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Veterans Day: Historian looks at Andrew Johnson Cemetery

Andrew Johnson National Cemetery still pays tribute to the former President. (Contributed)


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“After the Civil War there was a need for structure in burying the dead. Both sides were unprepared for the number of soldiers who died,”said Arleigh Greear, a park ranger on the staff of the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville. Greear spoke to an audience of 25 people gathered for a July Happy History Hour sponsored by the Heritage Alliance at the Chester Inn in Jonesborough.

“National Cemetery History” was the topic of the program with an emphasis on the Johnson Cemetery where Andrew, his wife Eliza and other family members are buried. The cemetery is less than a half-mile from the Homestead where Andrew and his wife lived from 1869 until 1875. Johnson had purchased the home in 1851.

“Original grave markers were wooden boards that need to be repainted every three to four years,” the Park Ranger said. “Therefore on July 17, 1862 the use of land for cemetery grounds was authorized by Congress. There were 17 original cemetery grounds.” By 1867 federal legislation established a National Center for land acquisition and burial use under the direction of General Montgomery C. Meigs, Army Quartermaster.

Andrew Johnson

Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park in New York and the grounds at the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., was contacted by government personnel for advice on how military cemeteries should be designed and built. Olmstead insisted that the sites be sacred and tranquil. He also prescribed the construction of a wall that would surround the cemetery.

Following Olmstead’s instructions by 1870 a total of 300,000 Union soldiers had been buried in 173 National Cemeteries. The walls around the cemeteries were constructed of different materials. Each cemetery contained a Superintendent’s Lodge. General Meigs encouraged the use of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s home and property near Washington, D.C. for use as a Union burial ground. Today, known as Arlington National Cemetery, Lee’s former residence is the final resting place for a number of distinguished military personnel including President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

After 1873 Revolutionary War soldiers were added to the individuals eligible for national cemetery burials. Headstone specifications were standardized. On March 9, 1906, legislation authorized the burial of Confederate soldiers in national cemeteries.

While the National Park Service maintains the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, the National Cemetery at Mountain Home in Johnson City is maintained by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA administers most national cemeteries in the nation but Arlington National Cemetery is maintained by the Department of the Army as are a number of cemeteries across the world where United State military personnel are interred.

Headstones in national cemeteries were standardized after 1930. Today, marble, granite and bronze headstone materials can be used. There are privately paid for memorial stones in national cemeteries erected before 1930. The Andrew Johnson National Cemetery contains both earlier private headstones erected before the standardized regulations plus special monuments for President Johnson and members of his family.  A flat ground marker is permitted, originally encouraged by cemetery maintenance supervisors for ease in mowing around them.

National cemeteries only permit graphics on government furnished headstones or markers that are approved emblems of belief. Those that have been approved are the Civil War Union Shield (including those who served in the U.S. military through the Spanish-American War), the Civil War Confederate Cross of Honor and Medal of Honor insignia. In addition there are a number of approved religious symbols rendered as simple inscriptions without sculptural relief or coloring other than black. The emblem of belief is an optional feature on headstones.


Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States, took office after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The cemetery includes the interments of Johnson’s wife, Eliza McCardle Johnson and his son Brigadier General Robert Johnson Henderson. David T. Patterson, a U.S. Senator from Tennessee and his son Andrew J. Patterson, who was instrumental in securing historic designation for the Greeneville cemetery, are among others buried at the sixteen acre site.

Park Ranger Greear said the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery was established in 1906. President Johnson owned twenty-three acres on Signal Hill. Greear said he told his long-time slave and later aide, Sam Johnson, “Wouldn’t this place be a wonderful place to be in eternity.” The President was buried there upon his death in 1875. On June 5, 1878, the City of Greeneville at a cost of $18,000.00 erected a 28-foot marble statue in his honor by Johnson’s grave. Features of the monument include an Eagle, the United States Flag, A Hand on the Bible, and an Eternal Flame. The monument was considered so dominant that the hill’s name was changed to “Monument Hill.”

Johnson was the father of two daughters and three sons. His daughter, Martha Johnson Patterson, lived the longest of the children and inherited the property. On September 2, 1898 she willed that the land become a park. Then in 1900 she lobbied Congress to make the site a national cemetery so that instead of the Johnson family maintaining it, the federal government would. Today, the Park Ranger said, there are no living Johnson relatives, the last person having died in 1992.

In 1906 Congress made the site a national cemetery. That year a 75-foot Flag Pole made from a ship’s mast was erected near the Johnson Monument. In 1908, the War Department took control of the grounds. The cemetery became part of the properties maintained by the National Park Service on May 23, 1942.  Greear said unlike most National Park Service properties eligible individuals can still be buried at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery.

Interments in the cemetery began in 1909. Solomon Harrison Hendrix was the first to be buried in the cemetery. He was part of the Union “Bridge Burners” who destroyed railroad bridges during the Civil War when Confederates controlled East Tennessee. While Hendrix escaped capture, those who were caught, were hanged from the burned out bridges.

Section A contains the oldest headstones in the cemetery, including the private monuments. Corporal Edgar Burley, a World War I soldier, who lived only one day after arriving in France, is buried there. Another burial is that of Sgt. Ellis M. Banks, a member of the Army’s Horse Cavalry, who died when a horse fell on him. In 1936 a German MG-08 machine gun was installed to honor those soldiers killed in “The Great War.”

Approximately 2,200 veterans have been buried at the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greear said. Of this number, 98 percent of the graves are marked with the Latin Cross. The list includes soldiers from the Civil, Spanish-American, World Wars I and II, Korean, Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan Conflicts. He estimates the cemetery could accommodate additional burials for the next 20-years.

Preservation and cleaning of the monuments and headstones was explained by Park Ranger Greear during his closing comments. Instead of power washing stones which destroys the surface of the headstones and monuments, the national cemetery uses a commercially available product called D-2 along with “Orvus” paste.

Present during the lecture was Heritage Alliance President Gordon Edwards, the organization’s cemetery tour guide and cemetery preservation expert, who said he also uses D-2 in cleaning the stones at the Jonesborough Historic Town Cemetery.

For more information about the Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, telephone 423-638-3551 or go to their web site at To learn more about the National Park Service programs visit