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.
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.
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.