On Throwback Thursday, I want to highlight some of the national units in the South that I visited over the past six years. I’m going to start with those close to Asheville. Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN, is less than 90 minutes from Asheville but it’s not well-known around here.
As all schoolchildren know, or should know if they were paying attention, Andrew Johnson was the first American president to be impeached. For most of us, that’s the only thing we know.
Though Andrew Johnson was a Southern Democrat, he was loyal to the Union cause.
When Tennessee seceded from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson the military governor for the state. Two years later, he became Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president. After President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Andrew Johnson succeeded him. As president, Johnson wasn’t popular with his Republican Congress and he refused to compromise.
As Ranger Daniel Luther puts it, “He wasn’t one of them. He wasn’t a good schmoozer.”
During his four years in office, Andrew Johnson did more than just survive impeachment. He purchased Alaska from Russia. He started the Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. He was the voice for the working class. As a senator, he had introduced the Homestead Act, which President Lincoln signed in 1862.
He pardoned Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was suspected as an accomplice in the assassination of President Lincoln and imprisoned in Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas off the tip of Florida. This was yet another decision that didn’t endear him to his Republican Congress. There was no way that Johnson was going to run for a second presidential term. He returned to Greeneville, though he later was reelected to the US Senate.
Visiting the park
Leave yourself most of a day to see the site and talk to the rangers. The site consists of four separate locations: visitor center, early home, the Homestead, and cemetery. Andrew Johnson’s first tailor shop is a wood frame house located inside the visitor center. To preserve the structure, the State of Tennessee erected a building around it in 1926 and opened it to the public.
After seeing the exhibits on Johnson’s interaction with Congress, you can decide if he was guilty or not. You vote by putting a ticket into one of two boxes—guilty, not guilty. Once a year, the park counts the ballots. Not guilty wins every time by a large margin.
If you’re lucky, Ranger Daniel Luther will greet you from behind the visitor desk. Ranger Luther worked in theater for thirty years and now plays Andrew Johnson at various events at the site and in town.
“What is a NPS uniform but a costume?” Luther says.
Across the street from the visitor center, I tour Johnson’s early home on my own. Johnson and his family lived in this modest two-story brick home from the 1830s until 1851. The Homestead can only be seen on a free guided tour, offered almost every hour.
The tour starts on the porch. Ranger Kendra Hinkle grew up in Greeneville and started volunteering at the site when she was still in high school.
“They couldn’t get rid of me, so they hired me,” she says.
The house has six bedrooms, a dining room, parlor, and kitchen. All three sons died early in life: one in the Civil War, one by laudanum poisoning, and one from tuberculosis. Eliza, his wife, also had tuberculosis, so she had her own bedroom, where she could rest during the day. It was a hard life, even for rich folks.
Greeneville changed hands many times during the Civil War and both Union and Confederate forces stayed in the house. Though new wallpaper was hung after the family came back from Washington, the National Park Service exposed some graffiti written on Eliza’s bedroom walls by Civil War soldiers.
One pencil scrawl said, “Andrew Johnson the old traitor.”
It seems that Andrew Johnson is still a controversial figure, and historians keep bringing out new books on the seventeenth president. According to Ranger Luther, the American Association of State and Local Historians criticized the historic site for portraying an image of Andrew Johnson that’s too positive. It’s natural to feel empathy and affection for a historical figure that you’re dealing with every day. After spending several hours with President Andrew Johnson, I ended up liking the guy myself.
After I visited the Andrew Johnson site, I walk a section of the Appalachian Trail, which passes Andrew Johnson Mountain, close to Greeneville. It’s not much of a mountain and the sign had fallen down. I’m sure no one else knows that the mountain is named after our seventeenth president. Altogether, a sad sight.