- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Second Inauguration
“The President came forward and the sun burst through the clouds.”
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
The north hall was described by the Washington Morning Chronicle as being “magnificently decorated with our glorious national emblem, large banners being festooned from the ceiling to the floor. Between the windows were artistically disposed guidons and corps insignia, bearing the marks of the various army corps, brigades, and regiments of the United States service, while miniature American flags were crossed and placed at intervals on the walls. Over the main entrance approaching from the east, on a balcony, was stationed a fine military band, and midway in the hall, on the southern side, upon another balcony, tastefully decorated, as was the former, with bunting, was placed the orchestra under the care of Mr. Withers. So, between the two bands, the music … was kept up constantly. On a raised dais immediately opposite the latter balcony, and on the northern side of the hall, were placed handsome sofas of blue and gold adornment … as seats of honor for the President and his suite.” The New York World was unhappy about the dais and its gold chairs, muttering editorially that “it needed but little imagination to transform them into thrones.”
The first guests arrived shortly before nine o’clock and were sent down the long dirty halls where puddles of water had been left by hurrying waiters and where department clerks still sat with feet propped up on their desks, puffing vigorously on their cigars while they inspected the pretty girls in their colorful evening dresses. People kept coming until midnight, by which time some four thousand guests had arrived. The party began at ten, when the military band in the north hall played a National Inauguration March that had been especially composed for the occasion; after this a grand promenade around the ballroom was staged with much ceremony. Quadrilles, lancers, schottisches, polkas, and waltzes then followed. The New York World had a poor opinion of the crowd and the dancing, saying that “the men threw their legs around like the spokes of a wheel; the women hopped, skipped and jumped about in a manner which would have made a French dancing master commit suicide. They appeared to think that every other dance was a waltz and acted accordingly and exhibited the greatest science when they were kicking up the most dust.”
About half-past ten there was a sudden pause, the military band took over and struck up “Hail to the Chief,” while a passageway was formed through the crowd for the entrance of the presidential party. The President came down the aisle with Schuyler Colfax, followed by Mrs. Lincoln, who was escorted by Senator Charles Sumner. The Chronicle said that “the procession promenaded the entire length of the hall. … Mrs. Lincoln was attired in faultless taste. She wore a white silk skirt, a bertha of point lace and puffs of silk, and a white fan, trimmed with ermine and silvered spangles, white kid gloves and lace handkerchief, and a necklace, bracelet, and earrings of pearls. Her hair was brushed closely back from her forehead, and a head-dress, composed of a wreath of white jessamines [sic] and purple violets, with long trailing vines, completed a most recherché costume. The President was dressed in a full suit of black, with white kid gloves.”
Later in the evening members of the Cabinet and the diplomatic corps made their entry. Vice President Johnson was apparently well enough to attend, and his appearance, after his rebuff in the Senate that day, started tongues to wagging. The crowd pressed in close around the central platform to stare at the President and the other celebrities there. Among the notables on the platform was Captain Robert Todd Lincoln in full-dress uniform, paying close attention to the daughter of the senator from Iowa, Mary Eunice Harlan, whom he was later to marry.
Much of the gossip during the evening centered around the Lincoln family. Little Tad’s imperious manner in dealing with the Black Horse Cavalry, which had been detailed to guard the White House, was a favorite topic of discussion. “Are we to have a Prince Imperial?” the New York Herald asked querulously.
The appointment of Tad’s older brother, Robert Lincoln, as a captain on Grant’s staff had come in for some criticism, but now that he was at last in the army, the public had lost much of its hostility toward him. Mrs. Lincoln, however, had many real enemies. Her relatives in the Confederacy, her extravagance in costume, and her expenditures for decorating the White House in wartime made her unpopular.
The President and his party were shown into the supper room first and were seated at the head of a 250-foot-long table so they could eat in peace before the crowd was admitted. They thus had a chance to see the display in all its gastronomic glory. The center ornament was a huge model of the Capitol made of pastry covered with white icing. This stood on a large pedestal upon which were other pastry models, including one of Fort Sumter with realistic-looking ironclads around it; a group of Washington and his generals; a symbolic statue of Liberty; as well as such abstract ideas as “The Progress of Civilization” and “The Advance of the Arts and Sciences in America.”