Top of page

Collection Andrew Johnson Papers

Provenance of the Andrew Johnson Papers

How did the Andrew Johnson Papers come to the Library of Congress? This essay, originally written for the Index to the Andrew Johnson Papers (Washington, D.C., 1963), pp. v-viii, tells the story.

When the Civil War came to Greeneville, Tennessee, Andrew Johnson, the only pro-Union southern Senator, was elsewhere in the state stumping for Union men. In a state torn by conflicting loyalties and violence, Johnson was to Confederate sympathizers a man marked for extermination. Escaping several ambuscades, he eventually rode to Washington leaving in Greeneville his invalid wife, one small son, and his personal papers. He had always valued the records of his career. Before the war he and his wife had carefully gathered and organized his books and papers in one room of his office. 1 Yet when the war was over little record of his early career had survived.

In March 1862 Johnson returned to Tennessee as military governor, with headquarters at Nashville, to begin the difficult task of establishing Federal authority in a state predominantly Confederate in sympathy. East Tennessee was overrun by rebel forces, and Johnson was isolated from Greeneville. Later in 1862 Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith ordered Mrs. Johnson to leave Greeneville and pass through the Confederate lines to Nashville. 2 In the years that followed, Johnson's home and office were used by troops of both armies at various times as hospital, barracks, officers' residence, and den for camp followers. 3

On February 14, 1864, Robert Johnson wrote from Nashville to his father that it was "rumored at Knoxville that the rebels had taken possession of all our Books, papers &c. at Greeneville. Mr. Joe Allen brought the information here. I hope it may prove incorrect . . . ." 4 Such fears were well grounded, for General James Longstreet's troops were in Greeneville in the early part of 1864. Major Raphael J. Moses of Georgia, Longstreet's Chief Commissary of Subsistence, recounted the episode in his recollection written in 1890:

On another occasion in East Tennessee we stopped at Greenville and I had my Headquarters in the Law Library of Andrew Johnson, afterwards president of the United States, within sight of his office which, 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 Tennesseeans called him had his tailor shop.

After leaving Greenville we went to Morristown, [Tenn.] about fifteen miles, and while there I happened to mention a heavy box in Johnson's Library which was nailed up. [Col. John W.] Fairfax immediately 'snuffed not tyranny but whiskey in the tainted air' and exclaimed, 'by George! Moses why didn't you tell me before we left? Old Andy was very fond 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.

The question was 'what shall we do with it.' It was too heavy and cumbersome to carry on the campaign with our limited transportation; Fairfax and rest of the staff said burn the cussed thing. I said 'Oh no, not until I look over the contents' We staid several days at Morristown and I amused myself looking over the papers, selected what I wanted and destroyed the rest. Among the letters which I selected were several giving details of a patent for cutting our clothes. Some were from laboring men, as illiterate as Johnson then was . . . I took some letters written to a Mr. Wm. Lowry whom I knew in Tennessee and who after the War became a Banker in Atlanta. Some written as he advanced in life to James K. Polk of Tennessee, afterwards President of the United States, and some to his wife from the Congress of the United States about the year 1860, when the crisis was about to mature which resulted in the revolution . . .

After the War I met Lowry in Atlanta. Johnson was then President, I knew they were intimate, and I also knew that Johnson would very much prize the letters which I selected. There were probably forty or fifty, commencing when he was a poor illiterate tailor and tracing him from time to time as he rose in public estimation and became a power in the land.

I told Lowry I had some papers belonging to Johnson that I knew he would prize very much, and I would give them to him for Johnson if he, Lowry, would promise me that he would not let Johnson know where he got them. He so promised me, and I delivered him the package of papers which I suppose he gave to Johnson who was then President, he being Vice President when Lincoln was assassinated and as we had no Law that protected a Southerner then, I was a little afraid to let Johnson know that I had been among his papers. 5

A letter written by Andrew Johnson to his son Robert dated April 16, 1854, now a part of the Norman and Charlotte Strouse Collection in the Free Library of Philadelphia, bears the following endorsement in an unidentified handwriting:

February 3/64

This letter is written by the notorious traitor Andy Johnson, whilst Governor of Tennessee—I got it from a number of others contained in a trunk of his, which was captured by our troops at Greenville where Johnson resided—

The letter is a fair specimen of Johnson's grammar & orthography and good hard sense—

On April 17, 1866, W. H. Snyder wrote from Gordonsville, Virginia, and returned to Johnson a book from "some one who was with the Army of Genl. Longstreet when it marched through 'East Tenn' during the winter of -63 when it was I presume taken from your home at 'Greenville.'" 6

Whether a second raid occurred about the same time is not clear from surviving written records. Details vary in these reports all of which were written years after the events. We know, nevertheless, that shortly after leaving the White House Johnson wrote on June 23, 1869, from Greeneville to General Longstreet: "I have been informed that in eighteen hundred and sixty-four while you were in command of this post as General in the Confederate Army that an officer under an order from you with a squad of men forcably [sic] entered the Store House of Mr. George Jones of this place and seize[d] a number of trunks which had been deposited there by my family for safe keeping. These trunks were broken open and their contents examined by the officer and the squad and report made to you . . . . These trunks contained many valuable articles of property as well as papers: such as deeds, bills of sale, mortgages, memoranda of matters of much importance to me, also a number of valuable letters many of them of a private character. . . . Any information in regard to these trunks and their contents will be thankfully received. . . ." 7

Longstreet denied any knowledge of the incident and referred Johnson to Col. John W. Fairfax of Aldie, Virginia, his inspector general in 1864. 8 From Colonel Fairfax, Johnson received on December 2, 1869, the following account: "When we were camped at Russel[l]ville, [Tenn.,] Sergeant Hutchison of the Signal Corps reported to me that there was a lot of Baggage, belonging to you stowed at Greenville; I ordered an escort of cavalry to report to him—ordered Hutchison to take charge of the Baggage and deliver the same to Maj. E[rasmus]. Taylor, Chief Qr Master . . . . I never saw the Baggage or any part of it except a blank State Bond (Tenn.), which fell into the hands of Maj. R. I. Moses, Chief Com. of Sub. . . who filled it up to have a little amusement in Camp; and two or three of the trunks I saw for the first time upon the Cars, as General Longstreet and myself were upon our way to Gen'l Lee's Hd. Qrs. near Orange C. H. Va. . . ." 9 Sergeant Hutchison was killed later and his commanding officer, Capt. J. H. Manning, could provide no assistance. He wrote on July 7, "it is not in my power to give any information which would aid in the recovery of Hon. A. Johnson's property, captured at Greenville, Tenn. Some of his papers were filed in my hands, but having been sent to Rich[mond] with a portion of my baggage were all destroyed by fire. . . ." 10

The account in Colonel Fairfax's letter varies from that given by Major Moses. Yet the nature of the papers sought by Johnson and of those described by Moses leaves little doubt that the same manuscripts were described. It is clear that at least one and perhaps two raids on Johnson's papers occurred and that few of the early papers survived. Since Moses gave what he had to Johnson's friend, William Lowery, for return to Johnson these may be a part of the comparatively few early letters now in the collection.

The Johnson house remained neglected and in a state of disrepair through the period when Johnson served as Vice-President and President. 11 As the end of his term on March 4, 1869, approached Johnson and his family made plans to return to Greeneville. His secretary, Col. William Moore, listed boxes packed for shipping containing "private letters," "miscellaneous papers," "scrapbooks," and other records. 12 On the morning of March 4 David Patterson and cabinet officers came and went from the White House, and laborers removed the family's baggage marked for Greeneville. On the16th the Johnson entourage departed Washington for Greeneville, where they arrived on March 20. 13 The papers for the period of Johnson's Presidency, intact and treasured as the true record of that stormy regime, were carefully put away.

After several years of active participation in Tennessee politics and a brief term in the U.S. Senate in 1875, Johnson died in July of that year. His papers came in time into the sole possession of Martha Johnson Patterson, his elder daughter. For several years before and after Johnson's death there were numerous requests from public speakers, writers on the Civil War and Reconstruction, prospective biographers, and others to use the papers. Apparently few of these requests were granted. Mrs. Patterson guarded the records zealously waiting the time when partisanship would cool and history could more calmly evaluate her father's role in an embittered period of our history.

Laura Carter Holloway, a Brooklyn author and editor, and an earlier acquaintance of the family was among those who enquired. She had written in 1871 requesting from Johnson a biographical sketch for use in her proposed book, "Homes of Famous Americans." 14 Years later in the 1890's Mrs. Holloway, planning a biography of Andrew Johnson, visited Greeneville and was given access to the collection by Martha Patterson. 15 Mrs. Holloway, by a later marriage Mrs. Langford, was again granted access to the papers around 1900, at which time a large part of the collection was in the possession of David M. DeWitt for the preparation of his book, Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson. According to Mrs. Langford, in a letter to Worthington C. Ford, November 9, 1922, "while Mr. David DeWitt was writing his book on the impeachment trial, he had use of the papers, and, at Mrs. Patterson's request, he sent the trunks containing them to me in Brooklyn. Later I expressed them to her in Greeneville. . . ." 16

The family contended that Mrs. Langford did not return all the papers. 17 An inscription in the family Bible states that this intimate family record was given to Laura Langford by Martha Patterson. 18 In 1903 Mrs. Langford wrote to John Hay about certain letters Abraham Lincoln had written to Andrew Johnson and which, she said, "were given to me by the daughter of President Johnson." 19 Five Lincoln-to-Johnson letters were sold by Mrs. Holloway in 1907 to George S. Hellman who immediately resold them to J. Pierpont Morgan. 20 Hellman retained other letters purchased from Mrs. Langford and did not dispose of them for several years.

Martha Patterson, before her death in 1901, also granted access to the papers returned by Mrs. Langford to the Rev. James S. Jones, pastor at Greeneville, for his Life of Andrew Johnson. Upon Martha Patterson's death the papers passed into the possession of her son, Andrew Johnson Patterson, who, before his mother's death, had returned to the family home from a consular post in South America.

In November 1903 Worthington C. Ford, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, visited Greeneville, made a brief examination of the collection, and proposed to Mr. Patterson that it come to the Library. 21 After a second examination in 1904, Ford reported to the Librarian: "The deeper I went into the collection the more valuable did it appear. . . . It can never be duplicated, it can never be approached for the period it covers . . . ." 22 Through the good offices of the Reverend Mr. Jones, then president of Murphy College in nearby Sevierville, negotiations were opened and later in 1904 the Library purchased the collection.

Minor additions, chiefly from the Patterson family, have been made in subsequent years; the one large addition was that of 1930 when 1,500 pieces relating to the pre-Presidential period came to the Library. In 1923 the Library acquired the shorthand diary of William G. Moore, President Johnson's secretary. In two volumes of Pitman shorthand this valuable record covers the period from July 1866 to April 1869. Two volumes of the accounts of Johnson's tailor shop in Greeneville were purchased in 1944. The number of items in the Johnson Papers is 23,477. Except when they were evacuated during World War II, the Johnson Papers have been available for consultation as long as they have been in the Library of Congress. 23

In the winter of 1913-14 George S. Hellman offered a collection of choice Johnson manuscripts to the Library of Congress. 24 The Library was unable to purchase these manuscripts. The same collection, identified as materials "given by Andrew Johnson's daughter, Martha Patterson, to her life-long and most intimate friend, Mrs. L[aura]. C. Langford," was sold at auction in New York in 1919. 25 It included 13 of the longest and most discursive letters written by Johnson on family and political matters. 26 These items are now in the Henry E. Huntington Library at San Marino, California. Records of Johnson's services as civil and military governor (1853-1857, 1862-1865) are in the Tennessee State Library and Archives at Nashville. No collection of significant size exists in any other library, although there are scores of Johnson's letters in the papers of his contemporaries located in other libraries and in other collections in the Library of Congress. Manuscript notes of Laura C. Holloway and "a large number of Johnson's private papers" are reported to be in the possession of Margaret Patterson Bartlett, great-granddaughter of Johnson. 27 The National Union Catalog of Manuscript collections now being created at the Library of Congress may eventually reveal the whereabouts of other Johnson manuscripts.

Note: Grateful acknowledgment is made to Dr. LeRoy P. Graf of the University of Tennessee and an editor of the projected publication of the Andrew Johnson Papers, who read and commented on a draft of this essay. Dr. Graf and his associate, Dr. Ralph W. Haskins, have on many occasions generously supplied information and suggestions of great value in the preparation of this index to the Johnson Papers.


  1. Winston, Robert W., Andrew Johnson, Plebian and Patriot (New York, 1928), p. 99. [Return to text]
  2. April 24, 1862, Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  3. Diary of Samuel R. Glenn, quoted in John Savage, Life and Public Services of Andrew Johnson (New York, 1866), p.262; Winston, op. cit., pp. 487-488. [Return to text]
  4. Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  5. Pages 64-66 of copy supplied by his grandson, Lionel B. Moses; quotation used with his permission. Mr. Moses generously permitted Library officials to examine at length the copy in his possession. [Return to text]
  6. Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  7. Johnson Papers, Series 1. A few weeks later a friend in Morristown wrote that he "could have given you some facts connected with . . . Longstreet's seizure of some of your property while he was on his ruinous raid through East Tenn." James H. Robinson to Johnson, July 30, 1869, Johnson Papers, Series 1. No written record of what Robinson knew or alleged to know has been found. [Return to text]
  8. June 28, 1869, Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  9. Johnson Papers, Series 1. Raphael J. Moses (p. 67) in his recollections states that while Longstreet and Fairfax tried to determine who owned the captured bond he (Moses) tossed it into the fire and then admitted that he had filled in the blank bond to play a joke on Fairfax. Moses' two superior officers hesitated and then decided to laugh. [Return to text]
  10. Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  11. Connally, Ernest Allen, "The Andrew Johnson Homestead at Greeneville, Tennessee," East Tennessee Historical Society's Publications, 29 (1957), 129-132. [Return to text]
  12. Undated list in Moore's handwriting, Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  13. Daily Morning Chronicle (Washington), March 5, 1869. [Return to text]
  14. May 10, 1871, Johnson Papers, Series 1. [Return to text]
  15. Andrew J. Patterson to Thomas P. Martin, August 11, 1930, Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  16. Extract, Laura C. Langford to Worthington C. Ford, November 9, 1922, Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  17. Rev. James S. Jones to Worthington C. Ford, December 16, 1904, Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  18. Copy of description supplied by George S. Hellman with his letter to Herbert Putnam, January 22, 1914, Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  19. May 29 and June 2, 1903, John Hay Papers, Library of Congress. [Return to text]
  20. Hellman, George S., Lanes of Memory (New York, 1927), pp. 50-52. [Return to text]
  21. Memorandum to Herbert Putnam, January 27, 1904, Manuscripts Division files. [Return to text]
  22. Memorandum to Herbert Putnam, April 27, 1904, Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  23. The Johnson Papers were evacuated from the Library of Congress late in 1941 to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Three years later, when the war danger was past, the papers were returned to Washington. A statement concerning the evacuation appears in Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1945, p. 59. [Return to text]
  24. George S. Hellman to Herbert Putnam, December 10, 1913, and January 28, 1914; descriptive list, January 22, 1914; Putnam to Hellman, December 17, 1913, and January 27, 1914; copies in Manuscript Division files. [Return to text]
  25. Anderson Galleries Sale Catalog No. 1449, Association Books and Manuscripts from the Collection formed by George S. Hellman, A.M. (New York, 1919), pp. 48-51. [Return to text]
  26. The Hellman Papers in the New York Public Library contain the galleys of an unpublished article describing Johnson manuscripts. Photostats of the galleys are now in the Library of Congress. [Return to text]
  27. Connally, op. cit., pp. 120-138. [Return to text]