“I knew he’d be acquitted; I knew it,” declared Eliza McCardle Johnson, when she was told how the Senate had voted in her husband’s impeachment trial. Her faith in him had never wavered during those difficult days in 1868.
That faith began to develop many years before in east Tennessee, when Andrew Johnson first came to Greeneville, across the mountains from North Carolina, and established a tailor shop. Eliza was almost 16 then and Andrew only 17.
Eliza was born on October 4, 1810 to Sarah Phillips and John McCardle, a shoemaker. Fortunately, she had received a good basic education that she was delighted to share with her new husband. He already knew his letters and could read a bit, so she taught him writing and arithmetic. With their limited means, her skill at keeping a house, managing their enslaved domestic workers, and bringing up a family—five children, in all—had much to do with Johnson’s success.
He rose rapidly, serving in the state and national legislatures and as governor. Like him, when the Civil War came, people of east Tennessee remained loyal to the Union; Lincoln sent him to Nashville as military governor in 1862. Rebel forces caught Eliza at home with part of the family. Only after months of uncertainty did they rejoin Andrew Johnson in Nashville. By 1865 a soldier son and son-in-law had died, and Eliza suffered from tuberculosis.
Quite aside from the tragedy of Lincoln’s death, she found little pleasure in her husband’s position as president. At the White House, she settled into a Second Floor room that became the center of activities for a large family: her two sons, her widowed daughter Mary Stover and her children; her older daughter Martha with her husband, Senator David T. Patterson, and their children. As a schoolgirl Martha had often been the Polks’ guest at the mansion; now she took up its social duties. She was a competent, unpretentious, and gracious hostess even during her husband's impeachment.
At the end of Johnson’s term, Eliza returned with relief to her home in Tennessee, restored from wartime vandalism. She lived to see the legislature of her state vindicate her husband’s career by electing him to the Senate in 1875, and survived him by nearly six months, dying at the Pattersons’ home on January 15, 1876.
Click here to learn more about the formerly enslaved households of the Johnson family.
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