Born on October 4, 1810, in Leesburg, Tennessee, Eliza McCardle was raised in poverty. Her father, John McCardle, was a shoe cobbler and innkeeper. After he died in 1826, his widow, Sarah Phillips, earned money as a weaver, while Eliza contributed by making quilts and sandals. Despite her humble beginnings, Eliza received a decent education at the Rhea Academy in Greeneville, Tennessee, where she was exposed to a range of subjects that included grammar, arithmetic, history and philosophy.
According to local anecdotes, when 17-year-old Andrew Johnson arrived in Greenville in 1826 with his mother and stepfather, Eliza remarked, “There goes my beau!” Johnson, a budding tailor, was unable to find work in town, but the romantic sparks with his future wife were kindled before he briefly moved on to Rutledge. After he returned to Greenville in the spring of 1827, their relationship hit the fast track. They were married on May 17, 1827, in Warrenton by minister Mordecai Lincoln, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln’s father. At 16 years and about two weeks, Eliza married at the earliest age of all the first ladies.
Johnson came from a similarly impoverished background as Eliza, though he had even fewer educational opportunities. According to early accounts of their relationship, Eliza taught her husband how to read; that appears to be false, as evidence suggests that Johnson had already learned the basics as a child in North Carolina, but Eliza certainly helped him refine his reading, writing and oral communication skills. After their marriage, she pushed him to join the Greeneville College Debating Society, an experience that gave him the confidence to launch his political career in the early 1830s.
Elected a U.S. senator in 1857, Johnson remained loyal to the Union while his home state of Tennessee fell under control of the Confederacy. That presented a dangerous situation for Eliza and other Union supporters during the Civil War. In April 1862, she was given 36 hours to vacate her home in Greenville. After initially insisting her health was too frail, she left in September to live with a daughter. When the family attempted to travel by train, they were detained for two days in Murfreesboro, forcing Eliza to ask strangers for food and shelter, before they eventually found refuge in Nashville.
Slowed by the tuberculosis that would claim her life, Eliza passed on most of her public and domestic duties as first lady to her oldest daughter, Martha. However, she was more active than the reports of her sadly sitting around and knitting would suggest. According to Julia Grant, her successor as first lady, Eliza usually found a way to appear at the formal White House functions. She was also an important advisor to her husband, keeping her finger on the pulse of current affairs by avidly reading newspapers.