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April 19, 2014

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Johnson's Civil War-Era Civil Rights Position Discussed

Sun photo by O.J. Early

This house on North Main Street was home during the Civil War era to Edmund B. Miller, one of many pro-Union East Tennesseans in Greeneville. Miller was likely part of the “Underground Railroad” network of anti-slavery Southerners who assisted escaped slaves in safely making their way to the Northern states, historian Dr. Robert D. Orr said during a lecture at Tusculum College on Tuesday evening.

Originally published: 2013-04-18 10:28:35
Last modified: 2013-04-18 10:31:28

Historical Lecture

By Dr. Robert Orr

Gives Perspective

On Turbulent Time



Contemporary perceptions of President Andrew Johnson's position on civil rights may not tell the full story, Dr. Robert R. Orr told a gathering Tuesday night at Tusculum College's Thomas J. Garland Library.

Johnson's statements in speeches and interviews before and during his presidency are being taken out of context, Orr said.

"All he was really saying is, he was following (President Abraham) Lincoln's policy," Orr said.

Orr, president of Washington College Academy, holds a doctorate in history and has taught college-level regional history and Civil War history. He's written extensively on the life and career of Andrew Johnson.

His lecture series at the Garland Library on East Tennessee's role in the history of the civil rights movement will continue with sessions from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, and Tuesday, April 30.

The lecture series is a joint venture between Tusculum College and Washington College Academy.


Andrew Johnson became Lincoln's vice president in 1865, late in Lincoln's presidency. He became president after Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865.

Johnson had spent much of the war in Nashville as military governor of Tennessee.

"He must have been stunned" at the political climate in Washington, Orr said.

The war was ending when Lincoln died. Johnson issued a "Proclamation of Amnesty" in May 1865 absolving most Southerners from prosecution for their roles in the Civil War and ensuring that their property would not be seized.

He implemented a Reconstruction policy that favored giving African-American males the vote gradually.

"He's saying, even if we declare all blacks as voters ... concerned whites of the South would disenfranchise the blacks," Orr said. "He shared [African-Americans'] goals, but he proposed to get there by following different roads [than some preferred]."

Early in his presidency, Johnson issued proclamations directing states that had seceded from the Union to hold conventions and elections to re-form their governments.

If states with an African-American majority such as South Carolina wanted to elect black leaders, Johnson supported that position, Orr said.

A powerful Northern Radical Republican faction, however, favored harsh retribution against the South, Orr said.

When the Reconstruction Act was passed in 1867, Johnson's attorney general "would make it milder, (then) Congress would pass another act and make it harsher," Orr said.

Johnson vetoed their more hardhanded bills, and Congress overrode his veto and put their legislation into effect despite his opposition.

That see-saw relationship set the pattern for the remainder of Johnson's presidency.


"It put Andrew Johnson in a rather strange position. It was almost like a filibuster, and Andrew Johnson didn't want to debate it," Orr said.

Johnson was not against giving land to freedmen [African-Americans who had been freed from slavery], Orr said. But he was opposed to seizing from former landowners the land to give the freedmen.

"People say Johnson was opposed to giving land to freedmen, but that is just not true," Orr said. "What Johnson didn't want to do was give the land to freedmen in an unconstitutional way."

The Military Reconstruction Acts of 1867 ultimately gave the vote to freedmen, while many white Southerners were still being denied the vote.

"It disenfranchised enough whites in Southern states" to the point that it eventually caused racial strife and hostility, Orr said.

Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, he continued, would not have gained the influence they did "without overly severe legislation coming out of Congress" -- over Johnson's opposition.

"Andrew Johnson sincerely wanted civil rights for the blacks," he said.


When Johnson was asked in August 1867 how he preferred to enforce the Reconstruction Acts, he answered that he "desired a fair registration of all qualified voters without regard to race or color," Orr said.

He referred to an 1867 newspaper article which stated that Johnson "wanted only the law to be executed with equal chances for all."

Orr said Johnson believed that African-Americans would quickly earn full citizenship, including voting rights.

According to the Constitution, state governments, not the federal government, set voting qualifications, and Johnson insisted on following the Constitution, Orr said.

When an African-American delegation asked for immediate voting rights for the freed slaves, Johnson told them that he and they "were both desirous of accomplishing the same ends, but proposed to do so by following different roads," Orr said.

In 1867, Johnson asked African-American leader Frederick Douglass to become director of the Freedmen's Bureau, Orr said, but Douglass refused.


"The Civil War was really a civil war within the Civil War because there were Northern people who supported the South and Southern people who supported the North," Orr said.

When Tennessee voted to secede from the Union via statewide referendum on June 8, 1861, nearly two-thirds of East Tennesseans rejected the referendum result and remained sympathetic to the Union.

East Tennessee, including Greene County, had many residents who backed the Northern cause, Orr said.

"It was the most Unionist area of the entire South," he said.

Greenevillians such as Edmund B. Miller, who lived on North Main Street, were part of the so-called "Underground Railroad" network of anti-slavery Southerners who assisted escaped slaves in safely making their way to the Northern states, Orr said.

Some Greene County residents were also members of secret societies that supported the abolitionist movement and preservation of the Union, Orr said.

As sides were drawn in 1861, he added, secret organizations in East Tennessee "began to cooperate and merge" and were assisted by African-Americans.

"Southern Unionists found that the blacks in the Underground Railroad network were effective allies," Orr said.

Many African-Americans traveling north on the Underground Railroad passed through Greene County in covered wagons, Orr said.

"At Greeneville they turned north," he said.


Orr said oral traditions support the presence of several Underground Railroad "safe houses" in Greene County, including what was traditionally known as The George Jones House on North Main Street.

The George Jones traditionally associated with the house was a local merchant and a former Greeneville mayor, and was married to a daughter of Valentine Sevier.

The house was demolished earlier this month as part of the Walters State Community College expansion project.

Its age and history were the topic of a lengthy off-and-on local debate during the last two years, with Orr among those who believe it was built about 1830 and was quite possibly a part of the Underground Railroad in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

On the other side of the debate, extensive documentary research findings by a WSCC staff member indicated that the house was not built until the mid-1860s, and was actually occupied by a different, much younger George Jones than the prominent Greenevillian by that name.


"The Underground Railroad almost certainly came through Greene County," Orr said. "We were able to identify roads through Greene County."

Research on Greene County court records from the Civil War era supports Underground Railroad activity here, Orr said.

"There were a number of cases that indicated the Underground Railroad's presence," he stated.


The Unionist cause was strong locally, not only among prominent citizens but also among many Greene Countians who never will be recognized in history books.

As in many other areas of the country, the decision to side with North or South often pitted "neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother," Orr said.

"The Confederate government was facing, literally, thousands of these kinds of people living in remote cabins in the woods," Orr said.

One secret society active in Greene County was the "Order of the Heroes of America," also known as the Red Strings.

Members of the Heroes protected Confederate deserters, aided Union spies and escaped Union prisoners, and supplied federal authorities with information about Confederate troop movements.

Members of such a secret society may have provided information to federal troops that resulted in the Sept. 4, 1864, death of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in Greeneville.

"Confederate military intelligence suspected secret societies," Orr said. "Based on information brought in by underground operatives, Confederates could scarcely move without their movements being reported."
The Confederate Congress formed a committee in 1864 to investigate "disloyalty" in the district including East Tennessee, Orr said.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate authorities tried to win over residents of Greene County and surrounding areas by "kindness," but the famous local railroad-bridge-burning incident in November 1861 "changed that," according to Orr.


Union Gen. George McClellan, who served as general-in-chief of the Union Army early in the war and was later recalled to command the Army of the Potomac before being replaced, may have actually prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation by his own actions in the field, Orr said.

He said that Lincoln was a moderate on the slavery question at the beginning of the Civil War, unlike the "radical" abolitionist faction of the Republican Party.

But with the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln became identified as the primary force in freeing the slaves, Orr said.

He noted that, despite the mixed assessments of McClellan's ability as a military commander by many historians, he was an effective general before Lincoln replaced him.

McClellan ran for president against Lincoln as a Democrat in 1864, and "came very close to winning," Orr said.

He also offered a chronology of major battles and legislation relating to civil rights leading up to Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, and then discussed Johnson's role in furthering Lincoln's planned post-war agenda.

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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