Walls At Homestead
Sentiments Of Era
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Ask any park ranger at the Andrew Johnson Homestead -- sometimes, walls can talk.
The walls at the Homestead have a lot to say beneath their wallpaper, where the rough plaster holds dates, names, stories and, essentially, the graffiti of 150 years ago.
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site is hosting an exhibit related to these writings, called "... But Words Shall Never Harm Me," now through May.
Although not profane, the writings reveal some harsh realities about life in the Civil War for the Johnson family and for the soldiers themselves.
These are some examples of the graffiti:
* "Andrew Johnson The Traitor."
* "For my home in Kentucky."
* "Does she love me?"
* Illegible poems.
* "Shame on old Andy, the vile traitor of his country."
* "This is Greeneville, Tennessee, the Yankee hole of all holds."
"It sheds light on the military operations of Andrew Johnson's Homestead," said National Historic Site Chief of Operations Jim Small in a recent news release.
Visitors to the center can peruse snapshots of the graffiti, as well as learn more about the socio-political atmosphere of East Tennessee during the Civil War, the release noted.
By 1862, after Tennessee became one of the Confederate states, the Johnson family was evicted from their home because of their strong, outspoken support of the Union.
At times a "lying-in station," a hospital or an officer headquarters, the Homestead gave shelter to Civil War soldiers from both sides of the Mason-Dixon.
"There was early evidence that there were troops in the house all the way from Michigan to Florida," Park Guide Burke Greear said in an interview on Monday.
Greear is responsible for putting together the exhibit in light of his own interest in the subject matter.
He focused much of the exhibit on two Confederate Army units from which a number of the names have been traced and confirmed: the 38th Regiment, Tennessee Infantry (Looney's Regiment) and the 62nd North Carolina Infantry Regiment.
During their stay in President Johnson's home, the soldiers wrote on and carved into the walls throughout the home, although the majority of the writing and carving seemed to take place in the upstairs bedrooms, Greear noted.
Dates ranged from 1862 to 1868.
Andrew Johnson was regarded with disgust by the South and distrust by the North. In a reflection of those feelings, Greear noted, Union and Confederate soldiers alike had had few kind words to say for him while passing the days in his home.
After Johnson sent men in 1869 to clear the home of any remaining squatters, he sent his daughter, Mary, to prepare for the family's return.
A "firecracker" that Johnson could count on to properly handle the responsibility, Mary was much like the other Johnson women, Greear said.
"Any time period you put them in, they're going to get the job done," he explained.
Seeing the graffiti and likely desiring a quick method of covering the writings, many of which included jabs at her father, she had the interior covered with wallpaper -- a step Greear said would have also been a fashionable fix.
Nearly 100 years later, in 1956, the National Park Service discovered the graffiti during restoration work, but covered the writings again after documenting some of them.
The park service replaced the wallpaper again in 2005, at which time a more extensive documentation of the writings took place.
This more extensive documentation later prompted the exhibit that is currently in rotation at the Visitor Center.
In addition, a portion of the original writing remains uncovered by wallpaper but protected under Plexiglas in an upstairs bedroom known as Mrs. Eliza Johnson's room.
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center is at 101 N. College St. in downtown Greeneville.