How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

Laurens, S.C., is a typical small Southern town. Its mills are closed, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad is now part of a major transportation company and the last bank with its headquarters in the community relocated nearly a decade ago.

But there’s no denying its history. Even though it has a population of around 9,000, the town can claim two South Carolina governors, a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Secretary of the Navy. It also produced at least two Confederate congressmen and several signers of the S.C. Ordinance of Secession.

That latter bit is what makes the sign on a main street heading into town rather striking: “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway”.

Johnson, of course, served as the 17th president of the United States. Of particular note to denizens of Laurens and other Southerners, he was president during the first part of Reconstruction (1865-69), when Radical Republicans in Congress did their best to stick it to the South for the War Between the States.

At first glance, naming a road in the heart of South Carolina after a Reconstruction president seems akin to, oh, labeling the section of road between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich the “Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau Memorial Autobahn”.

It should be noted that Johnson was by no means aligned with the Radical Republicans. He favored quick restoration of the seceded states to the Union. Unfortunately, his plans did not give protection to former slaves. He went so far as to veto the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave citizenship to former slaves, and got crosswise with the Republican-dominated Congress.

Andrew Johnson, with a face only a mother, but not a prospective mother-in-law, could love.

He was impeached by the House of Representatives and escaped conviction and removal from office by a single vote in the Senate. Without Congressional support, he accomplished little during his four years in office.

So why does Johnson, generally considered one of the worst, if not the worst president in U.S. history, and the man in charge of the Federal government directly after it defeated the Southern Confederacy, have a highway named for him in the South Carolina Upstate?

It turns out that Johnson, a native of North Carolina, operated a tailor shop in Laurens in the mid-1820s. He even courted a local “blue-eyed beauty,” a lass named Sarah Ward.

Johnson wanted to marry Ward, but according to legend, Ward’s widowed mother didn’t think a tailor was suitable for her daughter and nixed the match.

Once Johnson realized he had no chance of winning Ward’s hand, he returned first to Raleigh, N.C., where he’d been born, then moved west to Tennessee.

It was in Tennessee that he would eventually serve in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and as governor before becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president for six weeks, until Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, thrusting Johnson into the presidency.

A resolution designating a stretch of road through Laurens as the “President Andrew Johnson Memorial Highway,” recognizing both his time in the town and his service to the people of the United States, was passed by the S.C. General Assembly in 2000.

Alas, I was unable to find any roads named for the widow Ward or any of her kin during my time in Laurens.

13 thoughts on “How a Reconstruction president got his own road in the South

  1. Johnson was a strong proponent of the Homestead Act and always a strong fighter for the working class (white working class). If I recall correctly, he pardoned Confederate soldiers but required certain classes (officers, West Pointers, large landholders and former slave owners) to petition for a pardon. The South was destroyed, not just the wealthy and the big planters but all of the South. To continue punishing the region was perhaps not the best plan for re-unification of the country. There is no doubt that Johnson blocked and obstructed any progress by former slaves but bearing that in mind he was not a complete waste of time. (I think Alaska was obtained under his presidency, as well.) Given his antagonism toward the very wealthy, it is just barely possible that in time he might have come to ease his views on former slaves. I am not so much arguing for him as I am considering that few are as simple as they are often portrayed. Of course, I have my own bias and that is pretty sympathetic toward Southern whites who were small farmers or working class as they are most often dismissed out of hand or forgotten entirely.

    • I agree with you, Joan. As far as I’m concerned, someone who was at loggerheads with the Radical Republicans probably wasn’t all bad. Johnson was considered a strict Constitutionalist, which I believe was the purported motivation behind his veto of the Fourteenth Amendment. Growing up poor, he certainly had no love of the wealthy. And, yes, if the Federal government hadn’t spent so many years after the war punishing the South, the nation likely would have healed a lot more quickly.

  2. When I come right down to the bone, it was a very good thing, a most excellent thing that the South lost that war and lost it so completely. Billy Sherman and his matches should have been turned loose a lot sooner; it would have been better for everyone involved. I can believe that and still have the deepest respect and sympathy for the Confederate soldiers while hoping that John C. Calhoun is turning slowly on a spit. The war wiped out slavery and as a result the black people had NO value to anyone and they were joined in their misery by poor white sharecroppers. The South is a wondrous place and beautiful to see and to hear but it is nonetheless appalling both in its history and in the current moment.

  3. Okay Joan, you gave yourself away with the Calhoun comment,wink, wink.

    Are you going to the oyster roast Sunday? I’m thinking about going down.

    • LOL… I know. I know.

      No oyster roasts for me. My trips to the coast have become few and far between. My beloved Charleston has been invaded and conquered and it gives me chest pain to see it now. I’ll just bide here in the mountains and do old country woman things that seem necessary this time of year. 😉

  4. Joan,

    Points well taken, but remember that the farm boys who fought to the bitter end, bringing the full weight of the union down on their homeland were the grandsons of the backwoods patriots who turned the tide in the revolution.I’m talking about Kings Mountain,Musgrove’s Mill and dozens of other battles that led to Cowpens,and then Yorktown.These were men who were unprovisioned, mostly untrained, and led themselves.Charleston had fell and New England had all but given up the fight, but the southern militiamen gave the worlds only super power a bloody nose, and didn’t let up until it was done.

    Maybe Hank Williams Jr described the Scots-Irish folk the best when he wrote “you c’AINT starve them out, and you c’AINT make them run!”

  5. Rob, I agree with every word you said. That is why I claim sympathy and respect for the Confederate soldier while entertaining visions of John C. Calhoun roasting on a spit. Right out the gate, I need to confess that I am always sympathetic to the fighting man. They never choose the fight but they most certainly have to carry it out. Besides which, I am related to a significant portion of the Appalachian Scotch-Irish (the OLD people always said Scotch-Irish), know them well, understand they can be stupidly stubborn, know them to be sweet and kind, realize they are always willing to fight, and have rarely, if ever, met one who didn’t have a lethal sense of humor. Did you read Jim Webb’s “Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America” ? It’s a bit uneven (literarily) but I found it worth the time to read.

  6. Yes,
    I have read Webb’s book and continue to insist that friends read it.In reading it you can see yourself, and everyone you grew up with and around.

  7. Albert Castel’s book on Andrew Johnson is concise and excellent. While he had racists attitudes, sometimes expressed bluntly, he advised Mississippi—one of the first states to form a new government under the Johnson plan—to provide blacks the right to vote if they met minimum property thresholds. He also told a newspaper reporter that if he had remained Tennessee’s governor, instead of becoming Lincoln’s Vice President, he would have tried to give blacks in Tennessee the vote if they had served in the Union army or met a property ownership threshold. IIRC, that threshold was $250.

    Presently, too much is remembered about his racism and not enough about his strict constructionist interpretation of the constitution. When he was buried, his head was pillowed by a copy of the constitution that he had consulted repeatedly for many years.

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