By Renée S. Gordon
“Those who returned we hold in equal honor whether they marched home with shouts of victory or plodded their weary way with their paroles in their pockets.”
–Knoxville Tribune -October 7, 1890
ABOVE PHOTO: Andrew Jackson National Historic Visitors Center.
Tennessee’s three distinct districts are separated not only by geography but also by history and culture. These differences caused each region to respond differently to the institution of slavery and, as an outgrowth of those responses, their feelings regarding the Civil War and the events leading up to it were as varied as the population. Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union and the first to rejoin, the first southern state to abolish slavery and the first, in 1881, to legislate Jim Crow. The state’s history is unique and it is filled with singular sites that bring that history to life. www.tntrailsandbyways.com
Regional Paleo-Indian artifacts date occupation from 15,000 B.C. but one of Tennessee’s gems, East Tennessee State University and General Shale Brick Natural History Museum and Visitor Center at the Gray Fossil Site indicates that millions of years prior to human habitation animals roamed the region. The Gray Fossil Site, the largest dig site in the hemisphere, features an ecosystem that dates from the Late Miocene/Early Pliocene Era from four to eight-million years ago.
The site, discovered accidentally during a road project in 2000, is a prehistoric limestone sinkhole that covers 5-acres and is 100-ft. deep. Water collected in the hole and animal and plant life thrived there. Many animals died there and it is those fossilized remains that are still being discovered. Thousands of specimens have been found, several nearly complete, and numerous extinct species, the saber-toothed cat, shovel-tusked elephant, no-hump camel and pot-bellied rhino.
Tours start on the lower level of the 33,000-sq.ft. visitor’s center with a life-sized diorama of the sinkhole complete with plant and wildlife. Adjacent galleries and displays have hands-on activities. The second floor consists of a windowed lab where visitors can watch paleontologists at work on current findings. A walkway leads to the dig site. Admission is free but there is a fee for the guided tour. Guests can also spend “A Night at the Museum” or “Dig for a Day.” This is an excellent site for families. www.grayfossilmuseum.com
Greeneville, Tennessee, founded in 1783, is the second oldest city in the state and was named in honor of Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene. The earliest settlers migrated from the southeast, many from Pennsylvania, and were of Scots-Irish descent. The county would play a large role in the Civil war and, because it was held by both the Union and the Confederacy during the war, it changed hands more than thirty times, the sites are truly representative of the nations’ divided loyalties.
Though Davy Crockett was born in the area the most famous resident was an illiterate tailor who arrived in Greeneville in 1825, made a fortune and succeeded Abraham Lincoln as the 17th President of the United States. The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site is a complex consisting of 16-acres and four areas, the Andrew Johnson Visitor Complex, Andrew Johnson’s early home, Andrew Johnson Homestead and the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery. A fourth site, the Andrew Johnson Presidential Library, is located on the Tusculum College campus.
Visits should begin with the 14-minute orientation video in the visitor complex. Displays here interpret his early life, his presidency and his impeachment. His one-room tailor shop, for which he paid $51.00, is intact within the museum portion of the center. Directly across the street is Johnson’s 2-story brick early home. It is currently undergoing restoration and may be viewed from the exterior only.
The Homestead, his family mansion, is nearby and here you learn more about the man. He was born poor in North Carolina and did not learn to read and write until he reached Greeneville. He was the owner of 8 slaves. His first slave, Dolly, requested that he purchase her because he looked “kind.” He next purchased her brother Sam. Their pictures are on the mantle in the house. He freed his personal slaves on August 8, 1863 and freed all of Tennessee’s slaves in the fall of 1864 as the state’s military governor.
The 2-story Greek Revival and Federal mansion was restored in 1957. It was the family residence from 1869 until 1875. During the war the home, like the city, changed hands several times and one of the most interesting areas on the house tour is Eliza’s bedroom in which Confederate graffiti disparaging Johnson remains visible on the wall. Ten rooms are on the tour with 90 percent of the furnishings being original.
Johnson was buried in 1875 on 23-acres of family land that is now the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery. Three years later his gravesite was marked with a 28-ft. marble monument. www.nps.gov/anjo.com
The President Andrew Johnson Museum and Library is housed in the college’s first academic building. Johnson contributed $20 to its construction in 1841. Three galleries feature family memorabilia and artifacts the most interesting of which is a tea set that once belonged to Jefferson Davis. www.ajmuseum.tusculum.edu
Since 1983 Greeneville’s history has been on view in the Nathanael Greene Museum. Highlights of the displays include Civil War artifacts, two bills of sale for Negroes and an Underground Railroad display on the second floor. www.nathanaelgreenemuseum.com
The Federal-style Dickson-Williams Mansion was built in 1821 using Irish artisans and the 52 enslaved held by the owner. Once deemed the “Showplace of East Tennessee” it functioned as both Union and Confederate headquarters at various times during the Civil War. Though it many important guests graced the halls the most famous visitor was the charismatic “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy,” General John Hunt Morgan.
Morgan was a cavalry officer who was an ideal southern gentleman and bold raider. In the early morning of September 3, 1864, after spending the night on the mansion, Morgan was surrounded by Union soldiers and killed in the garden.
Ninety-minute interior tours spotlight the original furnishings, marvelous handcarved staircase and the bedroom in which Morgan died. Ceilings on the first two floors soar to 12-ft. and walls are 24″ thick. www.mainstreetgreeneville.com
The perfect accommodations for this trip are found in the historic General Morgan Inn and Conference Center. The hotel offers all the amenities including fine dining, luxury suites, mahogany furniture, marble bathrooms, WIFI, Mason Art Gallery and ghostly Green Room Grace who haunts the restaurant and moves only the spoons. www.generalmorganinn.com
Jonesborough, established in 1779, can lay claim to being both the oldest town in the state and the “Storytelling Capital of the World.” This has always been a place for independent and creative thinkers and a walking tour of the historic area on West Main Street provides an overview of their accomplishments. www.historicjonesborough.com
The International Storytelling Center is a bi-level campus that encompasses the 200-year old Chester Inn and 14,000-square ft. Mary Martin Storytelling Hall. The annual National Storytelling Festival has been held here since 1973.
The Chester Inn has been in continuous use since 1797. Three presidents have lodged there and in 1832 Andrew Jackson battled malaria in one of the rooms. www.storytellingcenter.net
From 1788-89 Andrew Jackson practiced law and lodged in the Christopher Taylor House. The two-story log house was relocated here from one-mile southwest.
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church is a Greek-Revival structure. Tours of the interior reveal it still contains its original pews and slave gallery. When the Civil War began the Unionists left the church and built their own nearby.
Elihu Embree, a Philadelphia Quaker, moved to Jonesborough and printed the country’s first newspaper and periodicals dedicated solely to abolitionism. In 1820 he began printing the “Manumission Intelligencer” that later became “The Emancipator.” Only one authenticated copy is still in existence. Jacob Howard’s print shop stood on the corner.
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethtown interprets the story of Fort Watauga. In 1775 this was the site of the Transylvania Purchase, the largest private or corporate land purchase in history, when the Cherokee Indians sold 20-million acres of land. The recreated site was actually Matthew Talbert’s farmstead. Inside the palisaded fort you can tour a two-story log cabin, a tavern, watch reenactments of aspects of 1700s frontier life and hear the saga of the Overmountain Men and the Battle of King’s Mountain. www.sycamoreshoals.org
John Carter moved to the frontier in 1770 to open a trading post. In 1775 he purchased 640-acres and built his home, the Carter Mansion, the oldest frame house in the state and the first west of the Appalachians. This wonderful house was a palace for the time and is still 90 percent original. Unique items are the fireplace in the Great Room and the seven family names written on the wall beneath the wallpaper in the Master Bedroom. The family members were unionists and fled during the war. They hid their names so that they could reclaim their property after the war.
There is always more to see but we’ll finish this trip with a saunter across the 1882 Doe River Covered Bridge. The 134-ft. bridge was constructed of oak and white pine with chestnut shingles. Stroll across the bridge and take a seat in the gazebo to plan your trip to Tennessee’s singular cities. www.tnvacation.com
I wish you smooth and surprising travels!