Wednesday, February 3, 2016

White House Weddings: Nellie Grant

According to one of Ulysses S. Grant’s biographers, Bruce Catton, Grant’s only daughter Ella "Nellie" Wrenshall Grant (1855-1922) had a "particularly secure place in his heart." The entire family, including Nellie’s brothers, openly admitted that Nellie was Grant’s favorite child.

Nellie Grant
Young Nellie Grant
Nellie was thirteen when her father entered the White House. Naturally, President and Mrs. Grant wished to give her a rich and well-rounded education, so four years later in 1872 when she was seventeen, they sent her on a grand tour of Europe. Treated like royalty during her tour, Nellie enjoyed parties and balls as well as art and museums. After such a lovely experience, she probably had mixed feelings as she boarded the luxurious steamship Russia to return home.

If she were the least bit down, however, her spirits soon brightened considerably.

On board the ship, Nellie met twenty-two year old Algernon Sartoris, a handsome Englishman. Son of opera singer Adelaide Kemble and nephew of famous actress Fanny Kemble, Algernon was well-connected. He was also a British officer assigned to the British delegation in Washington, D.C. While Nellie’s chaperones languished in their quarters from seasickness, Nellie and Algernon fell in love.
Algy and Nellie Sartoris
President and Mrs. Grant were not enthusiastic about Algernon, or Algy, as Nellie called him. Perhaps they recognized Algernon’s tendency to drink too much. Maybe they disliked his arrogance or noticed his wandering eye. Whatever the reason, they persuaded Nellie and Algy to wait a year before announcing their betrothal, perhaps hoping time would cool things off.

Time couldn’t quench the young pair’s ardor, however. The wedding was set for May 21, 1874.

Wedding Invitation  from Nelly Grant Wedding
Wedding Invitation (found here)

Some considered it the greatest social event of the 1800’s in America. The White House was scrubbed, polished, and decorated with flowers. Staircases, walls, and chandeliers dripped with tuberose, lily of the valley, and spirea. Three hundred guests were invited, and two hundred came to witness the wedding.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, sketched by Harry Ogden
While the Marine Band played Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, Nellie entered the room on her father’s arm. The President shed a tear or two, and wept later in Nellie’s room.

The East Room, site of the wedding, must have been a sight to behold. The Rev. O. H. Tiffany of the Metropolitan Methodist Episcopal Church officiated the wedding, standing on a dais in front a flower-festooned window. The bride and groom joined him on the dais with their bridal party (reports vary on the number of bridesmaids, six to twelve), beneath a large floral bell. Potted plants, trees, and flowers filled every available space, and four columns were draped in “National” colors, according to the doorkeeper, Thomas F. Pendel.

Then there was the bride herself. Nellie wore a $2,000 satin gown trimmed in Brussels lace.
Afterward, the ladies adjourned to the Red Parlor without the gentlemen. Shortly thereafter, everyone enjoyed a sumptuous feast in the State Dining Room. Among the desserts offered was Nesselrode Pudding, made of macaroons, almonds and raisins.

Wedding Menu from Nelly Grant Wedding
The reception was held in the State Dining Room (source here)
The couple left on their honeymoon and soon moved to England to be with Algy's family. Nellie gave birth to four children. However, the Grants’ worst fears about their daughter’s union appeared to materialize. Rumors circulated on both sides of the Atlantic about Algy’s alcoholism, womanizing, and gambling. Algy left Nellie alone much of the time, ironically spending more time in America than his American-born bride.

While the marriage may not have been a happy one, the wedding was one of the White House's most lavish celebrations of the century. It was celebrated by the public, inspired a poem by Walt Whitman, and inspired trends in fashion. 

As for Nellie? After Algy's death, she found happiness in a second marriage--although the wedding was far simpler.


Your turn: Did you watch Prince Will and Kate Middleton get married?



Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others. A pastor’s wife and mom of two, she loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. Susanne is the author of six new and upcoming novellas; her latest, One Word From You, is in White Fire’s Austen in Austin Volume I. You can visit her on her website,

sources include: 

Romance of Nellie Grant, published in 1908.


  1. I'd never heard of this before. Fascinating, but poor Nellie! A difficult experience for any parent. That must have been quite the dress.

    I tried to watch the royal wedding, but my cable was out. I was so annoyed! I'd gotten up at 4 I think. Ugh. Had to watch the special that evening.

    1. That must have been quite a dress, indeed. I wonder what a $2K dress translates to in today's dollars. But yes, poor Nellie. Very sad to learn what happened in later years.

      I recorded the royal wedding--and I loved watching it! Sigh. Those recap specials are great, though. Cuts out all the dead air time.