As leading ladies not just of the South but of the nation, these President’s wives had a monumental impact on the course of American history, although most often made far out of the public eye and without the fanfare—or criticism, as the case may be—that belonged to their husbands. Here are snapshots of five more of these notable women from the South.
- Eliza McCardle Johnson The humble daughter of a shoemaker, Eliza McCardle Johnson encouraged her husband’s rising political career but preferred to stay out of Washington herself for the comforts of their Tennessee homeFrom her humble beginnings as the daughter of a shoemaker and innkeeper, it’s likely this tailor’s wife didn’t see herself entertaining in the White House. But it was the encouragement she unselfishly gave her husband that ultimately pushed him forward in life and politics.
Eliza McCardle was born on October 4, 1810, in Greeneville, Tennessee. An only child, she was educated by her parents at home before enrolling at Greeneville’s Rhea Academy. It was in her hometown that Eliza first saw a young tailor that immediately caught her eye. Within a year, seventeen-year-old Eliza married the tailor, eighteen-year-old Andrew Johnson, on May 17, 1827. The newlyweds opened a tailor shop and started their family. Perhaps she saw something in him that he couldn’t quite see in himself, but Eliza encouraged her husband to continue his education and work on his oratorical skills—skills that would pay off for the career of the young tailor.
As her husband’s career thrived, Eliza preferred to stay out of the spotlight of Washington and instead chose to stay in Tennessee raising their five children. It wasn’t until 1860, while her husband was serving in the U.S. Senate, that Eliza first accompanied her husband in Washington. She wasn’t fond of the attention given her when her husband was elected Vice President during Abraham Lincoln’s second Presidential term, but his work didn’t yet require her presence at that time. A short time later, however, it would.
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot while at the Ford Theatre with his wife. He died the following day, and Eliza’s humble life out of the public eye came to an end. Now a First Lady, she moved her family to Washington to be as encouraging to her husband as ever. She preferred, however, to support her husband from the second floor of the White House, and the couple’s daughter, Martha Patterson, assumed the social responsibilities of First Lady.
Eliza supported her husband through the remainder of his term, one marked with opposition from all sides and an impeachment trial. Upon his acquittal by a single vote, she declared, “I knew he’d be acquitted. I knew it.” The couple returned to Tennessee at the end of Johnson’s term, although he was elected once again to the Senate in 1875. That same year, he died of a stroke while visiting his daughter, Martha. Eliza, who was sick with another round of tuberculosis, was unable to attend her husband’s funeral. She died nearly six months later.
- Julia Dent Grant Julia Dent Grant’s friendly demeanor quickly won over the shy West Point grad who would become a war hero and PresidentWith a love story that would survive long past their own lives, this First Lady and her devoted husband won the hearts of voters and social elites in Washington.Julia Dent was born January 26, 1826, on the family’s White Haven Plantation outside St. Louis, Missouri. She lived a typical life for a girl of her social class, attending boarding school in St. Louis and learning social graces. But upon meeting one of her brother’s friends, a young West Point graduate named Ulysses S. Grant, her life would be anything but typical.
He was shy, and she was openly friendly, which put him quickly at ease. After a short courtship, the two were engaged. The engagement lasted nearly four years, as Grant was called off to fight in the Mexican War. But he frequently wrote his beloved, reminding her that he loved her and detailing his journey. On August 22, 1848, the couple were finally married, and Grant took his bride on her first trip away from home – a honeymoon in Louisville, Kentucky. After the honeymoon, Julia settled right into life as an army wife, moving from base to base and giving birth to their first son. Wherever Grant went, Julia was happy to be near him.
After a two-year separation caused by his being sent to the Pacific Coast, Grant resigned from the military. But life outside the military did not carry with it the same success, and Eliza moved her family (now with four children) to Illinois where Grant took a job in his father’s leather store. But the country was in a state of turmoil, and war was looming in the Grants’ life once again. But this time, Eliza would not leave her husband’s side. As the Civil War broke out, Julia joined him whenever she could on his rise to fame as a heroic general.
When her husband was elected as President in 1869, Eliza settled comfortably in a role well suited for her as First Lady. She was a gracious hostess and had many friends among her husband’s many Washington admirers. When his second term ended, the couple took a trip around the world where they were warmly greeted by many dignitaries.
But life was not simple after they had served their country. Losing everything to a business failure, Grant wrote his memoirs while dying from throat cancer so that his beloved wife would be taken care of upon his death. After his passing in 1885, Eliza was able to live a comfortable life surrounded by their children and grandchildren. She died in the city she most enjoyed with her husband, Washington D.C., in 1902. Her own memoirs were not published until 1975.
- Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur died from pneumonia in January 1880, before having the opportunity to see her husband win the Vice Presidency and eventually take office as PresidentWhile this First Lady never served in the role, the honoring title was reserved for her—a title her grieving husband would not allow another woman to take.
Ellen Lewis Herndon was the daughter of Elizabeth and William Lewis Herndon, an Amazon explorer and respected naval officer. She was born to a life of ease on August 30, 1837, in Culpepper, Virginia. A few short years later, Herndon moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he helped to establish the Naval Observatory. A lovely girl with a lovely voice, she sang in the choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church until her father was relocated to New York. It was there she met Chester “Chet” Arthur, a young lawyer with whom she quickly fell in love. The two were married in October 1859.
Ellen’s father died during her engagement, and she named her first son after him. The couple was grief-stricken when their young son died at only two. As Arthur’s career advanced, the couple had two more children and enjoyed a prosperous life in the city.
In January 1880, Ellen waited in the cold weather for her carriage after a benefit concert. She developed a cold and it quickly turned into pneumonia. She died on January 12, leaving behind a bereaved and devoted husband. Later that year Arthur won the Vice Presidency under President James Garfield. The following year Garfield was assassinated, and Arthur became a President without a First Lady. While he passed some of the social duties to his sister, Mary McElroy, he wouldn’t allow anyone else to take the place of his wife. He hung her portrait in the White House and often laid flowers near it. President Arthur never remarried.
- Ellen Axson Wilson Ellen Axson Wilson met her husband in church – twiceLike a good Southern girl, this First Lady met her future husband in church, once as an infant and yet again many years later.Ellen Axson was born in Savannah, Georgia, on May 15, 1860. Her father was a Presbyterian minister, as were both of her grandfathers. It’s rumored that on the day of Ellen’s baptism she was held by the young son of the minister of Augusta’s First Presbyterian Church. The young boy was Woodrow Wilson, future president and husband to Ellen.
In 1871, Ellen enrolled at the Rome Female College where she studied art and foreign languages. An accomplished artist in her own right, Ellen and her aspirations were put on hold when her mother died after the birth of her youngest brother. The death of his wife was especially hard on Ellen’s father, and he suffered from extreme depression. An aunt took the baby, but Ellen was put in charge of her two younger brothers.
In 1883, Woodrow Wilson, now a lawyer in Atlanta, attended services at Rome’s First Presbyterian Church, where Ellen’s father was ministering. It was love at first sight when Wilson saw the young woman still in mourning clothes for her mother. He visited her family the following day and again two months later. Running into her again in Atlanta, Wilson proposed to the young woman who had so quickly captured his affections. But Ellen had her own aspirations and had no intentions of marrying Wilson before studying art in New York City. The couple was finally married on June 24, 1885.
Ellen put aside her art to raise a family, while moving with her husband wherever his career in higher education took them – Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey. In 1911, she became the First Lady of New Jersey, a position she did not relish but in which she served graciously. When her husband won the Presidential election in 1912, she moved her family into the White House the following year. She quickly took up a cause of improving housing in the “negro slums” of Washington, and she planned the famous rose garden of the White House.
Ellen passed away from Bright’s disease on August 6, 1914, while her husband was still in office. She is rumored to have told the doctor to tell Wilson she hoped he would remarry, and is said to have murmured on her deathbed, “Take care of my husband.”
- Edith Bolling Galt Wilson A year after his wife’s death, Wilson married Edith Bolling Galt, a widow with whom he found a kindred spirit and love once moreThe second wife of President Woodrow Wilson, this First Lady took the executive branch into her own hands after her husband suffered a massive stroke during his second term.
Born on October 15, 1872, in Wytheville, Virginia, Edith Bolling was among eleven children of Sallie White and Judge William Holcombe Bolling. By blood or marriage, her lineage included Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Letitia Tyler. Her family had lost their fortune, but she was able to receive some formal education while she studied music at Martha Washington College. Her wealth in life came from her first marriage to Norman Galt, who owned a Washington silver and jewelry store. It was a happy marriage, despite the couple’s inability to have children, until her husband’s unexpected death in 1908. Edith learned to be a shrewd businesswoman in her husband’s absence and amassed a decent wealth with help from a business manager.
Edith met a still grieving Woodrow Wilson in 1815 at a White House tea. Perhaps the two were kindred spirits in their own suffering, perhaps it was something else. A strong friendship turned quickly to love, and the two were married December 18, 1915, at Edith’s home in Washington, D.C. Although she was well suited to the social life of a First Lady, and her presence brought life back into the White House, Europe was at war and social graces would have to wait. When the United States officially entered the war in 1917, Edith focused her attention on her husband and supported him through the stress the Presidency brought.
In 1919, a stroke paralyzed the President’s left side. Protecting her husband and the office, she quietly oversaw the matters of the executive branch at her husband’s side, acting as the liaison between him and his cabinet. Despite her best efforts, word of his condition got out the following year. By 1921, at the end of his term, the Wilsons looked forward to a quiet retirement together. Wilson died February 3, 1924. Edith stayed in Washington, D.C., after her husband’s death until her own, on what would have been his 105th birthday on December 28, 1961.
CONTINUE TO “WIT, GRACE, AND CHARM: FIRST LADIES FROM THE SOUTH (PART FOUR)”
RETURN TO “WIT, GRACE, AND CHARM: FIRST LADIES FROM THE SOUTH (PART TWO)”
RETURN TO “WIT, GRACE, AND CHARM: FIRST LADIES FROM THE SOUTH (PART ONE)”