BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
More than two centuries have passed since former President Andrew Johnson's birth in 1808, and while the date no longer rings in elaborate celebrations, the anniversary has not been forgotten.
To mark the occasion, soldiers from the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment laid a wreath on President Johnson's grave Thursday afternoon during a special ceremony on Monument Hill at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery.
It has become a tradition that the federal government, acting through the U.S. armed forces, marks the birthdays of all former Presidents of the United States with the placing of a wreath at their gravesites on the anniversaries of their birth.
President Johnson was born on Dec. 29, 1808, in Raleigh, N.C., but moved to Greeneville as a young man.
"I'd like to welcome you to our commemoration of the 203rd birthday of Andrew Johnson," said Jim Small, chief of operations for the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, in opening remarks at the ceremony.
A clear, sunny day greeted the approximately 40 people gathered to watch the ceremony. The good weather was a rare blessing for the annual observance, according to Small.
Those gathered watched as soldiers gathered around the monument and grave. Partcipants included members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the Tennessee Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Unit, and the American Legion Greene County Honor Guard.
"As we think about Andrew Johnson, the times that he served are very similar to the times we are in today, with the politics and battling between different parties and trying to get bills pushed through Congress," Small said.
"He had a tough job through [post-Civil War] Reconstruction."
Cordon Commander Staff Sergeant Joe Morehouse called out commands as Capt. Gary Price, Maj. John Bowlin, and General Isaac Osborne, Tennessee Army National Guard, marched to stand before the memorial.
Chaplain Eddie Young led in prayer and remembrance of those who serve the country before General Osborne took the podium as the ceremony's keynote speaker.
"I'm not going to stand here before you and recount the life and times of Andrew Johnson, but I am going to touch on a few things about Andrew Johnson the man," Osborne said.
Recounting Johnson's struggles and achievements, he recalled that Johnson lost his father at a very early age.
"You have to remember that little Andrew Johnson grew up hard," he said. "This young man grew up to become our president and never went to school, but he definitely got a lot of informal education."
Through the years, Johnson moved to Greeneville, taught himself to read, opened a tailor shop and married a well-educated woman who helped him continue his self-education.
As his tailor shop became a political gathering place, Johnson's interest in politics increased, Osborne said.
Eventually elected to the U.S. Senate, he said that Johnson became known as the "Champion of the Common Man."
"He remained in the Senate, even when Tennessee seceded, which made him a hero in the north and a traitor in the eyes of Tennessee and the Southerners," the general added.
His loyalty to the Union earned him President Abraham Lincoln's approval and, in 1862, Lincoln appointed Johnson as Military Governor of Tennessee, which became a "laboratory of Reconstruction," Osborne said.
Voted in as vice president in 1864, Johnson unexpectedly became president in April 1865 following Lincoln's assassination.
"To say Andrew Johnson's administration was a turbulent one would be an understatement," Osborne said.
"He was faced with extremely difficult reunification of a country suffering from four bloody years of civil war, a war which often pitted brother against brother."
The first president to see Congress override his veto on an important bill (Johnson) was also the same president that came one vote short of an impeachment conviction, he recalled.
However, Johnson's administration saw many great accomplishments and great national progress, including the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the purchase of the Alaskan territory, and the post-war Reconstruction of the states, Gen. Osborne added.
In accordance with Johnson's wishes, Osborne said the president was buried in 1875 wrapped in an American flag with his head lying on a copy of the Constitution.
"He maintained a fierce love of the Constitution and the federal union it embodied. Knowing full well the potential repercussions, he supported the Union cause, rejecting the actions of his home state," Osborne concluded.
"He was a man of courage who remained steadfast in his beliefs regardless of the personal cost to him.
"His dedicated service to this country during this most difficult time in history reflects great credit upon this man who came to call Tennessee his home."
The Tennessee Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Unit fired three rounds, and all service men saluted as officers placed the wreath in front of the Johnson memorial.
For retired teachers and self-described history buffs Ken and Melinda Bowlin, the ceremony was an enjoyable, though solemn, affair.
"We need to honor our leaders every time we can, whether on the local or the national scale," Ken Bowlin said.
Each Dec. 29 ceremony for about the past 10 years has seen Connie Ricker Smith and her husband, Jerry, in attendance. This year they attended on behalf of her father, Arthur Ricker Sr., a World War II veteran and a resident of the Tusculum community.
"I just consider it an honor to come and celebrate this birthday of our 17th president," Connie Smith said Thursday.