Original publish date: June 11, 2020
Sometimes, I need to dig up a historical story for no other reason than I need a smile. And nothing makes me smile more than sharing a story with an Indiana connection. A story that many of you have never heard before. A story that might just make you smile. This is the story of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and a White House wedding. The only wedding to take place during Lincoln’s time in the White House.
In March of 1862, a 19-year-old Mount Sidney, Virginia woman named Elizabeth Amanda Sheets wanted to marry a 28-year-old farmhand living in the same town named James Chandler, a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Problem was, Elizabeth’s parents disapproved of the engagement, let alone a wedding, to the much older man, so the couple decided to elope. After several months of a secret courtship, the young couple obtained a marriage license and boarded a stagecoach bound for Harper’s Ferry to get hitched.
125 miles later, as they approached the outskirts the town, they were turned away because of the build-up of Federal forces there readying themselves for the soon-to-begin military campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. With no other options, they traveled on by stage, 63 miles away to Washington, D.C., a city neither was familiar with.
And so it was that this couple from the Rebel state of Virginia found themselves in the Union Capitol of Washington at the height of the Civil War. Luckily for them, during the war between the states, D.C. was the equivalent of Las Vegas. The stagecoach driver informed the couple that they could be married in any public building there. What’s more, the driver suggested they go and knock on the door of the White House and ask “Honest Abe” to marry them.
It sounded like a good idea to the starstruck couple, so they traveled hand-in-hand to the Executive Mansion to be joined in holy matrimony in the grandest of styles. While walking towards the White House, they asked a man who was coming towards them if it was true that they could get married there. The stranger replied that he did not know, pointed towards the front door and told them to knock and ask for themselves.
Tradition states that the door was answered by President Lincoln’s legendary doorman, Jeremiah Smith, a subject of past columns. Further tradition states that after President Lincoln heard of a young couple seeking some place to be married, he took them to the East Room and summoned a Baptist minister. The White House Historical Association reports that “a group of women then entered the room, along with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, to serve as witnesses for the ceremony. After the minister announced their marital status, the president and first lady shook their hands, served an elegant dinner, and invited the newlyweds to spend the night.”
Thus, again according to the White House Historical Association, “Abraham Lincoln was credited with seeing to the marriage in the White House of a couple he did not know.” The incident first surfaced in the September 27, 1901 Indianapolis News in a story headlined “Married in a Parlor of the White House” less than two weeks after the assassination of President William McKinley. Then, as now, I’m guessing the world was in need of a little good news.
The 57-year-old widow, now known as Elizabeth Chandler, was living a quiet life in Anderson, Indiana; her husband James Henry Chandler having died six years earlier on Sept. 19, 1895, at the age of 61. The article recorded widow Chandler’s remarks about her White House wedding 44 years earlier made during a family dinner held in her honor at Rochester, Indiana. According to Mrs. Chandler, President Lincoln “shared in the happiness of the couple by suddenly finding it possible to have a wedding in the White House.”
The article understates the obvious by noting, “inasmuch as she is probably the only woman living in Indiana who has the distinction of having been a White House bride… Mrs. Chandler does not regard the circumstances of the wedding as being anything out of the ordinary so far as she is concerned.” The story broke “like a romantic picture out of the past” in newspapers all over the state and was soon picked up nationally. Over the next three decades, widow Chandler’s story proved irresistible whenever there was a wedding in the White House or an important Lincoln anniversary. On February 17, 1906 (a few days after Abraham Lincoln’s 97th birthday) the Indianapolis News ran the story on the day President Teddy Roosevelt’s outspoken daughter Alice married Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth at the White House. The story reemerged in 1909, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and again in November 1913 as President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Jessie prepared to marry Francis Sayre.
While it is difficult to prove whether the wedding actually took place, each succeeding story contained more details about the event. Elizabeth later recalled how President Abraham Lincoln led the couple up the stairs of the White House and into a big room all draped with flags. Elizabeth said she recognized the president because she had seen his picture. The young bride remembered that Lincoln summoned a messenger and, upon his arrival, the messenger and the groom left the room while Elizabeth remained with the president. Lincoln spoke to her about the war and asked whether she would be willing for her husband to fight for his country. When Lincoln noted that talk of war upset her, he changed the subject and began telling the blushing bride jokes and tall tales.
After the minister’s arrived, Lincoln rang a bell and then led the wedding party into a big room, Elizabeth recalled. The president stood alongside the minister and not only did he give the bride away but also acted as the groom’s best man. Elizabeth recalled how he smiled throughout the ceremony. She stated that a Cabinet member stood up with them, but couldn’t recall his name or that of the minister. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were the first to shake the newlyweds’ hands. Elizabeth’s most vivid recollection of the nuptials was how scared she was. The president chatted with them awhile and then returned to his office with the unnamed Cabinet member. Elizabeth had worn a plain white cashmere dress for the ceremony. Afterwards, the couple was taken to separate rooms in the White House to change clothes, where Elizabeth changed into a navy blue cashmere dress.
According to the White House Historical Association, “a social function was being held at the White House that evening and when those present learned there were newlyweds in the house, they came ringing bells and compelled the couple to come and and join the party. The couple were greeted with handshakes and questions about where they were from and where they were going.” Elizabeth recalled that all of the guests were Northerners, and being a Virginian, she didn’t how nice Northerners were until that night. The newlywed described how she and her new husband hardly got a chance to speak during the evening because of the constant requests for her to dance the Virginia Reel.
After the party, the newlyweds were invited to a fine dinner in a room with the longest table she had ever seen. Elizabeth recalled that a hot punch was served and how everybody would stand up and drink while someone said something. The dinner lasted until the early hours of the morning. Because of the late hour and inclement weather, Elizabeth recalled that President and Mrs. Lincoln would not allow the couple to leave and insisted they stay the night. The next day, armed with a pass signed by the President himself, Mr. and Mrs. Chandler went up the Potomac River to Harper’s Ferry. From there they returned to Mount Sidney to deliver the news to the parents that they’d just got “married in the White House.”
After their fairy tale wedding in the White House, James and Elizabeth Chandler moved to a farmhouse in Augusta County, Virginia, near Mount Sidney. The couple’s home was in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley and in the path of Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. In a move that would have certainly dismayed their wedding host, 28-year-old James Henry Chandler joined the Rebel Army, enlisting as a private in the 52nd Virginia Infantry Regiment at nearby Mount Meridian on June 15, 1862. The regiment, organized the previous August, was made up of mostly Augusta County men. Perhaps because James was never paid his promised enlistment bounty, he remained in the Confederate service for only a month before going AWOL on July 17, 1862.
Chandler returned to the regiment May 23, 1863, where he remained until Oct. 14, 1863, when he was captured at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia. Many years later, Elizabeth said her husband surrendered and asked permission to fight in Lincoln’s army. POW James Chandler was sent north to Washington and after some explanation and investigation, permission was granted. James took the oath of allegiance to the United States government on Dec. 13, 1863. Sixteen days later on Dec. 29, he enrolled as a private in Co. A, 1st New Jersey Cavalry. The following day he was mustered into Federal service under the name James Grimes.
As a Federal soldier, James was promoted to the rank of corporal Nov. 1, 1864, and then sergeant June 1, 1865. At war’s end, Chandler was mustered out of service on July 24, 1865, but apparently did not return home for quite some time afterwards. Mrs. Chandler stated that, from the time he left the Confederate army in October 1863, she did not hear from him for five years and thought him among the dead. When he finally returned, he found his Virginia home intact and his wife working for a neighbor, awaiting his return. Likely because of the stigma associated with switching sides during the rebellion, the couple relocated to Henry County, Indiana. In 1868, the first of their five children was born. Census data reveals that the Chandlers were living in Jefferson Township in 1870 but by 1880 had moved to Fall Creek Township where they established a farm.
After James Henry’s death in 1895, Elizabeth moved to a little unpainted house at 2819 E. Lynn St. in Anderson (the home still stands). She was living there when her White House wedding and Lincoln connection was revealed in 1901 and remained in the home until her death in the home at the age of 92 on Sept. 2, 1934. Elizabeth and James Chandler are buried on the east side of Miller Cemetery in Middletown, Indiana. It should be noted that the only couple ever married in Lincoln’s White House are surrounded by the graves of 15 former Confederate soldiers, the largest gathering of former Rebel soldiers in any cemetery in Indiana.
Officially, there have been either 17 or 19 weddings conducted in the White House depending upon which source you use. These include nine presidential children and one president, Grover Cleveland. Because the Chandlers were not related to any of the official families and it was hastily arranged, the Chandler wedding does not register among the official records. However, the wedding date is contained in James Henry Chandler’s papers issued by the Pension Department. Following her husband’s death, Elizabeth was granted a Federal pension as a soldier’s widow by virtue of James’ service in the Civil War. However, those records do not note Chandler’s singular status as the only soldier who fought for both sides who could claim President Abraham Lincoln as his best man.