My Little Rebel Wife

Published:May 21, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Dabney Herndon Maury‘s birthday led me to look at the introduction of his Virginia history textbook, which gave rise to the Quote of the Day, in which Ol’ Dab declares that Virginia “has no shame.” That could be read in a couple different ways, I suppose, but Maury meant it literally: there is nothing in Virginia’s history to be ashamed about.

Anyway, everybody was related in those days—you can tell because they all have the same names—and one of Maury’s younger cousins was Dabney Herndon (b. 1831), also of Fredericksburg. Rather than join the military like practically everyone else in his family, Herndon trained to be a medical doctor, and while living in New York met a lawyer from Vermont named Chester Alan Arthur. (Note: that middle name is pronounced Alán.) Thinking Arthur might be a good match, Hernon introduced him to his cousin Nell Herndon. The two hit it off, with the lawyer writing to her about “the pulses of your love answering mine” and “your soft sweet lips over my eyes.”

When Nell’s father, Captain William Lewis Herndon, heroically saved 600 passengers off Cape Hatteras before going down with his ship in 1857, Chester was there for her. They got married in New York two years later, and then the Civil War arrived. As you might imagine, that’s when the trouble started. Turns out Chester’s father was an abolitionist, and while the son was perhaps more conservative than the father, he nevertheless had helped to win a case that freed some Virginia slaves in New York and another that led to racial integration on the city’s streetcars. Writes one scholar:

Nell came from a slaveholding family; and her sympathies, liket hose of her mother and all her relatives (some of whom fought in the Confederate Army and Navy), were with the South. During the war Arthur referred good-naturedly to his “little rebel wife,” but there appears to have been considerable tension between the two, especially after Arthur became the Inspector-General and then Quartermaster-General of the State of New York, responsible for supervising supplies for New York volunteers in the Union army.

Don’t worry, though. They didn’t let a little thing like slavery or civil war come between them. In fact, Chester helped free his old friend Herndon from prison and helped his wife’s family in any way he could, so that one of Nell’s uncle’s was moved to “forget the General in the man.” Besides, Chester, despite his family’s leanings, was so incensed by the Emancipation Proclamation that he opposed Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. (What’s to be ashamed of?)

The future president would not be able to take his Virginia bride to the White House, however. She died in 1880, and while president, he ordered fresh flowers placed daily before her portrait.

IMAGES: Chester Arthur in 1859, the year he married; Nell Herndon sometime between 1857 and 1870