Mansion where Old Hickory retired from battle

Andrew Jackson thought of it as a haven; indeed, he named it "The Hermitage." It was the place he went to when he wanted to get away from the rigors of war and the presidency.

Today it draws crowds -- tourists to the Nashville area can flesh out their knowledge of Old Hickory and his times with a visit to the pillared antebellum mansion in the rolling hills just 12 miles east of here.

Jackson grew up in South Carolina, which was frontier in the 1760s. He fought in the Revolutionary War at age 13, when the British troops invaded the Southern colonies.

Years later, heading toward another battle with the British, this one in New Orleans in the War of 1812, he earned his nickname. The story is that Jackson, then a major general in the Tennessee militia, was ordered to reinforce American troops in the Louisiana city. But when he and his men got as far as Natchez, Miss., Secretary of War John Armstrong changed his mind. He told Jackson to demobilize his troops on the spot.

Jackson was noted for a hair-trigger temper (it led him into several duels during his lifetime); it surfaced here. Because the federal government had not provided pay, food, or transportation for his men, he refused the demobilization order. Instead he led his men through 500 miles of wilderness back to Tennessee.

"He's tough," one soldier said of the general, describing the maneuver.

"Tough as hickory," was the reply.

Jackson was to prove the aptness of the appellation in subsequent battles with the Creek and Seminole Indians in what is now Alabama and Florida and, indeed, when he finally did meet the British at New Orleans in 1815. His force was outnumbered by more than 3,000 men. Still, when the fighting was over the British had lost 300 men killed, 1,250 wounded, and 500 captured. American losses totaled only 14 men killed, 39 wounded, and 18 captured.

Jackson was a lawyer and land dealer; in 1976 and 97 he served in the US House of Representatives and the Senate. He served in the Senate again in 1823, and in 1828 he was elected President.

He was actually the first American President to be born in a log cabin. The Hermitage -- which he built in 1819 and rebuilt around the original walls and foundation in 1836 after it had been badly damaged by fire -- shows how greatly the frontier changed during his lifetime.

The entrance hall features scenic wallpaper imported from Paris, a horse- hair sofa, and a large portrait of the President. The dining room is furnished with a walnut banquet-size table and whale-oil lamps.

There are two parlors; the ladies retired to one after dinner, the gentlemen to the other.

Probably the most interesting room on the tour, though, is Jackson's bedroom. There, you'll find the hatbox in which the general kept his military dress hat and an age-faded 15-star flag, which was flown from 1794 to 1818. To avoid drafts, the bed is so high that a couple of steps have to be climbed to reach it.

There is a veranda off the second floor of the house. From it, notice that the drive in from Rachel's Lane is shaped like a giant guitar, a tribute to an artistic houseguest the President admired.

Rachel was the name of Jackson's wife. She designed the garden, considered an outstanding example of early American landscape art. There are 50 varieties of plants, along with a profusion of tulip, hickory, and magnolia trees.

The grounds did not come through history intact. "During the War of the Rebellion [Civil War]," a gardener told a group of us who had interrupted his labors one sundappled spring afternoon, "Union forces occupied the mansion. The Yankee general stabled his horses in the garden . . . ."

He added that the plantings have been researched carefully from old letters, so that they look much as they did during Jackson's later life.

Both the President and Rachel are buried in a hickory-shaded, domed tomb on the grounds. Nearby are the original farm buildings, two log cabins purchased by Jackson with the land in 1804.

The carriage used by Old Hickory in the latter years of his presidency and a museum displaying personal items and gifts from around the world belonging to him and to Rachel round out the displays.

The Hermitage is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 1 to Labor Day. The rest of the year, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed Christmas Day.

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