The pillars and porch of Laburnum, a Richmond mansion owned by Joseph Bryan.

A Man of Honor: Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan

A Journey To Discover More About Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan

The rumble and whine of traffic on I-95 just north of Richmond sounds strangely out of place in the quaint, verdant Emmanuel Church Cemetery, where Virginia native Joseph Bryan is buried.

The land he once lived upon and loved would be unrecognizable to him now. Pastures are now parking lots, and grassy meadows are entombed in concrete and pavement.

Only the six feet of solitary turf he lies beneath in eternal slumber remains the same as when his genteel soul left the earth in 1908.

The beloved philanthropist was conveyed to this quiet country churchyard from his nearby home, and rests in a corner that, at the time, overlooked a typical lowland Virginia landscape—the land he loved best.

And so that is the place I decided to begin his story.

A brick with a tall steeple and the sun shining brightly.
The Emmanuel Church where Joseph Bryan attended services and where he is buried.

The Burial Place Of Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan

It didn’t take long for me to spot the burial place of Joseph Bryan and his family. His in-law’s headstones are the most prominent in the picturesque cemetery, his wife’s father having donated the land and the funds to build the church that was consecrated on July 6, 1860.

Gravesite of Joseph Bryan with his family behind.
Tombstone of Joseph Bryan with his family’s tombstones in the background.

Known back then as The Little Church in the Pine Woods because of its location in a grove of pines off Brook Road, the building retains much of its unspoiled character despite the encroachment of “progress” from every direction.

During the War Between the States, the luxuriant land surrounding the church would have been a busy place, as troops from both sides camped on the grounds when traveling on the Brook Turnpike.

Fortunately, the religious building weathered the war with only minor vandalism that occurred when northern troops were returning home. Signs of those times do still exist though. Confederate forces constructed a portion of the city’s defenses along Brook Road due to its strategic importance.

But this account isn’t about the War—it’s about Joseph Bryan—though the impact the former had on the latter is certainly significant, especially in terms of present day events.

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The Early Years

The eighth child of John Randolph Bryan and Elizabeth Tucker Coalter, Joseph Bryan had not yet turned sixteen when the War Between the States began, but, like other boys of his time, he was ready to fight.

Unfortunately you could only enter the service before the age of eighteen if you had your parent’s permission—and this he did not have.

At least two of Joe’s brothers had already gone off to war, a circumstance that likely played a role in his father’s decision to keep “little Joe” at home. Nevertheless, Joe began counting the days until his  eighteenth birthday.

Right before that magical date of August 13, 1863, Joe took a fall while playing around on a pair of crutches, breaking his arm in a bad way. Set poorly, it did not heal, sidelining him until May of 1864. That’s when he pulled on a new pair of boots and said goodbye to his family.

The young man first joined the Richmond Howitzers, but then fell in with Mosby’s Rangers in October of 1864. He was wounded twice within his first 10 days of service with the 43rd Virginia Cavalry, but returned to action as soon as he healed.

Though fearless on the field of battle, he was also chided for being as “tender-hearted as a woman.” One of Mosby’s men related that in the melee of a fight, he saw a fleeing horseman fall under Bryan’s pistol.

Headshot of Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan.
Joseph Bryan of Richmond

As quickly as the man fell, Bryan threw himself from his horse, lifted up his fallen foe, and said in his impulsive way: “Why didn’t you surrender when I ordered you? I didn’t want to kill you.”

Bryan waited to help the wounded man as best he could, then mounted and rejoined his comrades.

Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan After the War

Like other patriotic Virginia men, Joseph Bryan defended the sacred soil of his homeland, and then returned to his home to pick up his life.

Penniless, he went into business purchasing and reselling excess government mules in order to raise enough money to go back to law school. He succeeded and attended the University of Virginia, passing the Virginia Bar examination in 1868.

Soon thereafter, he moved to Richmond and married Isobel L. Stewart of Brook Hill in Henrico county In addition to practicing law, Joe became involved in various commercial and manufacturing enterprises.

He was one of the founders and trustees of the Richmond & West Point Terminal Railway and Warehouse Company, and served as president of the Richmond Locomotive Works, a manufacturing company that he formed with his business partner, William R. Trigg.

At the turn of the 20th Century, this venture employed 3,000 workers to produce locomotives for both domestic and international markets.

Yes. Three thousand workers.

Although successful in his extensive manufacturing ventures, Joseph Bryan is perhaps best known as a newspaper publisher. In 1887, he took the struggling The Daily Times in Richmond and he eventually merged that with its rival paper The Dispatch.

Brick mansion with six columns that is called Laburnum.
The mansion of Joseph Bryan of Richmond, built the year he died in 1908.

By all accounts, Joseph Bryan was a refined and cultured gentleman who embodied the principles of hard work and an unstoppable entrepreneurial spirit.

Through out-of-the-box thinking and bold action, he grew to become one of the most affluent and influential Richmond businessmen of the post-Civil War era.

In a short biography published in 1909, W. Gordon McCabe states:

“When we consider the long array of organizations—religious, philanthropic, patriotic, social and economic—in which he was no mere ‘figurehead,’ but an impelling force, it seems incomprehensible how he managed to find time to play the active part he did in so many, and such widely varying, fields of business endeavor.”

In addition to his widespread business associations, Bryan was very active in local charities and foundations as well.

McCabe also wrote, “It is said that he gave thousands of dollars to the veterans who were in need and thousands more for churches and schools without distinction to sects.

It’s clear through these commitments that Joseph Bryan’s love of Virginia and her history played as important a role in his life as hard work.

He served as an advisor to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia, an organization in which in his wife was president. He was also president of the Virginia Historical Society, and of the Hollywood Cemetery Memorial Association. His wife, Belle was no less benevolent. In 1887 she helped found the Richmond Women’s Christian Association.

In 1890 she opened the Belle Bryan Day Nursery for the children of unwed working mothers, and was named president of the Hollywood Cemetery Memorial Association. She also served as president of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and president of the newly formed Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

A portrait of Joseph Bryan of Richmond, a dignified gentlemen wearing black and with a gray beard.

Additionally, she led the effort to save Jamestown and George Washington’s mother’s home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The Bryans felt that Virginia’s history offered inspiring role models, values and traditions, and they strongly believed that the teachings of the past could guide the future.

Yet in all of their generosity and compassion neither of the Bryans sought reward. In fact, Bryan is quoted in his biography as saying:  “Of earthly things, my highest ambition is to live and die as becomes a Virginia gentleman.”

In His Memory

When Joseph Bryan passed away rather suddenly in November of 1908, his wife was understandably shaken.

She and her sons donated 262 acres of land to the city to be set aside for a “free park for the use and benefit of all its citizens,” to ensure that the wooded hills, streams and lakes would be enjoyed by Richmond citizens in perpetuity.

According to the plaque on the great arched entranceway to the park that still stands today: “THIS PARK CONTAINING 262 ACRES, PRESENTED TO THE PEOPLE OF RICHMOND AS A MEMORIALL OF JOSEPH BRYAN OF LABURNUM BY MRS. BRYAN AND HER SONS AND ACCEPTED BY THE CITY COUNCIL DECEMBER 20, 1909.”

Although it is now surrounded by highways and a rail yard, this family-friendly Park has become an oasis for human recreation. It is also the home of more than 170 bird species—quite a record for an urban park located in a very busy metro area.

The stone archway that says Joseph Bryan Park in Richmond.

The park offers a diverse range of ecosystems including open areas with trees, streams and ponds, forests and meadows, and a 17-acre azalea garden.

In 2002, Joseph Bryan Park was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to serve as a meeting, recreation, and learning center for more than one million visitors each year.

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Honoring The Man

Within two weeks of Joseph Bryan’s burial, a stunned collection of distinguished Richmond residents gathered to discuss raising money for a memorial.

Chairman Egbert Leigh Jr. stated: “When a life of such distinguished usefulness is concluded, the people among whom it was lived become the heirs to a gracious privilege indeed, a sacred obligation—that of preserving to posterity its enabling and inspiring lessons.”

And during the opening prayer of that meeting, Major James H. Dooley noted that, “Never before in this State has such a concourse of people met to show their grief at the death of any private citizen.”

“Around his open grave there gathered the country man and the city man, the colored man and the white man, the rich man and the poor man. .. A private citizen, who could so stir the hearts of this community by his death, who could elicit such a tribute of sorrow from all ranks of the people, must have been no ordinary man.”

Mosby Ranger Joseph Bryan full body painting.

That monument was placed in Monroe Park in 1911 with many Richmond dignitaries as well as members of the 43rd Virginia (including John Mosby himself) in attendance. Today, an empty stone pedestal—and probably not even that—is all that remains of a tribute to the philanthropist, publisher, and businessman.

The statue was desecrated, and then removed by city workers in July of 2020 by orders of the mayor, and was then shamefully stored with others at a local sewer plant.

In his biography, it says Joe knew how to give—some might say foolishly. But Joe would laugh “his cheery laugh and say, ‘Oh, well. I’ll acknowledge it’s selfish, for after all, I get so much more pleasure out of it than they possibly can.’”

Joseph Bryan’s services to his city, to his country, and to the State cannot be detailed in one short article. But the results of his work are everywhere in Richmond, and should long endure as a great contribution.

Dr. W.W. Moore, president of the Union Theological Seminary at the time, summed it up best when he said:

“A community is known by the manner of man that it honors. The significance of the movement to provide a memorial to Mr. Bryan lies in the fact that it is a revelation of our civic character. He was universally recognized as our ideal citizen, the finest embodiment among us of the qualities we admire, and that we wish to conserve and perpetuate.”

Sadly, the city of Richmond is not what it was when these words were spoken.

Joseph Bryan also contributed money to help rebuild The Jefferson Hotel after a devastating fire destroyed a large part of the building.

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