Ribbons worn by grieving Americans in 1865.
Ribbons worn by grieving Americans in 1865.

Lincoln Museum on Rebel Ground

Field review by the editors.

Harrogate, Tennessee

If you'd lived in Claiborne County, Tennessee, during the early 1860s, your President would've been Confederate rebel Jefferson Davis, not Abraham Lincoln. Times have changed, but it's still a surprise to find the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum here, an oasis of Abe on the backroads of Dixie.

Tiny Lincoln comforts a weeping Civil War mom.
Tiny Lincoln comforts a weeping Civil War mom.

The museum's collection of Lincolnabilia, among the largest in the world, began in 1897, when some Civil War vets founded Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. "We have no record that Lincoln was ever in Tennessee at all," said museum director Michael Lynch. "But because the school was named for Lincoln, people donated Lincoln relics." These treasures were crammed into a room on campus until the late 1970s, when the collection was given its own museum building, bankrolled by Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Lincoln slept here. Did not die here.
Lincoln slept here. Did not die here.

"This was one of the Colonel's last projects in life," said Tom Mackie, a previous director of the museum. "You'd be surprised how many folks are Lincoln fans." Colonel Sanders himself donated the 15-foot-tall plaster model of "Lincoln, the Hoosier Youth" that dominates the museum's atrium. (The finished statue stands in front of the Indiana insurance company that paid for it). Also on display is the chrome-plated shovel used by the Colonel to dig the first spadeful of dirt for the building's foundation.

The museum, like many others, was shuttered during the Covid pandemic, but the university used that downtime to completely renovate the building and upgrade the exhibits, completing the work in October 2022. Visitors can now see the razor Lincoln used when he was clean-shaven; a lock of his hair taken from his corpse; and a formal-looking chair, built by a Lincoln admirer out of the dining room floorboards from Lincoln's pre-White-House home. Another exhibit allows visitors to hear a reading of Warren Harding's speech from the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication, a unique convergence of one of America's worst and best Presidents.

Some of the museum's artifacts took wayward paths to get here. A fancy cupboard made by Lincoln's carpenter dad was saved when it supposedly fell off the back of the Lincoln family wagon. The bed in which Lincoln spent his 52nd birthday -- a fact noted in an accompanying plaque -- spent many years in the President's House at the University. "If you were a big donor, you got to sleep in the bed," said Tom. Some visitors, said Michael, see the bed and think that Lincoln died in it, but that was a different bed, displayed in an Illinois museum.

Abe studies a war map with plaster Grant and Stanton.
Abe studies a war map with plaster Grant and Stanton.

The Tennessee museum does have a scrap of wallpaper from the room where Lincoln died, as well as Lincoln's (alleged) walking stick of death, found at his Ford's Theatre murder scene by an actor, who sold it for $40 in groceries. The grocer's son later donated it to the University (This story reminded us of another unique Lincoln artifact supposedly discovered in Ford's Theatre after the assassination).

Despite these treasures, the museum's most visible strength -- at least for casual visitors -- is its collection of Lincoln tribute art, ranging from tourist souvenirs to serious bronze sculptures to pop culture mementoes, including a wax dummy Lincoln from a dime museum and a wooden Lincoln from a Coney Island carousel. "In particularly poor taste is the Lincoln cow," said Michael, calling our attention to a miniature bearded bovine wearing a stovepipe hat. It's displayed next to a Lincoln-head Chia Pet, a Lincoln Memorial whiskey bottle, and a box of Abraham Lincoln band-aids ("I will heal your wound as I healed a nation"). "It's almost as if Lincoln the human being is incidental," said Michael.

Time paradox: The President meets the Colonel.
Time paradox: The President meets the Colonel.

The museum showcases a number of dioramas salvaged from Chicago's defunct Lincoln Memorial Hall. Lincoln can be seen, in forced perspective miniature, pondering enslaved people on the deck of a riverboat, greeted by a grateful black man in Richmond, and pardoning the son of a weeping Civil War mom. Original, framed paintings by Louis Bonhajo, later mass-produced as posters and hung in schools, show youthful Lincoln reading in front of a fire, splitting fence rails, and courting Ann Rutledge, his rumored true love, who looks as perfect as a 1930s Hollywood star.

Among the museum's 2022 upgrades is a small "Lincoln at the Movies" gallery, which gives visitors a brief glimpse of the hundreds of films featuring the Great Emancipator, and includes props from one of our favorites, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). According to Tom, The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977) is the worst Lincoln movie ever made.

Several walls of the museum are hung with the artwork of the late Harry Wood, an Arizona professor so obsessed with Lincoln that he painted him hundreds of times over a span of four decades. "He had a theory that you could twist Lincoln's face into any form you wanted and it would still be recognizable," said Michael. "Because Lincoln's face was so distinctive." Abe is portrayed on various canvasses as Jesus, a sad clown, Moses, Columbus, an Easter Island head, Uncle Sam, Superman, and a "freakout" Abe that we imagine was painted when Harry's mind was blown in the late 1960s.

Lincoln bear, cow, Chia Pet, band-aids, bobblehead, bell, and Lincoln Memorial whiskey bottle.
Lincoln bear, cow, Chia Pet, band-aids, bobblehead, bell, and Lincoln Memorial whiskey bottle.

Frontier Lincoln, cartoon Lincoln, casual Lincoln, reading Lincoln, Roman Lincoln, wartime Lincoln, band-aid Lincoln. "There's so much Lincoln we can't display it all," said Michael. He graciously agreed to consider our suggested exhibit on Loopy Lincoln Landmarks, but we know that it's an unlikely dream. What would be put in storage to make room for it? The souvenir Lincoln funeral glassware? The slab of a tree planted by the Rail Splitter himself? The time-paradox portrait of President Lincoln meeting Colonel Sanders???

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Lincoln Museum on Rebel Ground

Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

Address:
120 Mars-DeBusk Pkwy, Harrogate, TN
Directions:
Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. On the campus of Lincoln Memorial University. On the west side of US-25E one mile south of its intersection with US-58 or one mile north of its intersection with TN-63. Look for the brown museum sign.
Hours:
M-F 10-5, Sa 12-5, Su 1-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
423-869-6235
Admission:
Adults $6.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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