The wives of the 12th, 16th and 17th presidents became wrapped in events that took America through a brutal Civil War and then an uneasy peace to preserve the Union.
Zachary Taylor was a veteran of the Mexican War and the western frontier, and he bore the scars of rough military life for the remainder of his years. He and his wife, Margaret, became the in-laws, albeit very briefly, for the future president of the Confederate States of America.
Mary Lincoln is one of the most well-known First Ladies. She suffered from a variety of maladies and became depressed over the death of a son while her husband managed to keep the Union intact.
Eliza Johnson succeeded Mary as First Lady when Vice President Andrew Johnson became president upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Margaret Smith Taylor
The daughter of a Calvert County, Maryland, planter, Margaret Smith was 22 years old when she married Zachary Taylor. A lieutenant in the regular army, he and Margaret moved about the country to various army posts in the line of duty.
They had six children, and each one was sent back home to the care of relatives while their mother remained by the side of her solider-husband. One daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, eloped with a young soldier, Jefferson Davis, under her father’s command during 1835. Her father did not approve of the match. The marriage ended tragically three months later when the couple contracted malaria and Sarah died. Davis went on to a distinguished career in Washington before becoming the only president of the Confederacy.
Similar to her rough-and-ready husband, Margaret disliked the formalities of her station in the White House. She clung to her corncob pipe during the 16 months she presided there and survived her husband by only two years.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary was the descendant of pioneer settlers in Lexington, Kentucky. During her early 20s, she traveled to Springfield, Illinois, where she received attention from two young men. One was polished and graceful (Stephen A. Douglas) while the other was awkward (Abraham Lincoln).
Mary chose Lincoln as her beau. The engagement was canceled and then they came together about a year later. While some prominent members of her family fought for the Confederacy, Mary stood by her husband and supported his efforts to preserve the Union.
The couple was an odd fit in many ways, with Lincoln once referring to their opposite appearances as the “tall and short” of it. Lincoln’s failure to observe the proprieties of life frequently made her angry but she had a prophetic faith in his greatness.
Eliza McCardle Johnson
When Andrew Johnson traveled to the mountain hamlet of Greeneville, Tennessee, at the age of 18 to open a tailor shop, he caught the eye of a young girl of 17. Eliza McCardle told her friends: “Here comes my beau!”
Less than a year later, they were married. Eliza taught Andrew to read and write, and she inspired him to a career that led him from the tailor shop to the White House.
During the turbulent years of reconstruction when the Senate sought his impeachment from the office of president, Eliza remained his strongest defense while her health became frail. She remained at his side when he returned to Washington as a U.S. Senator several years later but survived him by only one year.