a landmark in the history of Tennessee art and an important example of Rev War memorialization.  Branson’s epitaph refers to this painting alone out of all his other works: “THE TENNESSEE ARTIST WHOSE GENIUS CREATED THE PICTURE ‘SYCAMORE SHOALS’ AND BY IT IMMORTALIZED THE TURNING POINT THAT EANT LASTING VICTORY IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION A.D. 1780.”

I’ve seen it before, of course—so have you, if you’ve ever taken a look at my blog’s header—but always in the King’s Mountain exhibit case at the State Museum.  Without that protective glass and dim lighting, it’s like looking at a whole new canvas.  The colors are much more vivid, and you start to pick out details you’ve always missed.  It’s sort of like the first time you watch something in HD.

For example, here’s a group of militiamen gathered around a fire.  Looks like the guy on the far right is wearing a brown frock and leggings.  A little white dog appears to have followed his master to the muster ground.


The guy in the blue coat is checking his horse’s feet—not a bad idea, considering he’s got a trip of something like 200 miles ahead of him.  One soldier with a blanket roll hurries to catch up with his comrades.  In the foreground, a volunteer kisses his wife or sweetheart goodbye, maybe for the last time.

IMG_1354I’d never noticed this African American before; he’s on the left-hand side of the painting, near the bank of the Watauga River.  The force that attacked Ferguson did include some black men.  Lyman Draper reports that Col. William Campbell’s mixed-race slave John Broddy was along for the march.  Another black King’s Mountain vet was Ishmael Titus, who was born a slave in Virginia and earned his freedom by serving as a substitute for his North Carolina master.

IMG_1357Here’s something else I’d always missed when looking at printed images of the painting: Branson put a couple of Native Americans at the muster.  Just a few months after the scene depicted here, the settlers in present-day Tennessee would be at war with their Indian neighbors again, and John Sevier would be leading his men south into the mountains on another campaign.

IMG_1348Is that a road running along the riverbank?  Perhaps it’s the trail that will take the Overmountain Men toward their camp at Shelving Rock.

IMG_1356There’s a fire going in one of the cabins nearby, and it looks like somebody’s cultivating the fields by the river.  More horses are lined up and ready for the long ride that will end in South Carolina.

IMG_1358Not all the Overmountain Men were mounted.  Here a group of footmen head out with rifles, blanket rolls, powder horns, and cartridge pouches.  As big and busy as this scene is, the amount of detail that Branson put into these small figures is remarkable.

IMG_1352There are two prominent men on horseback in the foreground, shaking hands with well-wishers before setting off.  If I recall correctly—and I don’t remember where I read this, so it’s a rather big “if”—the one on the left is supposed to be Isaac Shelby, and Sevier’s the one on the right.  Don’t quote me on that, though.


Even more mounted volunteers head out from a fortified building (Ft. Watauga, perhaps?).  In the distance are the Appalachian mountains, the same ones Ferguson has threatened to march over to lay waste to the settlements.  The riflemen beside the river will be crossing those hills instead, headed in the other direction to take out Ferguson and his Tories.


The more time you spend with the painting, and the closer and more carefully you look, the more you start to pick out finer details, and at some point all those seemingly indistinct figures start to take on a life of their own.  It’s not unlike the process of studying history, come to think of it.


Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, History and Memory

Lloyd Branson’s art at the East Tennessee Historical Society

The East Tennessee Historical Society just opened a special exhibit on Lloyd Branson, one of this region’s most prominent artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The exhibit runs through March 20 and then heads to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve encountered Branson’s work before.  The banner image running along the top of this website is from his painting of the Overmountain Men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, the event that started the march leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  The original painting is part of the Tennessee State Museum’s collection, but it’s on loan to ETHS for this exhibit.

Some sources—including yours truly—have reported that Branson also painted the Battle of King’s Mountain itself, but that this work went up in flames when a Knoxville hotel burned down in 1916.  But it looks like the lost King’s Mountain canvas wasn’t a Branson work after all.  Adam Alfrey of ETHS tells the Knoxville News-Sentinel that contemporary newspaper reports attributed the painting to James W. Wallace, one of Branson’s students.

That’s not much consolation for the torched painting, though, because Wallace was a fine artist, too.  He did a number of works on regional and historical themes, including a really nice painting of the signing of the Treaty of Holston.  I’m dying to know what his depiction of King’s Mountain looked like.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

Bad dude, small world

The Knoxville News Sentinel has been celebrating its birthday with a retrospective of notable stories from its century-and-a-quarter-long run.  A recent article highlights one of the more colorful episodes in Knoxville history.

On the night of Dec. 13, 1901 two police officers tried to break up a brawl in one of the city’s less reputable establishments and ended up getting shot by one of the participants, who managed to flee the scene despite being beaten over the head withe the officers’ clubs.  The shooter was later arrested and subsequently identified as Harvey Logan, alias Kid Curry—one of the most notorious members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang.  He had been traveling throughout the country passing off notes taken in a Montana train holdup before his pool hall fight landed him in a Tennessee jail.

Logan’s trial turned into one of the twentieth century’s first legal media circuses, and ended in the summer of 1903 when he managed to snag a jail guard’s neck with a wire and make off with the sheriff’s horse.  You can read the full story in the book Harvey Logan in Knoxville by Sylvia Lynch, who happens to be my mom.

The Sentinel article notes that Logan refused to have his picture taken, so the newspaper recruited an East Tennessee artist to visit the jail and produce a sketch to run on the front page.  The artist was Lloyd Branson.  Loyal readers of this blog might recall that Branson’s name has appeared here before.  He painted the famous picture of the Sycamore Shoals muster preceding the Battle of King’s Mountain that now hangs in the Tennessee State Museum and adorns the banner at the top of this site, and he also depicted the battle itself in a painting which burned in a Knoxville hotel fire.

I told my mom about this, and she mentioned that she’d discussed Branson’s sketch of Logan in her book.  I pulled a copy off the shelf, and sure enough, there was a picture of Lloyd Branson working on a self-portrait.  So when I was a teenager, before I had any inkling that I’d study history, my mom wrote a book about an outlaw who got his picture drawn by Lloyd Branson, and then years later I wrote my thesis about a Revolutionary War campaign which was the subject of two paintings by Lloyd Branson.  I then realized that Lloyd Branson stands at the nexus of all that is.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

Lloyd Branson’s lost King’s Mountain painting

UPDATE 11/8/15: Well, apparently the painting discussed below wasn’t the work of Lloyd Branson, after all.  Although some sources attribute the Imperial’s King’s Mountain scene to Branson, contemporary reports claim it was the work of James W. Wallace, another Tennessee artist who was one of Branson’s students.

The good news is that—as you may have noticed—I managed to restore my nifty header image of the overmountain men’s muster at Sycamore Shoals, which kicked off the events leading to the Battle of King’s Mountain.  I’ve discussed this painting and why I like it before, so I’m glad to have a segment of it gracing the top of the blog again.

Here’s the bad news.  Lloyd Branson, the East Tennessee artist who produced this beautiful piece, also painted a scene of the actual battle, which decorated the lobby of Knoxville’s swanky Hotel Imperial.  (An early travel booklet described the Imperial as “beautifully furnished,” and noted that the food was particularly good.)  During WWI the hotel went up in flames and took Branson’s King’s Mountain painting with it.  The loss of the Imperial inspired three Knoxvillians to build a brand-new hotel which opened shortly thereafter, but of course nobody could replace Branson’s canvas.

I’ve been unable to find a picture or description of it.  It’s a shame we don’t have the other “bookend” of Branson’s visual depiction of the King’s Mountain expedition, especially since the muster painting is one of Tennessee’s definitive historical artworks.


Filed under American Revolution, Tennessee History

A look behind the banner

Ah, the banner—that nifty picture strip that runs along the top of so many sites and blogs with a dash of personalized flair.  Maybe you’ve been wondering where I got mine.  If you guessed that it’s from Lloyd Branson’s painting Gathering of the Overmountain Men at Sycamore Shoals, 1780, now in the fabulous Tennessee State Museum, then give yourself a pat on the back.

Branson was born in East Tennessee in 1854, studied at the National Academy of Design, and travelled in Europe before returning home to become one of his state’s most accomplished artists of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  Like many of his contemporaries, Branson mostly did portraits, but occasionally he produced landscapes and historic scenes like this one.   

Here’s the best digital version of the painting that I could locate, from the website of another fine (but much more recent) Tennessee artist, Bill Puryear:

Sycamore Shoals, now a state park, is a shallow stretch of the Watauga River in present-day Elizabethton and the site of several significant events in early Tennessee history.  Probably the most famous of these events is the one depicted here, the muster of the militia from present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia on September 25-26, 1780 that marked the beginning of the King’s Mountain expedition.  Pick up any book that deals with King’s Mountain or with the first Tennessee settlements, and you’re likely to find an evocative description of the muster—the overmountain men wearing their hunting shirts and leaning on their rifles, the women gathered to see them off, and Rev. Samuel Doak delivering his famous “Sword of the Lord and Gideon” sermon before the march.  (The other notable Sycamore Shoals moments were the formation of Tennessee’s first proto-government, the treaty conference at which the Cherokees sold much of present-day Kentucky and the lands on which the East Tennessee settlements stood, and an Indian attack on nearby Ft. Watauga.)  When I was shopping around for an image to embellish the top of the blog, this seemed like an abvious choice.  You’ve got your American Revolution, and you’ve got your East Tennessee setting. 

Lately I considered finding a new picture to spruce things up a little, but I finally decided not to, partly because this painting touches on a few of my main interests.  Furthermore, I think you can read into it some valuable lessons about the practice of history in general. 

For example, this is a military scene, but it’s situated far from the actual battlefield.  The fighting men are surrounded by their wives, children, and neighbors.  It’s a reminder that wars happen within the framework of the societies that wage them, and you’ve got to understand that context to understand the war. 

At the same time, however, the painting undeniably and unapologetically focuses on a military turning point.  This isn’t an everyday scene from life on the Tennessee frontier, it’s an occasion in which armed men intervened decisively in a particular historical episode.  Battles are important because they decide great issues.

Here’s another observation.  Important figures are visible in the painting; Isaac Shelby, an architect of the King’s Mountain expedition, is in the foreground.  At the same time, though, most of the people in the picture are anonymous.  Their faces are barely visible; we can see that they’re present, but so much about them is unknown.  They held no high rank in the battle, and they filled no major office after the war, unlike Shelby and fellow King’s Mountain officer John Sevier, both of whom went on to become governors.  History is made by the actions of a few great men as well as the aggregate actions of many anonymous ones.

In a lot of ways, it’s a very traditional image, depicting as it does an event that’s glorified in so many heroic nineteenth-century narratives.  But it’s also realisitc, not nearly as idealized and stylized as some of the very earliest depictions of Revolutionary War scenes.

Of course, I don’t know exactly what meanings Branson wanted to convey when he painted the muster at Sycamore Shoals.  But I like the fact that his painting includes so much of what makes up the sum total of history—war and peace, leaders and followers, the traditions that have become familiar and the surprisingly complex realities underneath.


Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, History and Memory, Tennessee History