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.

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