Mary Lincoln’s Gala Bash

An artistic representation of Lincoln’s White House Gala Reception.

In early February, 1862, President and Mrs. Lincoln hosted their only huge party at the White House.

Mrs. Lincoln: New FLOTUS

For nineteen years Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was only a middle class Springfield, Illinois housewife – and the middle class part was in those later years. The early years were a struggle. When Lincoln was elected President, his last year’s earnings were $6000. Reasonable and comfortable, but hardly opulent.

Now, as President, he had an annual salary of $25,000, and the new First Lady could finally have everything she had always wanted. Fine furniture, gowns, jewelry, an elegant venue for entertaining, and perhaps most of all, attention.

FLOTUS Mary Lincoln resented the inference that she was unequal to her position in society.

When she first came to Washington in late February, 1861, Mary Lincoln was blindsided by misconceptions. The Northerners considered her a “Southerner.” After all, she was born and raised in Kentucky – a slave-holding state. The Southerners considered her a “Westerner,” since Illinois, where she had lived for nearly 25 years, was far from cosmopolitan. And finally, it was well known that Abraham Lincoln came from a humble background. Many Washingtonians assumed that Mrs. Lincoln came from a similar upbringing.

Like most assumptions, it is an amalgam of pieces of true and false. Mary indeed came from a slave holding Kentucky family – but she was always opposed to the “peculiar” institution. And Springfield, Illinois, albeit a state capital, was limited in sophisticated opportunities. But Mrs. Lincoln was a Kentucky blue-blooded belle; she had an excellent education, including culture.

When a delegation of Congressional wives called on Mrs. President-Elect-Lincoln to offer their advice and assistance on her social duties, Mary was offended, and made no effort to hide the fact. She never forgave them; and they never attended her receptions.

The Need for Stardom

Mary Lincoln wanted to be another Dolley Madison: the leader at the pinnacle of Washington society: the one whose excellent taste was admired and emulated. And to her, the best taste was the most expensive taste. Nothing but top of the line was good enough for the new First Lady.

Mrs. Lincoln wanted to show off the newly decorated White House.

The White House had grown shabby during the past decade, and Congress, despite a Civil War ramping up on all fronts, voted a generous $20,000 for Mrs. Lincoln’s refurbishment. She contacted the finest merchants in New York and Philadelphia, purchasing lavish carpets, draperies and curtains. She had the formal downstairs rooms repainted and the furniture refinished. She also exceeded her budget by nearly 50% – which triggered one of Abraham Lincoln’s rare outbursts of temper. But while Lincoln knew about the decorating budget excesses, he had no idea about his wife’s spending on her personal wardrobe and accoutrements.

No photographs were taken of White House receptions – but graphic images were created.

If Mary Lincoln wanted the House to glitter and dazzle, she wished to be the star on the Christmas tree.

Mary had a deep-seated need to “show them” that her taste was impeccable, and that she was the unquestioned leader of Washington society. Her gowns and fans and shawls and headdresses had to be the finest – and most expensive.

Successful merchants are not fools. They quickly determined that Mrs. L. was susceptible to flattery, and they laid it on with a trowel. They praised her excellent taste and style; after all, the more they fawned, the more she purchased. And since her husband was President, they extended unlimited credit.

The Gala Affair

President Lincoln wanted to preserve the image of a functioning capital.

Once the new draperies and carpets and were installed, Mary Lincoln understandably wanted to show them off. Both Lincolns believed that the government should continue its traditions and proprieties, to signal that all was under control. Thus Mary planned a lavish and gala ball for early February, 1862, but, as a concession to “the War,” there would be no dancing.  It was personally paid by the Lincolns.

Mrs. Lincoln wanted to prove herself as the center of social Washington.

Five hundred invitations were sent – a huge departure from protocol. In the 1860s, there were only two types of Presidential entertaining: private and public. A grand public entertainment – the type Mrs. Lincoln was preparing – was expected to be open to all. No invitations necessary. Everyone could attend. (Amazed modern readers, understanding the ordering, logistic and security nightmares with such a large party, are likely to agree with Mrs. Lincoln.)

An artistic representation of the grand promenade.

But invitations were issued. Several Congressmen declined, with snide comments about elegant parties with a War on…. Even so, the creme de la creme were invited – and came. No expense was spared on refreshments. Maillard, a well known caterer from New York was engaged to prepare supper. He arrived a week in advance with his retinue. Costly wines and liquors had been provided (despite the fact that neither Lincolns ever touched more than a sip of wine on occasion).

An immense bowl held ten gallons of champagne punch. According to Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Leach’s Reveille in Washington, “There was nearly a ton of turkeys, duck, venison, pheasants, partridges and hams, and the tables were loaded with the confectionery inspirations of Maillard.”

The Flaw in the Triumph

Willie Lincoln died of typhoid fever not long after the gala party.

A few days prior to the event, both Willie and Tad Lincoln had caught colds. Willie, at eleven and Tad, at eight, were sent to bed under doctor’s care. The concerned parents seriously considered cancelling The Gala. But the doctor re-examined the children, and pronounced that despite Willie’s continuing fever, they were recovering, and there was no need to change the elaborate plans.

Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, had become indispensable to the President’s family. She  personally tended the ailing children – particularly Willie, whose troublesome fever was not responding to the prescribed treatment. Both the President and First Lady took turns slipping upstairs to sit with their son. Lincoln is reported to have mentioned his “sick boy” to a few of the guests at the Gala.

Two weeks later, Willie died. The Lincolns never had another ”gala”, and Mrs. Lincoln never really recovered.


Clinton, Catherine –  Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Harper Collins, 2009

Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington – The American Past, 1967





About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to Mary Lincoln’s Gala Bash

  1. energywriter says:

    Sad story. I wonder why some families have so much tragedy.

  2. sheafferhistorian says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

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