- Historic Sites
Lincoln’s Second Inauguration
“The President came forward and the sun burst through the clouds.”
February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
The winter of 1864-65 had been unusually cold, with ice on the Potomac so thick that it could support crowds of skaters who were in a gay mood despite the war. But in Petersburg and Richmond, where the war was very real, the remnants of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia clung grimly to the elaborate network of fortifications and trenches that guarded the two cities. Only a few hundred yards away, their Union counterparts opposed the Confederate lines. The two armies had been locked together since the previous summer, when Grant had begun his siege. Fighting had never stopped, but action had slowed down considerably while the soldiers huddled in their dugouts for warmth. Farther south, Sherman’s victorious army had swept through Georgia and South Carolina and was moving into North Carolina with Goldsboro as its immediate goal.
On March 4 it had been raining for two days all through the East. In Washington the rain had come down in torrents at daybreak and then had let up, so that by half-past ten the enormous crowds, which had flocked to the city to see the second inauguration of their wartime President, ventured hopefully into the streets. People kept looking anxiously at the sky, for rain at noon would mean that the President would have to take his oath of office inside the Capitol, where only the favored few who held tickets could witness the ceremony. Ten minutes later it began to rain again. Hardy blue-coated veterans, who were used to being soaked to the skin for days, watched scornfully while civilians and their women fled to shelter. But the crowds were so dense that it took time to clear the streets, and many got drenched in the sudden downpour.
Even worse than the rain, though, was the mud. The New York Herald’s correspondent said of it: “There is mud in Pennsylvania Avenue and all the other avenues. … The streets are flooded and afloat with a vile yellow fluid, not thick enough to walk on nor thin enough to swim in. This yellow material added to the holiday appearance of the people, marking them with gay and festive spots from head to heel. All the backs were yellow with it, and all the horses, and all the little boys—all the world floundered about in it, and swore at it, and laughed at it. In Pennsylvania Avenue it was not so deep as in many other places, for as that street was paved, it was possible to touch bottom there. It was blacker there, however … and when it spattered on people it did not look so much like golden spangles.”
The President was already at the Capitol, signing last-minute bills before the Thirty-eighth Congress adjourned at noon. In Lafayette Square and in the grounds around the White House there was a great deal of stirring about as soldiers, marshals, volunteer firemen, and civilians got ready to take their places in the grand procession up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. About eleven o’clock the procession began to form. Mrs. Lincoln got into a closed carriage; after a long delay she began to worry about being late so she ordered the coachman to go ahead and drive quickly. As her carriage hurried to the Capitol everyone took it for granted that the President was inside, and the crowd cheered him in absentia all along the way.
Mrs. Lincoln’s haste upset the carefully planned arrangements for the procession, but at last it began to move. The bells of the city rang out, military bands played lustily, and on one of the floats, a miniature replica of the Monitor, sailors fired blank charges from the cannon in the turret. Another float, which advertised the Washington Daily Chronicle, had a printing press in full operation, with handbills being tossed to the crowd as fast as they were printed. The uncertain weather had spoiled the effect which a float carrying a Temple of Liberty was expected to achieve. The pretty girls in white dresses who were supposed to grace the temple refused to risk their costumes on such an undependable day, and their places were taken by badly behaved small boys who made a lark out of what was intended as a dignified display. But the visiting firemen from Philadelphia and their Washington hosts put on an impressive show as their beautifully decorated and shined-up engines moved along the muddy street. And, for the first time in the history of Washington, two companies of Negro troops and a Lodge of Negro Odd Fellows in full regalia took part in an inauguration parade.
The Thirty-eighth Congress had worked all night to finish the final business of the session, while the President and his Cabinet had stayed at the Capitol on the evening of March 3 until after midnight. When members left the House and Senate chambers early in the morning of March 4, they found that people who had not been able to get accommodations in the overcrowded city were sleeping in the Capitol. It was raining so hard that no one had the heart to turn them out, even though the building soon had to be cleared for the ceremonies of the day.