In February 2009, Americans across the country celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of one of its greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln. A simple man of both indomitable faith and courage, “Old Abe” is rightly considered by many as the savior of the Union. Because of this, it might be argued that the sesquicentennial of the Civel Ware truly begins in 2009 and not 2011 with the 150th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Before Lincoln, however, there was Andrew Johnson of Tennessee – the only congressman from the Confederate States to remain loyal to the Union and the man later tasked to direct the readmission of the defeated southern states into the Union after Lincoln’s assassination.
Born at Raleigh, North Carolina, on 29 December 1808, less than seven weeks before the revered Kentuckian, Johnson rose far above his humble beginnings to become a respected local civic leader, state legislator, United States representative and senator, and Military Governor of Tennessee, before his election as vice president of the Unites States on th National Union Party ticket in 1864.
Two hundred years to the day, four brothers of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War joined over 100 participants in a birthday salute at the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greenville, TN. Junior Vice Commander in Chief James R. Hanby, Sr. PDC, led the contingent of the Department of Tennessee brothers comprised of Past Department Commander Charles H. Engle, Jr; Douglas K Fidler, PhD, Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee; and Bill Heard, a recently enlisted member of Fort Donelson Camp No. 62. Also attending were wives Will Engle and Sharon Heard, both seasoned Civel War era commemoration participants.
The festivities began in the Greeneville Towne Square parking lot, where the National Park Service had pitched a large marquee. Union re-enactors in period dress served birthday cake, coffee, and lemonade to live music. As day turned into dusk, partygoers were transported in coaches to the foot of Monument Hill at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, where 1,500 luminary bags marked the way to the ceremony. At the summit stood the tall obelisk that has stood silent sentinel over the final repose of the president and his beloved wife Eliza for 130 years. There could not have been a finer setting for the historic occasion. Under a crystal-clear winter sky adorned with a waning crescent moon, a brilliant rising Venus, and numerous twinkling stars, the illuminated obelisk stood out starkly against the celestial backdrop.
After welcoming remarks from NPS superintendent Lizzie Watts, Chaplain (Capt.) Kevin Millsaps of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Tennessee National Guard, invoked the blessings of the Creator. Called upon by Supt. Watts to bring greetings from the SUVCW, JVCinC Hamby offered his thanks and congratulations for the outstanding tribute to the memory of the American Patriot. Then, in what Brother Hamby called a “signal honor”, Supt. Watts invited the SUVCW to lay a memorial wreath within the secure area surrounding the Johnson Family Tomb.
Assisted by Brother Fidler, he placed it near the wreath laid on behalf of the president of the United States by Briggadier General Isaac Osborne, Director of the Joint Staff at Tennessee National Guard Headquarters in Nashville. The gerneal’s short address empahsized how Johnson’s slow rise to prominence and identification with the common man made him a quintessential example of citizen-soldier who fought to preserve the Union.
The dignity of the occasion was punctuated by the “Presidential Salute”, a volley of 21 shots fired by the Greene County Honor Guard, then solemnized by the playing of echo taps, a haunting sound that seemed to reverberate off nearby hills. The ceremony was concluded with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Park Guide Emma Edmonds, but there was one last tribute to the president. A spectacular fireworks display lit the night sky before the silent darkness lowered the shroud of time over the remains of the seventeenth president of the United States.
Obviously deeply touched by the historic gravity of the event, JVCniC Hanby reflected that members of the Order should seek ways to participate annually in birthday remembrance ceremonies for all the presidents who served in some capacity during the Civil War. “One of the reasons we exist is to keep fresh the memory of the sacrifices of our patriot ancestors. What better way than to show our gratitude and respect to our commanders-in-chief who knew war from both the back of a horse as well as a chair in the Oval Office!”
Seven of eight post-war presidents who were of age served during the Civil War in some capacity. Six were Republicans and one, Andrew Johnson, was a Democrat. Democrat Grover Cleveland chose to send a substitute in accordance with Federal Law. Only Brevet Major William McKinley, the youngest to serve in the U.S. Army, was not a general officer. The oldest to serve, Captain Milliard Fillmore, became president in 1850 and was born nine years before Lincoln in the eighteenth century. He came out of retirement in Buffalo, NY, to command the “Union Continentals”, a home guard unit that patrolled downtown areas and provided escorts for Union tropps beign shipped to front-line units. Three presidents are interred in Ohio, three in New York, and one each in Indiana and Tennessee.
Text provided by Brother Jim William “Bill” Heard, FDC #62