ECW Weekender: Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

Greeneville, Tennessee nestles neatly into the northeastern corner of the Volunteer State — just southwest of Bristol, the famed Birthplace of Country Music on the Virginia/Tennessee border. It is a beautiful part of the country, where the town named for Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene rests in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. During the American Civil War, Greeneville (like much of East Tennessee) was home to a committed community of Unionists, who rejected the Confederate war for slavery.

Civil War cavalry experts will know Greeneville as the place where Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan was killed in 1864. Scholars of politics and the presidency, meanwhile, will recognize the city as the adopted home of Andrew Johnson — the embattled 17th president and successor to Abraham Lincoln, whose term as executive inspired the first presidential impeachment trial in the nation’s history. Today Greeneville is home to the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, as well as the final resting place of the Tennessee Tailor. Anyone interested in the histories of the Civil War and the struggles over Reconstruction will find a weekend trip to Greeneville more than worthwhile.

The Andrew Johnson National Historic site includes an informative Visitor Center and several buildings to tour — including the Homestead, the house where Johnson lived both before and after his White House residency. Visitors can also make a short journey by car (or longer journey by foot) to Johnson’s grave, which sits atop a prominent ridge and offers wonderful views of Greenville and the surrounding area. Visitors can also view a replica of the home where Johnson was born in Raleigh in 1808 — the year that “An Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves” took effect in the young United States. Even if it is little more than coincidence, such a birth year might seem providential: the issue of slavery and the aftermath of its abolition would ultimately defined Johnson’s life and legacy.

The Birthplace Replica, near the Visitor’s Center at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site.

Johnson’s accidental presidency has inspired one of the favorite counterfactuals in all of Civil War history: What if Lincoln had lived to direct the course of national Reconstruction? The Johnson National Historic Site offers an ideal place to contemplate the question — and far be it from me to suggest there is a correct answer.

What I can say, in reflecting on visiting the place that raised and shaped Johnson — and helped to guide his political and moral conscience, is that Johnson faced a challenge that would likely have sundered even the best of America’s leaders. The 17th president came from a place that revered the Union — and Johnson was deeply loyal to the same principles, like the people who elected him, patronized his tailor shop, and were his neighbors in Greeneville.

Johnson’s love of the Union meant that he favored leniency toward former Confederates because he believed it would bring the nation back together more quickly than a protracted process by which every Confederate would have their actions put on trial. Such a process may have only served to further alienate those who had spent the previous four years trying to break free from the United States — and made an already uneasy reunion all the more difficult.

Statue of Andrew Johnson in Greeneville, sculpted by Jim Gray. An identical statue stands on the Capitol grounds in Nashville, TN.

Johnson’s loyalty to the Union also clashed occasionally with his identity as a Tennessean and a Southerner. Here we might think of the way in which historians such as David M. Potter and Gary W. Gallagher have encouraged us to think with greater complexity about nationalism and loyalty, and the ways in which Civil War Americans possessed and embraced multiple, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting loyalties: to their nation, their states, and their families and the ways of living they had always known. Potter reminded historians to always be mindful of the ways in which historical figures, and Johnson was no exception, belonged to what Potter termed a “community of interest, not in the narrow sense of economic advantage only, but the broad sense of welfare and security through membership in a society.” Johnson never received the approbation of the society he joined in Washington, D.C., especially during his embattled presidency. But he could always return to Greeneville and its familiar streets to find a community that had accepted him when he was nothing more than a young man struggling to provide a life for his impoverished family. Such a frame does not excuse Johnson’s failures to live up to his assertion that treason would be made odious in the war’s aftermath, but it offers some human context for events and decisions we are often to apt to view as exclusively political.

This is the great value in historic sites that force us to consider the legacy of individual Americans — and why the Andrew Johnson National Historical Site is worthy of a stop on any Civil War road trip. As a historian who thinks about Reconstruction and its perceived failures on an almost daily basis, Andrew Johnson is never far from my mind. I greatly appreciated the chance to see the place he chose to call home.

Grave of President Andrew Johnson, Greeneville, Tennessee.

12 Responses to ECW Weekender: Andrew Johnson National Historic Site

  1. Amazing the typical spin of the historical evidence here. It is simply asserted that the war was “the Confederate war for slavery.” This asserts one fabrication, that the Confederates fought “for slavery,” whatever that means. It is about as vague as the claim that the war was “about slavery.” The assertion implies that East Tennessee was “antislavery,” and that its stance on the war was pro-Union for that reason.

    I am an East Tennessean, and recently attended a lecture in which an East Tennessee historian presented strong evidence that East Tennesseans were not strong Union allies, at least no stronger than any other areas of the South, and certainly not motivated in their Union sympathies by “antislavery.” As is typical of motivations among polities, East Tennesseans did have unique economic interests that motivated a hesitancy regarding secession. But varied hesitations were found across the South and were not unique to East Tennessee. And their ultimate cause in secession, like the rest of the South, had nothing to do with slavery, and everything to do with protecting the Southern people from being relegated to a lesser standing in the Union by a Northern section that sought any means, in spite of the Constitution, to gain political and economic rule over the entire Union.

    Slavery was but one means the North leveraged to gain hegemony over the South. The South defended slavery because it saw through the North’s strategy involving slavery to gain ascendancy over the South. The South defended slavery as a means of defending not only the welfare of the slaves, but its own economy and social stability from the inhumane and irresponsible attacks of the North’s leveraging of slavery.

    The South did not want to “perpetuate and extend” slavery as the preponderance of the evidence makes clear when it isn’t selectively spun to promote modern agendas. But it wasn’t going to stand by and allow the North’s irresponsible and unconstitutional demands destroy Southern equality in the Union, and wreak havoc on the South and its slaves.

    That slavery ended as an unintended consequence of a war for Northern hegemony, lends the war no moral merit. Slavery ended in the worst possible manner in which it could be ended, by a war prosecuted for anything but the welfare of the slaves. Even Northern newsprint saw the calamity precipitated by the Republicans:

    “No description of Hell has ever yet been indited or conceived that in any degree approximates to what would be the fearful case of these 4,000,000 slaves if they were to be granted that instantancous freedom which pseudo philanthropists of the Republican school bawl about as a blessing and a right, but which-unless preceded by generations and generations of training would inevitably prove a capital curse.” The Jersey City American Standard, October 9, 1860.

    As one noted historian says,

    “Slavery was abolished in the worst way possible: as an unintended consequence of a deadly, devastating conquest by outsiders with no interest in the welfare of black or white Southerners. Virginian slaveholder Thomas Jefferson’s fear, that emancipation would be a ‘bloody process…excited and conducted’ by an enemy in wartime, rather than a change ‘brought on by the generous energy of our own minds,’ had come true.” Historian James Rutledge Roesch.

    Nineteenth century historian George Lunt, District Attorney for Massachusetts, saw emancipation as it occurred for the humanitarian crime it was:

    “To talk of the boon of liberty
    to a captive, freed from his shackles but turned out into a desert to perish, is a profanation of a sacred name. Yet such is and must be the practical operation of freedom to the negro in this country.” George Lunt, The Origin of the Late War (New York, 1866)

    The war’s terrible consequences for the slaves, was compounded by the terrible consequences of a Reconstruction that had most everything to do with creating racial division in the South, through which the Republican Party could gain political and thereby economic exploitation. That racial division would directly lead to Jim Crow as Booker T. Washington so prophetically anticipated:

    “The years from 1867 to 1878 I think may be called the period of Reconstruction. This included the time that I spent as a student at Hampton and as a teacher in West Virginia… Though I was but little more than a youth during the period of Reconstruction, I had the feeling that mistakes were being made, and that things could not remain in the condition that they were in then very long. I felt that the Reconstruction policy, so far as it related to my race, was in a large measure on a false foundation, was artificial and forced. In many cases it seemed to me that the ignorance of my race was being used as a tool with which to help white men into office, and that there was an element in the North which wanted to punish the Southern white men by forcing the Negro into positions over the heads of the Southern whites. I felt that the Negro would be the one to suffer for this in the end.” Booker T. Washington (1856–1915). Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. 1901. Part V. The Reconstruction Period

    And black people in the US did indeed suffer another 100+.years of hate and discrimination all initiated by Lincoln’s war and the subsequent reconstruction. Yet the author of this article seeks to spin both the war and reconstruction as something morally noble in typical social justice historian fashion. Sad! Very sad!

  2. I think the seventeenth president’s impeachment trial was the first such presidential proceeding. There had been Congressional impeachments of justices and Federal judges from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

  3. Great write-up about the site. Near that statue is a GAR Memorial to Greene County’s U.S. veterans – one of the few, if not the only, one in the former Confederacy.

  4. Great article. Johnson’s attempt to reconciliate the former confederates meant in fact, burying the hatchet in the backs of the freedpeople. Of whom he had a frantic contempt. Well did he deserve being impeached.

    Of course, the slave states seceded to perserve slavery, the cornerstone of their economy, their society, their politics and even their personal identities.

  5. On my Kindle for future reading is a book by Professor Janney on reconstruction. I look forward to the subject.

  6. @Rod seems obsessed with the Lost Cause! I was under the impression that we had moved on from that train of thought years ago! As many others know, one of the best examples of the southern obsession with the perpetuation of slavery comes from Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech. He declared that slavery “was the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution”.

    The evolution of scholarship is not a personal attack on you! It’s a natural change brought about by the inclusion of new narratives and view points. Feel better buddy.

  7. Thanks for this reminder that Andrew Johnson was “More than a drunk” (this long accepted claim now under review) and “More than a failed President.” The above report persuaded me to get back into the books and re-examine Andrew Johnson… something I’d been meaning to do since researching the involvement of Civil War ancestors at the February 1862 Campaign for Fort Donelson, and stumbling upon Brigadier General Johnson’s appointment as Military Governor of (Union-controlled) Tennessee, based at Nashville, while the Confederate Government was briefly relocated to Memphis… and then to wherever Isham Harris happened to spend the night.
    Union soldiers captured at Battle of Shiloh encountered civilian Political Prisoners from Tennessee – hundreds of them – while “enjoying Southern Hospitality” during confinement in Prisoner of War facilities, mostly in Georgia. These Unionists, attempting to facilitate the secession of East Tennessee from Confederate Tennessee were rounded up and incarcerated for their efforts, often under worse conditions than captured Federal soldiers. The number of known Unionists resident around Knoxville, and their brutal suppression by Confederate authorities led to President Lincoln advocating for “the liberation of East Tennessee” as early as 1861. And one man who had been involved with efforts to detach East Tennessee and create a new State for the Union was Andrew Johnson (which may help explain why Johnson, the sole Senator from a seceded State allowed to retain his seat in the U.S. Senate, was “kept on the payroll” during 1861/62.)
    Thanks again to Cecily Nelson Zander for reaffirming that the study of History is a convoluted exercise, overly dependent on popular beliefs and unchallenged emphasis. [In the attached record “Confederate States of America Prison, Madison Georgia” the first ten pages record East Tennessee civilians confined for their political beliefs. Click on journal page for full access: ].

  8. East Tennessee during the Civil War, part two to my post of yesterday.
    As we all know, Andrew Johnson was the only Senator from a seceded state to hold his seat in the Senate. Not well publicized: there were several Members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee that also kept their seats. Horace Maynard of Knoxville represented the 2nd Congressional District and became Attorney General under Military Governor Andrew Johnson. Andrew Jackson Clements of Clay County (between Nashville and Knoxville) represented the 4th Congressional District; and in 1863 Clements became Surgeon of a Union Tennessee cavalry regiment. TAR (Thomas) Nelson of Roane County was re-elected to the 1st Congressional District, but arrested by Confederate authorities in 1861 before resuming his seat. George Washington Bridges of Athens Tennessee was elected to the 3rd Congressional District, but captured and confined by Rebel authorities in 1861. After his successful escape from Rebel custody, Bridges made his way to Washington D.C. and was sworn in as Member of the House of Representatives in 1863, days before his term expired.
    From outward appearance, East Tennessee mirrored the neighbor vs. neighbor conflict of Missouri; except in Missouri the Union had primary control from early on, while in East Tennessee the Rebels held primary control, with troops from Alabama occupying Knoxville and exerting martial law from late 1861.
    Thanks again to Cecily Nelson Zander for introducing this topic.

  9. Greatest Tennessee Unionist there ever was! He lived for a time as a child or teenager on Leonidas Polk’s father’s Raleigh area property. Jacksonian Democrat to his core.

    I’m not sure Lincoln would have been the great Reconstruction leader many expect he would have been. He agreed in principle with Johnson that Confederates were never not American citizens. Johnson, like Lincoln, was very hard on the Confederates during the war, but looked more kindly on them once the war was over.

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