On the outskirts of downtown Greeneville, Tennessee, sits a small, isolated hill overlooking the town of fifteen thousand people. Marble gravestones extend down its slopes, while the crest is adorned with an obelisk reaching towards the sky. High atop it, an eagle with wings outspread clutches Old Glory, its gaze fixated eastward over the valley and on the distant Bald Mountains rising beyond. It’s here on this peaceful knoll that one of the nation’s most controversial presidents lies in final repose.
Andrew Johnson National Cemetery is one of four sites spread throughout the town which together form the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. This national park seeks to tell the life story of this extraordinary man while also preserving a plethora of artifacts which belonged to him. Beginning his early years as an apprentice and later the city’s resident tailor, Andrew Johnson advanced from his lowly roots through the state’s political system to finally become President Lincoln’s right hand man. When Lincoln was assassinated shortly after his reelection, the task of rebuilding the country fell on Johnson’s shoulders. He bears the rather unpleasant distinction of being the first president to be impeached by Congress.
Arriving at the park, the first stop should be the visitor center, located just a block of Main Street. Here visitors can get directions and watch a short fifteen-minute film which gives a great overview of President Johnson’s life, and specifically, what led to his impeachment hearing. A walkthrough museum holds several personal items that belonged to the president and his wife Eliza, and provides a much more in-depth look at the events of his presidency.
Here also visitors will find his original log tailor shop, housed inside a large brick building built in the early 1900’s to protect the historic structure. Kids can have fun dressing up in period costumes, while adults view the details of the recreated shop inside. A suit made by Johnson himself is a highlight of this portion of the museum. Before leaving the visitor center, don’t forget to pick up your tickets for the guided walkthrough of the Andrew Johnson Homestead. Kids might also want to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet; this allows children to participate in several activities throughout their park visit to receive a Junior Ranger badge from the visitor center.
Directly across the street and next to the parking area sits Andrew Johnson’s Early Home. This was the first residence he purchased when he arrived in Tennessee after leaving his childhood home in North Carolina. The restored building provides exhibits on the president’s early life, following his career from apprentice, to tailor, to mayor of Greeneville, and beyond. It also touches on the more sobering topic of slavery, covering the lives of several of Johnson’s personal slaves he owned.
Two blocks away sits the Andrew Johnson Homestead. This brick home was purchased later on after Johnson had become successful through his career. Even after he left the presidency, he returned to this property to live out the remainder of his life in the community he loved. The inside has been extensively restored and is furnished with authentic belongings and period pieces.
Due to the value of the collection, guests are only allowed to visit with a ranger in guided groups of no more than twelve. Five tours are offered daily, and guests must pick up a ticket at the visitor center desk. It’s recommended that you call ahead, because larger groups may fill up the tours quickly. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit this portion of the park on our last visit due to a staff shortage, but we plan to return soon as it is the highlight of the entire park experience.
To conclude a park visit requires visitors to make a short drive to Monument Hill. Here at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery lie the Johnson Family plot. This place was special to Johnson because he liked to sit here and meditate while looking at the Appalachian peaks rising in the distance, and so he bought it 1852. Much later in 1906 the family gave up possession of the site so that it could become a national cemetery. Today, it is only one of two cemeteries under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service which is still active. Before you leave, pause to meditate and enjoy the views of Cherokee National Forest in the distance, as Johnson himself did so long ago.
Directions: From Johnson City, take U.S.-11E S/US-321 S/W 27 miles to Greeneville. Turn left onto North Main Street, and after 1.1 miles turn left onto East Church Street. In 400 feet turn right onto North College Street, and the visitor center parking lot will be on the right. For information on the park, visit www.nps.gov/anjo.