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Brownson, Rear Admiral Willard H. Papers 

Dates: 1864-1932

Collection Number: COLL/350

Finding aid (Word)

Biographical Note

Willard Brownson was born in Lyons, New York, on 8 July 1845. After attending Lyons Union School he was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1861 and graduated in 1865. He served in the North Atlantic Squadron until 1868 when he was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. During his tour of duty on USS Mohican, Brownson and a detachment of men destroyed the pirate ship Forward in Mexican waters.

In 1872, he reported for duty at the Navy Academy's Department of Mathematics. Three years later the young Lieutenant was sent to the Asiatic Fleet. Brownson returned to the Naval Academy in 1878 as Assistant Commandant of Cadets. In 1881, he was ordered to the Coast and Geodetic Survey as a Lieutenant Commander where he commanded the ship Blake until 1884. After brief duty as executive officer of USS Powhatan, he was named Inspector of Hydrography for the Coast Survey. From 1889 to 1894 he commanded several ships, including USS Detroit, and was promoted to Commander in 1891. After a return to the Naval Academy as Commandant of Cadets, Brownson served for two years on the Board of Inspection and Survey. In 1899 he achieved the rank of Captain and command of the battleship Alabama, and from 1902 to 1905 was Superintendent of the Naval Academy.

Brownson was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1905 when he hoisted his flag on board USS West Virginia as Commander, 4thDivision, North Atlantic Fleet. He served as Commander, Special Service Squadron in Central American Waters and the Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Fleet. In 1907, he was assigned as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, which handled the Navy's personnel matters.

In July of that year, he was transferred to the retired list, but continued to serve in his post at the Bureau of Navigation until December. That same month, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to give command of hospital ships to Navy doctors, against the advice of Brownson, who then resigned from the Navy. A storm of protest arose from within the Navy and from the public, but Brownson's active Naval career was over.

Brownson enjoyed a rich and varied family life. He married Isabella Roberts in July 1872. Their first child, Henry, born in 1874, tragically died in 1876 shortly after his father left for the Asiatic Station. The following spring, daughter Harriet was born. In 1878, son Roswell joined the family, which was completed in 1894 by the birth of Caroline.

Scope and Content Note

Caroline Brownson, who married Thomas C. Hart, later Admiral and the last Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Station, wrote a biography of her father (From Frigate to Dreadnaught. Sharon, CT: King House, 1973) and preserved the papers described here. Throughout the correspondence and subject files in the collection, Caroline Brownson Hard and Admiral Hart made notes and comments on events and people. These notes are usually initialed C.B.H. or T.C.H. but occasionally notes on envelopes were made by Willard Brownson himself. Archivist's notes are limited to dates supplied in brackets, taken from postmarks on envelopes. Envelopes, except those with notes that are included with correspondence, are gathered in box 7.

These papers are arranged in four series. Series I, Family Correspondence, consists chiefly of Brownson's letters to his wife, parents, and daughter Caroline. Many letters are numbered, as Brownson and his wife often numbered their letters in order to account for possible loss in the mail. Series II contains incoming and some outgoing personal and official correspondence from naval officers, friends, and business associates. It is arranged alphabetically. These two sets of correspondence reveal the cordial personal and professional relations that Brownson enjoyed with many people. They also give a detailed picture of life at sea in such places as South America and the Far East.

Series III is a Subject File of reports, correspondence, and other items arranged by topic. Material in this series dates from approximately 1868 to 1932. Included is a typescript of Brownson's brief diary. Also filed here are reports and correspondence concerning the Forward affair of 1870.

Finally, Series IV is the typescript of Caroline Brownson Hart's biography of her father. In this typescript are transcribed many of the documents and letters contained in other series. Some chapters and introductions to chapters were written by Admiral Hart. The biography serves as a useful guide to the rest of the collection. The published version of this biography is located in the Navy Department Library.

Other papers within NHHC that relate to the Brownson collection are the papers of his son-in-law, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, and the Early Records collection (Z Files) in the Navy Department Library.

Preferred Citation

This collection should be cited as Papers of Rear Admiral Willard H. Brownson, Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C.

Subject Headings (LCSH)

United States. Navy--History--Sources. 
United States Naval Academy.
Admirals--United States--Biography.
Kearsarge (Ship).
Tennessee (Ship).
Alabama (Ship).
Yankee (Ship).
Petrel (Ship).
Detroit (Ship).
Brownson, Isabella.
Hart, Caroline Brownson, 1884.
Dewey, George, 1837-1917.
Evans, Robley D., (Robley Dunglison), 1846-1912.
Mahan, A. T., Alfred Thayer), 1840-1914.
Smith, Roy Campbell, 1858-1940.

For associated photographic materials, please visit the photo archive donated collections related to Rear Admiral Willard H. Brownson

Published: Tue Aug 10 09:39:10 EDT 2021