Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Pilfering Andrew Johnson's papers

   This next project, "Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia," has me reading a great number of letters, diaries, and reminiscences. Over the next few months, I'll probably be posting many shorter stories, things that I find interesting.

   A couple of days ago, I finished reading Last Order of the Lost Cause: The Civil War Memoirs of a Jewish Family from the "Old South." It was edited by Mel Young and looks at the Moses family of Georgia, most notably Maj. Raphel Jacob Moses, commissary on Longstreet's staff for part of the war.

   Longstreet and a portion of his corps spent the winter of 1863-1864 in east Tennessee, fighting Federals, some guerillas, and hunger pains. Moses left this story in his reminiscences:

Andrew Johnson
   "On another occasion in East Tennessee we stopped at Greenville, and I had my headquarters in the Capitol law library of Andrew Johnson, afterwards President of the United States, within site of his office, by the way, was in one of the side rooms of the Tavern. We were in sight of the little shop, still standing where Andy, as the Tennesseans called him, had his Taylor shop."
   "After leaving Greenville we went to Morristown, about fifteen miles, and while there I happened to mention a heavy box in Johnson's library, which was nailed up. Fairfax immediately 'snuffed, not tyranny but whisky, in the tainted air,' and exclaimed, "By George! Moses, why didn't you tell me before we left? Old Andy was fond of his 'nips,' and I'll bet that box was full of good old rye whiskey, and I mean to have it.' He immediately got a detail of soldiers and a wagon, and had the box brought to camp. When it arrived, Fairfax's eyes glistened with anxious expectation, soon followed by despondency, as on opening the box it contained, instead of old liquor, nothing but Andy Johnson's old letters and private papers..." (116-117)

   There the narrative ends. Did they leave the papers in Morristown? Were they used to start fires? Did Johnson ever get this box of papers back?

   The closest National Park to me having a strong war-time connection is the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greenville, Tennessee. I've been over there several times, and Johnson and some of his surviving papers were important in my own book, Kirk's Civil War Raids Along the Blue Ridge. I've always found Johnson's life interesting. He was not liked by the Democrats or Republicans once he became president upon the death of Lincoln. But I wonder what happened to those papers, not only his papers, but the reams of things lost during the war. Those stories told by the War Department clerks of the piles of burning documents in the streets of Richmond have always bothered me, as well as the county-level documents that were destroyed when the likes of George Stoneman rode through western North Carolina in early 1865. We would all be richer, historically speaking, if there had been a little more care taken with these pieces of the past.

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