February 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 2
“The President came forward and the sun burst through the clouds.”
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.
The President had returned and was in the ornately decorated room set aside for him in the Senate wing, so busy reading bills that he had not thought to remove his tall hat. He sat there all morning with it on, reading the bills and affixing the signature “A. Lincoln” to those he wanted to approve. (One of the bills he signed in the closing days of the Thirty-eighth Congress was for extra pensions for the last five survivors of the American Revolution.) Senators Foster and Hendricks were with the President, while pages kept running in and out of the room. They heard the inaugural procession reach the Capitol; then they heard the footsteps and subdued murmurs of many people crowding through the halls.
The President was due to appear in the Senate chamber at noon, but when noon came the Senate was not yet ready for him. One of the pages told the men in the little room that Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson was speaking longer than had been expected. The people around the President grew more and more impatient. They sent a marshal to make sure that Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase was on hand: then they escorted the President down the hall to the Senate chamber. Johnson was still speaking when the presidential party entered the Senate chamber. His face was red and his voice boomed above all the rustle and bustle of the densely crowded room. When President Lincoln unobtrusively took his seat at the end of the clerk’s desk, there was audible whispering from the ladies in the galleries, and there was much craning of necks while comment buzzed everywhere. Johnson spoke even more loudly in order to be heard, and then, as the noise died away, his voice was left stranded on a peak of sound.
Johnson was a stump speaker who could rouse a backwoods audience. He had been the war governor of Tennessee and had had much more experience in Washington in both the House and the Senate than Lincoln. But he had few friends in the Capitol; his uncertain political position as a lifelong Democrat who consented to be elected to office with a Republican President on the Union ticket had made him distrusted and unpopular.
Lincoln had outgrown his log-cabin background, but Johnson was still suffering from a poor-boy complex. He liked to boast of his lowly origin, of being a tailor by trade and a man of the people, but when he spoke, he used long words of Latin or Greek derivation to show how learned he had become. He enjoyed calling himself a plebeian. The word had caught his fancy; it was the kind of word that conjured up images of immense crowds in the Roman forum, where a white-robed speaker swayed the multitudes and through them ruled an empire. He had seized upon this word and made it his own. But the magic word was to betray him on this, the most important day of his life.
He had been seriously ill in Nashville for many weeks with a fever that was probably malarial, and he had not felt well enough to travel to Washington for the inauguration. He had even written to the chief clerk of the secretary of the Senate to find out whether it was absolutely necessary for him to be present that day and was told that six previous Vice Presidents had been sworn in months after Inauguration Day. But Lincoln had urged him to come to Washington, saying that he and several members of his Cabinet had unanimously concluded “that it is unsafe for you not to be here on the fourth of March. Be sure to reach here by that time.”
Once the dutiful Johnson had decided to go to Washington, neither illness nor the very real possibility of assassination could stop him. On the morning of Inauguration Day, Senator J.R. Doolittle of Wisconsin called for him at his hotel and escorted him to the Vice President’s Room in the Capitol, where he met his predecessor, Hannibal Hamlin. What happened that morning is explained in a newspaper clipping from the Boston Commonwealth which was sent to Johnson by one of his admirers and which he carefully preserved for the rest of his life:
“There was nothing unusual in his [Johnson’s] appearance, except that he did not seem in robust health. … Conversation proceeded on ordinary topics for a few minutes, when Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Hamlin if he had any liquor in the room, stating that he was sick and nervous. … Brandy being indicated, a bottle was brought by one of the pages. It was opened, a tumbler provided, and Mr. Johnson poured it about two-thirds full. … When near 12 … Mr. Hamlin rose, moved to the door near which the Sergeant-at-Arms stood, and suggested to Mr. Johnson to come also. The latter got up and … said, ‘Excuse me a moment,’ and walked hastily back to where the bottle was deposited. Mr. Hamlin saw him … pour as large a quantity as before into the glass and drink it down like water. They then went into the Senate Chamber.”
The rain had made everything uncertain, because it was still an open question whether the presidential part of the great spectacle could be staged outdoors. The Vice President customarily took his oath of office in the Senate chamber, and just seven minutes had been allowed for his speech.
The big room was filling up rapidly when the Vice President-elect came in, leaning rather heavily on Hamlin’s arm. The galleries were already well filled, and the ladies’ section was even noisier than usual, for the stylishly dressed women seated there had no intention of allowing anyone to hush them up. Several senators had made requests for silence, but the privileged ladies who held official tickets of admission were so engrossed in their own conversation that they did not even hear what was being said on the floor.
A New York Herald correspondent described the scene: “A noise was heard in the diplomatic gallery. All eyes were turned in that direction. The noise that attracted attention arose from one of the representatives of a South American government getting his feet entangled with a mass of crinoline, losing his balance, and rolling down the aisle in the gallery.”
Hamlin took the chair and began his farewell message to the Senate. While he was speaking, members of the Cabinet and seven of the ten justices of the Supreme Court entered the room. Chief Justice Chase was carrying a copy of the Constitution and a Bible so he could administer the oath of office to the President. Heads were turned toward the diplomatic gallery when Mrs. Lincoln appeared there. Reporters noted dutifully that she was wearing “a black velvet dress trimmed with ermine.” Then representatives of various foreign governments, resplendent with medals and insignia of rank, were seated behind the justices of the Supreme Court.
Hamlin’s farewell address was a short and gracious speech in which he simply thanked the senators for their kindness to him. At its conclusion he turned to Johnson and asked him if he was ready to take the oath of office as Vice President. Johnson stood up and said that he was, but instead of waiting for Hamlin to administer the oath, he plunged abruptly into what was apparently intended to be his speech of acceptance. Only the newspaper accounts of the day give a truthful approximation of what he actually said.1
The New York World, an opposition paper which was to plague Johnson with his own words for weeks afterward, reported the speech as follows: “By choice of the people, he said, he had been made presiding officer of this body, and, in presenting himself here in obedience to the behests of the Constitution of the United States, it would, perhaps, not be out of place to remark just here what a striking thing the Constitution was. It was the Constitution of the people of the country, and under it, here today, before the American Senate, he felt that he was a man and an American citizen. … Turning toward Mr. Chase, Mr. Johnson said: ‘And your exaltation and position depend upon the people.’ Then turning toward the Cabinet, he said: ‘And I will say to you, Mr. Secretary Seward, and to you, Mr. Secretary Stanton, and to you, Mr. Secretary — (To a gentleman nearby, sotto voce, ‘Who is Secretary of the Navy?’ The person addressed replied in a whisper, ‘Mr. Welles’)—and to you, Mr. Secretary Welles, I would say, you derive your power from the people.’ Mr. Johnson then remarked that the great element of vitality in this government was its nearness and proximity to the people. He wanted to say to all who heard him in the face of the American people, that all power was derived from the people. He would say in the hearing of the foreign ministers, for he was going to tell the truth here today, that he was a plebeian—he thanked God for it.”
By this time, despite the chattering of the women in the gallery, Johnson’s audience, which was expecting the brief, formal speech that was customary for the occasion, had caught on to the fact that something was very wrong. The speaker’s florid face and peculiar manner of speaking caused the unruly crowd to fall silent. The silence emphasized the lack of meaning in what was being said. The loud, pompous voice went on to boast several times more about its plebeian origin; then it drifted off to Tennessee, where God was again thanked that it was still a state in the Union although “there had been an interregnum, a hiatus.” It was obvious to everyone now that the Vice President-elect was trying to show off his political vocabulary but could not put the high-sounding words together to make sense.
The members of the House were crowding in before anyone could stop the unhappy speaker. The Democrats were secretly delighted at what was happening, but the Republicans took it badly. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan wrote later to his wife: “I was never so mortified in my life. Had I been able to find a small hole, I should have dropped through it out of sight.”
Amid audible remarks of “What a shame!” and “Tell him to stop,” Johnson was temporarily silenced. Hamlin then tried to administer the oath of office quickly. But Johnson was in no condition to be hurried. Hamlin had to read the oath by single sentences and sometimes prompt the befuddled man.
Hamlin then adjourned the old Senate, and the new Vice President called the new Senate to order. But Johnson’s ordeal was not yet over. Eight newly elected senators were called upon to take their oath of office. Johnson held out a Bible to them, so they could touch it and bow their heads. Then he dismissed them without formally giving them the oath. Some of the bewildered senators began leaving the stand. J.W. Forney, the clerk of the Senate, had to take over and recall them so he could administer the official oath of office. Since the weather was rapidly improving, he then announced that the procession to the east front of the building should be formed.
The great occasion had begun badly, and there was much shaking of heads when the people who had been in the Senate chamber went outside to seek places on the platform. It was the first inauguration to be held in front of the new iron dome, which had been completed on December 2, 1863, when the head of Thomas Crawford’s statue of Freedom was hauled into place.
The New York Herald’s correspondent tells how the platform quickly filled up: “Ladies, Senators, Negroes, Justices, secretaries, diplomats, and people generally, tumbled upon the platform pell-mell. As the ladies moved on to the north entrance there was a grand national display of ankles. Representative ankles were exhibited by the fair dames and lasses of every state in the Union. The variety of shape and size of hose was perfectly bewildering; but every foot was muddy and every skirt bedraggled. … Colored persons innumerable flocked around, though none were admitted to the Capitol. Soldiers off duty were present in large numbers. … Men, women and children soaked about quietly, caught cold, and waited … The rain had taken all the starch out of them.
“Stanton and Seward retired to the left at some distance from the President and sat down together. They seemed very friendly. Stanton had his arm around Seward’s neck and constantly whispered in his ear. Welles sat by himself, and Justice Chase sat erect and dignified, evidently reflecting that he ought to be in Lincoln’s place. Senator Sumner stood prominently forward as if to attract attention. … The President smiled to himself and seemed greatly to enjoy the sunshine which now streamed upon him. He was dressed in black, with a plain frock coat. In his hand he held a printed copy of his inaugural address. The marshals of the day were grouped around the President, swelling with pride, and often excluding him from sight. The planks of the platform were wet, and the airy position rather chilly. The bands played away most lustily, and their ‘Hail to the Chief' could scarcely be stopped.
“From the platform nothing could be seen but a sea of faces below and a sea of mud beyond. … In the Capitol all the windows were filled with ladies, and the steps and esplanade at the north wing presented the same dense crowd that the central steps did, while on the unfinished parts of the south wing, on all the scaffolding, hundreds of soldiers had clambered up and decorated all that part with the army blue. … As the President came forward there was a cheer but not a great one, and at the same time the sun burst through the clouds, and, though pretty well to the south, lighted up the whole east face very brilliantly. …
“At about one o’clock … the President rose and stepped forward to the reading desk. He was greeted with very faint applause; indeed there was no enthusiasm throughout the address. It was not strictly an inaugural address, since it was read before Mr. Lincoln took the oath. It was more like a valedictory. The President read in a very loud, clear voice, and hundreds of the audience could hear it.
“During the delivery of the speech Stanton and Seward were remarkably attentive, rising and bending forward to listen. The crowd kept pushing nearer and nearer the platform. Sumner smiled superciliously at the frequent scriptural quotations. Negroes ejaculated ‘Bress de Lord’ in a low murmur at the end of almost every sentence. Beyond this there was no cheering of any consequence. … After a brief pause the President and Chief Justice rose together and the oath of office was administered. The voice of the Chief Justice was inaudible, but the workings of his countenance could be distinctly seen as he labored to be impressive. Then there was a cheer, and the President came forward and bowed and smiled. During the whole ceremony he looked unusually handsome. When delivering his speech his face glowed with enthusiasm, and he evidently felt every word that he uttered.
“Cries for Andy Johnson next ensued. There was a momentary delay and then the Vice President presented himself and waved both hands. There were calls of ‘Speech! Speech!’ and some applause when Andy appeared. He rubbed his red face with his hands as if to clear up his ideas, but did not succeed and said nothing. A lane was then opened through the crowd on the platform, and the presidential party retired into the Capitol amid the thunders of artillery in Capitol Square and the music of the bands.”
One incident that went almost unnoticed had to do with the strange actions of a man who had a card of admission to the Capitol which he had probably procured through Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, for he was secretly engaged to marry the Senator’s daughter. This good-looking young man tried to force his way through the line of police as the President passed. He was forcibly ejected from the rotunda, but, oddly enough, was not arrested. Weeks later, when the nation-wide man hunt for the President’s assassin was under way, a photograph of this man was shown to Benjamin B. French, commissioner of public buildings, who had been present when the intruder behaved so oddly. He identified the picture as a portrait of John Wilkes Booth, the celebrated actor of an even more celebrated theatrical family. And one of Booth’s friends testified that the violently pro-Southern actor had said: “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration day!”
Unaware of the presence in the Capitol of the man who was destined to slay him just 41 days later, Abraham Lincoln, now inaugurated as President of the United States for the second time, was led to his waiting carriage to return to the White House. As the President’s carriage was about to leave, his eleven-year-old son, little Tad, scrambled into it, Mrs. Lincoln and their first-born son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who had just been made a captain on Grant’s staff, followed in other carriages.
Walt Whitman wrote about Lincoln’s return to the White House: “He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and looked very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness [showed] underneath the furrows.”
And so ended one of the most memorable inaugurations in American history. The senators re-entered the Senate chamber, paying little attention to the President’s speech but discussing Johnson’s behavior with the petty spite of washerwomen gossiping over a back yard fence. They waited for the new Vice President to appear, so he could officially adjourn the Senate, but he never came and thus brought more malicious comment down upon himself. Finally the senators departed by ones and twos, and the great halls of the Capitol became silent.
Lincoln is sometimes thought of as having been too lenient and easygoing, but he could be firm when the situation required strength and decisiveness. The next-to-last sentence of the address he delivered that day shows how determined he was to finish the stern task to which he was committed. But the unyielding attitude of the Old Testament changes quickly in the famous peroration, which is much nearer to the New Testament in thought and words:
… Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
The President’s arduous day was not yet over. He had to greet several thousand people at a White House levee that evening. It was still an American tradition that anyone could attend such a public reception who had the patience and the strength to wait for hours to gain admission. It was also a tradition that the President must stand in the receiving line to shake each person’s hand and utter a few meaningless words of greeting.
After dinner Cabinet members and their families began arriving early at the White House in order to have a few moments with the President before the crowd got in. A temporary wooden platform had been erected at one of the East Room windows so the long line of visitors could be channeled past the President, across the room, and then out through the high window to the side street. At eight o’clock, when the gates were thrown open, some two thousand people tried to storm the main entrance. The doors to the White House were opened for only a few minutes at a time in order to control the rate of entry. Even with this precaution the Chronicle reported that “some of the more unfortunate females, who were caught in the surging mass, actually shrieked with pain while several fainted and were carried away.”
When the visitors got inside they were hurried through the halls to the East Room, where the Marine Band was playing and where government and military dignitaries were clustered in exclusive little groups around the formal reception room. There, according to the Star, “The President, in a plain black suit with white kid gloves, was in excellent spirits … and received all visitors cordially. It is estimated that he shook hands with between five and six thousand persons during the course of the evening. Mrs. Lincoln was also kept fully occupied. … She was dressed most charmingly in an elegant white satin dress, the skirt tastefully draped with black lace, a rich black lace shawl … a costly pearl necklace, etc., etc.”
The carpets were covered to protect them from mud brought in on the visitors’ feet, and soldiers and police guided the line of eager people through the hallways. But despite these precautions, the visitors did some damage, as they always did when they were permitted to invade the White House. Even the watchful soldiers and Metropolitan Police could not entirely prevent the souvenir hunting and actual vandalism that were characteristic of American sightseers in the mid-nineteenth century. William H. Crook, one of the President’s bodyguards, said that “a great piece of red brocade, a yard square almost, was cut from the windowhangings of the East Room, and another piece, not quite so large, from a curtain in the Green Room. Besides this, flowers from the floral design in the lace curtains were cut out, evidently for an ornament for the top of pincushions or something of the sort.”
The crush went on all evening. Those who came by carriage had to wait for several hours while the long line of vehicles slowly unloaded passengers. At eleven o’clock a large crowd was still trying to gain admission, but the doors were firmly closed on the hour, and the latecomers had to go home without seeing the President. Just before midnight the Marine Band played “Yankee Doodle,” and the White House was then cleared of guests so rapidly that the downstairs rooms were dark before the clock struck twelve.
A noon on Monday, March 6, the Senate, sitting in extra session, was called to order by the new Vice President. As soon as the formalities of the day were over, Henry Wilson of Massachusetts got up to ask for the floor. When Vice President Johnson recognized him and gave him the right to speak, he proposed a resolution that was intended to be a deliberate insult to the Senate’s new leader. It directed “the sergeant-at-arms to remove from the Senate side of the Capitol the sale of intoxicating or spirituous liquors.” Wilson said that he was willing to let his resolution lie over until the next day, but his colleague from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, got up to ask very coolly, “Why not act upon it now?” Everyone must have felt very uncomfortable, but no one dared to offer an objection so the resolution was considered passed. The sergeant-at-arms promptly closed the bar known as “The Hole in the Wall,” and the sign over it which read EXCLUSIVELY FOR SENATORS was turned to the wall.
The great Inauguration Ball was held in the Patent Office that evening. The north wing had just been completed, and the building formed an enormous quadrangle, with an open court in the center. Part of the building’s spacious halls had served as a military hospital from October, 1861, to March, 1863.
All four of the enormous second-story rooms, each one approximately 270 feet long and 60 feet wide, were used for the ball. The south wing, with its elaborate and colorful English tiled floor, tall pillars, and large glass showcases, was the main entrance. The east wing was used as a promenade leading to the north wing, which was to be the main ballroom. The elaborate supper was served in the west wing at midnight.
The engraved tickets cost ten dollars each; the price entitled a gentleman to bring as many ladies as he wished. The local newspaper had made it clear that contrary to rumor—Negroes would not be admitted to the ballroom, although many of them were, of course, employed as waiters and servants. Three orchestras were used; the one that provided the dance music was conducted by Professor William Withers, Jr., leader of the orchestra at Ford’s Theatre.
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.”
The cooks had been working busily to get the great feast ready. The elaborate bill of fare included fish, beef, veal, game, poultry, and smoked meats, each prepared in a variety of ways; chicken and lobster salads; eight confections called “ornamental pyramides” and a dozen kinds of cakes and tarts; ice cream in six flavors and ices in three; coffee and chocolate.
It was fortunate that the presidential party was permitted to begin eating before the crowd was admitted to the supper room. As soon as the doors were opened, there was a general rush. According to the Star, “The onset of the crowd upon the tables was frightful, and nothing but the immense reserves of eatables would have supplied the demand, or rather the waste. Numbers … with more audacity than good taste, could be seen snatching whole pâtés, chickens, legs of veal, halves of turkies, ornamental pyramids, &s., from the tables, and bearing them aloft over the heads of the shuddering crowd, (ladies especially, with greasy ruin to their dresses impending) …
“The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cakes and debris of fowl and meat. The … appropriaters of eatables from the tables left their plates upon the floor … adding to the difficulty of locomotion; and gentlemen, in conscientiously giving a wide berth to a lady’s skirt, not infrequently steered clear of Scylla only to fall upon a Charybdis of greasy crockery. Finally everybody was satisfied, even those who felt bound to ‘eat their ten dollars’ worth’ … the ball room again filled up, and the dance … was resumed.”
When the President and his party wanted to leave, they found it impossible to pass through the mob that was still raiding the food tables. They had to enter an alcove between display cases and then go upstairs to a balcony from which they could make their way through devious and little-used narrow passages to an obscure side exit. No one paid any attention to them as they went, for the guests were so busy getting food, eating it, or chattering while they waited for someone to bring it, that they did not care about anything else.
The grand ball went on until the early morning hours, and the sky was beginning to lighten when the party finally broke up. When the last reveler left the Patent Office that morning and daylight came in through the high windows to reveal the unpleasant mess which was all that remained of the once-imposing display that had been set out on the supper tables, President Lincoln’s second term had been officially and socially launched.
1 On March 9 Johnson wrote to Richard Sutton, chief reporter of the Senate, saying: “I see from the Congressional Globe that the proceedings of Saturday, the 4 inst. have not as yet been published, and as I understand there has been some criticism … will you … preserve the original notes … and bring me an accurate copy of your report of what I said on that occasion.” The speech, as published in the Globe on March 17, is obviously rewritten.