Reaching Your Highest Achievement and Standing There All Alone (Part 2)

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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016

Campaign Poster - 1880
(Public Domain)

November 2, 1880
Today is the day. The men have spoken. Two Union Generals face off on this election day - the prize - President of the United States; their choices - James Abram Garfield as the Republican; Winfield Scott Hancock as the Democrat. Although there are several others on the ballot, all eyes are on Garfield/Hancock. William Hayden English was nominated for Vice-President on the Democrat ticket, Charles Alan Arthur is Garfield’s running mate.

For this son of a Baptist preacher; Chester Arthur will be, at the end of this day, the United States Vice-President elect. With the winning of this election, Arthur at 51 years of age has reached a remarkable honor of service to his country, however, he is a man in deep grief and sadness. 10 months ago he was saying his final farewell to his 42-year old wife. On January 12, 1880 she passed away from pneumonia leaving him to raise their children. She will not be with him as he is sworn in as Vice-President. No one would believe that within months of assuming the office of President, James Garfield will be shot and Charles Arthur will have the honor to occupy the Oval Office. As Chester Arthur will sadly say - - -

“Honors to me now are not what they once were.” {1}


Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon Arthur

(Public Domain)

August 30, 1837 - Culpepper Court House, Virginia

At the home of William Lewis and Elizabeth (Hansboroug) Herndon a baby girl is welcomed. Commander Herndon is a well-known Naval officer and a distinguished member of the community, but 4 months prior to the birth of his only child he was assigned to sea duty and is not home to welcome her. This would be a common occurrence for Commander Herndon, and this little girl will grow up to have an extremely close and loving relationship with her mother Elizabeth, but not so much with her absent father. The little baby named Ellen Lewis carries English, Dutch and French heritage, with early relatives settling in the Virginia colonies in 1639.

There is a dearth of information on Nell’s earliest years. Her parents and their position in Virginia society suggests that she grew up in an environment as most Southern young ladies at the time. The National First Lady’s Library writes that her education probably included - - -

“the domestic arts, lavish, frequent and generous entertaining, directing the education, religious training and appearance of her children, and commitment to her church parish.” {2}

When Ellen was 5 years old her father was appointed to the U.S. Navy Department’s Depot of Instruments and Charts (located today at the U.S. Naval Observatory). He reported to Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury (his cousin and brother-in-law married to Herndon’s sister Ann). Ellen was close to Lieutenant Maury and his family especially her cousins she thought of as siblings.

Ellen learned to sing from her mother who was known to have a beautiful singing voice. As a young girl living in Washington, D.C., she was an active member of the youth choir of St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, directly across from the White House.


St. John’s Episcopal Church circa 1918
(Public Domain)
As Ellen grew into a teenager (with a father holding his military status and her mother’s great wealth) she was part of the “elite class” exposed to all the best that Washington society had to offer. Powerful political figures, society people and military officers were often invited and entertained in the Herndon home. It was a wonderful time for Ellen to be in Washington, however changed in 1857 when her father took command of a merchant steamship owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. The first change was a move to a brownstone in New York City and integrating into the city’s society. Her charmed life was about to change again.

September 12, 1857 - off the Coast of the Carolinas
On September 3rd, 1857, William Lewis Herndon commanding the SS Central America left the Panama port city of Colón. She carried nearly 10 tons of gold prospected during the California Gold Rush as well as 477 passengers and 101 crew. They stopped briefly in Havana before heading north. On September 9th, they were off the Carolina coast when they met a Category 2 Hurricane. By September 11th the 105 mph wind speed was tearing and destroying the ship. Her sails were torn, she was taking on water, leaks were popping up, they were in dire straights. A distress flag was hoisted as all on board formed bucket brigades to bail out the water, but it was a useless task. The Central America was trapped in the buffeting winds and rough seas and could not escape the assault. September 12th brought some hope as 2 ships were spotted on the horizon, 153 women and children were successfully placed in life boats and saved, however, at 8:00 p.m. the Central America sank. Miraculously of the 153 in lifeboats, 50 people were picked up out of the water, apparently falling off the lifeboat, and another 3 were found in a life boat 1 week later, but for 425 souls the SS Central America would be their tomb. William Herndon would be one of them.


The Sinking of the Central America
National Maritime Museum, London
J. Childs (engraver & publisher)

Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Commander Herndon was considered a “hero” for his ability to save the women and children during extreme difficult conditions. There were monuments built in his honor, and awards presented to his wife and daughter. Due to his career and absence from a normal home life, the Herndon ladies grew closer during this time of grief and after a respectable period of mourning, they gradually returned to attending society events. They became great friends with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, the owner of the doomed SS Central America, and consequently had traveled in many of the same circles as the New York society were part of. In the summer months the ladies traveled to such “posh” resorts as Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga Springs, New York. It was during this time that Ellen’s life would take another turn.

1857 - When Ellen Met Chester

In the summer months before her father died, Ellen was vacationing with her mother in Saratoga Springs when her cousin, Dabney Herndon, introduced his friend Chester Arthur to Miss Ellen. Chester Arthur would take notice of the young lady when he heard her beautiful singing.

The following summer, again at Saratoga Springs on the porch of the United States Hotel, he proposed to Ellen or “Nell” as he would forever call her. She immediately said “Yes”. He would remember that time and describe - - -

“Nell was the soft, moonlight nights of June, a year ago . . . happy, happy days at Saratoga . . . the golden fleeting hours at Lake George.” {2}

On October 25, 1859, 30 year old Arthur married 22 year old Nell in New York City. The couple moved into their home on Lexington Avenue in the city and were known as a very social couple. Ellen continued singing with various groups around the city and their marriage was strong and loving but . . .

The Troubled War Years
In 1861, Chester Arthur was commissioned as a brigadier general and assigned to the New York State militia’s quartermaster department. He excelled at this political appointment, that by March, 1862 he was promoted to inspector general of the state militia, and then to quartermaster general in July, 1862. He had opportunities to serve at the front, but was urged by the Republican Governor Edwin Morgan to stay where he was. The closest he ever got was on an inspection tour to Fredericksburg, Virginia in May, 1862. His military career ended when a Democratic Governor Horatio Seymour was elected and he never served again.

Meanwhile, Nell was from an influential and old Virginia family and she was not a pro-Union lady. She secretly held Confederate sympathies. Arthur even referred to Nell as his “little Rebel wife”. When Ellen’s uncle General Dabney Herndon Maury, a Surgeon in the Confederate Army, was captured and held in a union prison, Chester Arthur used his influence to arrange for his release. After the war, Arthur had wisely invested on behalf of his mother-in-law and she was able to give money to her brother-in-law Dabney so he could repair his Fredericksburg home and help re-establish his medical practice.

To add to the stress during the war, Nell gave birth in 1860 to William Lewis Arthur. Unfortunately at 2 1/2 years of age he died of convulsions. His parents were totally devastated. Another son was born in 1864 and named Chester Alan Arthur II, he was joined by a sister in 1871, Ellen Hansbrough Herndon Arthur.

The Final Years


Library of Congress
(Public Domain)

After the war Nell and Chester resided in New York. Nell was friends with the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Roosevelts and they entertained in high society style while Chester was building his political career. The stage was set for Chester Arthur to rise in political power.

The rumor mill was busy in January of 1880. There was widespread gossip that the Arthur marriage was in serious trouble. The talk was that Nell was tiring of her husband’s political career and the time he was spending away from home. Their children were growing up without their father. While waiting for her carriage in the New York bitter cold, Nell caught a cold. By the time Arthur returned home from Albany, she had developed pneumonia and was unconscious. Ellen died three days after his arrival, January 12th. She was 42 years old. Chester A. Arthur was elected as Vice-President on November 2, 1880.

After the death of James Garfield, Chester Arthur became the 21st president. He entered the White House with his 2 children 16 and 9 years old. His sister stepped up to serve as “official hostess” and help in raising the children.

At one point, when he attained the Presidency, a reporter remembering the gossip around the possible problems in his marriage, asked the President if he and Nell had ever talked about separating during the last year of her life. The president replied - - -

"I may be President of the United States, but my personal life is my own da**ed business.” {3}

In Memory of Nell

President Chester A. Arthur spent approximately 1,250 days as the President. His time in the Oval Office was a time of grieving. Before his term was over he was suffering from ill health and was unable to run for re-election. He died on November 18, 1886 at age 57. Before he died he ordered all his personal papers and letters burned.

President Chester Arthur commissioned a stained glass window to be placed at St. John’s Episcopal Church. He requested its’ placement at the south transept of the church so that he could see it at night from the White House. Sadly, it was the closest Nell ever got to the White House.

19 Arthur.jpg

The window at St. John’s Church which President Arthur donated in memory of his wife
and which he could see from his bedroom across the street in the White House.
St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.

(Photo National First Lady’s Library) {2}

* * * * * * *

The election of 1880 would prove to be a time of sorrow for the ultimate victors. For the Garfield’s, it was Mrs. Garfield sitting by her husband’s bedside as he slipped away from an assassin’s bullet. For President Arthur it was attaining the highest office in the land and not having the one person he wanted sharing it with him. Two couples that reached the highest achievement this country could give, yet from each couple, only one stands alone in sorrow.

* * * * * * *

2. The National First Lady’s Library

Eleanor Rose

Forum Host
Nov 26, 2016
central NC
What tragic stories @DBF ! I was especially touched by the story of Nell's death and the placement of the stained glass window at the south transept of the church so that President Arthur could see it at night from the White House. I do wonder if he struggled with some feelings of guilt after his wife's death, but as he so aptly said his personal life was his own [email protected] business.
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