Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball

The mood of the country was vastly different in 1865 than in 1861.

The Difference Being…

…(at least in general essence), that in 1861, the country was nervous and frightened. Several Southern states already seceded, and the tensions at South Carolina’s Ft. Sumter were about to plunge the country into a real shootin’ war. Nobody wanted that – but it seemed that the events were out of anyone’s control.

For certain, no one would have predicted the four years of blood and battle and death of the cream of a generation, or the thousands of families left grieving, or the billions of dollars spent to abet that blood and death and grief.

But on Thursday, March 4, 1865 just about everyone knew that the end was drawing near. Yes, there would be more battles and blood and death. And grief. But it was going to end – sooner than later. Finally. President Lincoln, looking a decade older than he did in 1861, gave perhaps the finest inaugural speech ever.

The guest of honor.

People from all over the North had flocked to Washington. The train station was jammed, and nobody noticed the coat of fresh paint in honor of the occasion. The hotels were overflowing. The largest, the Willard and the Metropolitan, placed cots in their hallways. Boarding houses were packed. Even the Lincoln-Johnson Clubs (since the name “Republican” was on hiatus for the election of 1864) provided accommodations as best they could for the visitors. Some out-of-towners booked rooms as far away as Baltimore, preferring to day-trip the festivities.

On Saturday, March 6, the last formal Presidential reception of the season was held at the White House. Thousands of well-wishers piled through the doors to shake Lincoln’s hand. According to staff members, the hordes trampled the place – some even cut swatches of draperies or cushions as souvenirs. WH guard William Crook said “it looked as if a regiment of rebel troops had been quartered there – with permission to forage.”

The Inaugural Ball

The Patent Office circa 1860.

“Republican” wasn’t mentioned in the 1864 election.

The Inaugural Ball was an on-and-off tradition since the days of Dolley Madison, depending on the personal preferences of the incoming POTUS. This one was set to take place on Monday, March 8. The Lincolns did not have to pay for it. Nor did the government. It was underwritten by the Lincoln-Johnson Clubs, or the political organization, in honor of Lincoln’s re-election, and no expense was spared. The tickets cost a whopping $10 each (Dolley’s ball was only $4/per in 1809), but it entitled entrance to a gentleman and two ladies. It also included a sumptuous supper. Every ticket (4,000) was sold. After expenses, any surplus went to the aid of the soldiers’ families.

The event was held in the old Patent Office, which until recently had been used as a makeshift hospital. It was quickly decorated with flags and banners, and a raised dais for President Lincoln and his guests.

Early that evening, crowds dressed in their finest and most fashionable clothes, began to fill the halls as the band music played. Cabinet members, members of Congress and the judiciary, all the military brass, and the diplomatic corps. Virtually everybody of importance.

The Guest of Honor

Mary Lincoln – ready to enjoy life again.

Promptly at 10:30, the band played Hail to the Chief, and President and Mrs. Lincoln walked to the dais that had been built for them. Mrs. L., who had only begun to wear “color” a few months earlier (following an extended mourning period for her young son who died in 1862), wore a white silk and lace gown, with her usual floral headpiece. Speaker Schuyler Colfax and Senator Charles Sumner were part of their party, especially invited by the President as a public sign that there was no breach between the Executive and Legislative branches.

The Lincolns were happy to welcome the throngs who came to pay their respects and shake his hand once again.

But perhaps the most personal pleasure for President and Mrs. L. centered around their son Robert. Only a few weeks earlier, finally in uniform and attached to General Grant’s staff, Bob had been given special leave to attend his father’s inauguration. At twenty-one, he presented a fine figure of a young man, not nearly as tall as his father, but still above average in height.

On his arm was Mary Harlan, the daughter of Iowa Senator James Harlan. The Harlans had met the Lincolns four years earlier, and enjoyed a pleasant relationship. Both Lincolns, with no daughters of their own, had taken a warm interest in the young Harlan girl, who at the time was around fourteen. Mrs. L. had been heard to remark that Miss Mary might be a fine match for Robert, but of course, they were both much too young – then.

But now, Robert was not too young, and Mary, at eighteen was definitely ready for courtship.

The President and Mrs. Lincoln beamed as they watched their eldest son waltzing his pretty young “date” around the dance floor all evening.

The Wild and Hungry Party

Shortly after midnight, the doors were opened for the supper.

Long tables, designed to accommodate 300 persons at a time, all featured elaborate centerpieces, such as a confectionery model of Admiral Farragut’s flagship, and a sugary depiction of the Capitol and its new dome. They were filled with beef, poultry, game and smoked meats, oysters, breads, salads and other delicacies, provided by T.M. Harvey, the caterer. Mr. Balzer, the confectioner had his own tables with towers of jellies, ices, cakes, tarts, fruit, nuts and chocolate. And coffee and tea.

Four thousand people tried to descend on the food at once, and within minutes the beautiful tables were in ruins. Gentlemen grabbed entire platters of foods for personal picnicking in the alcoves. Gorgeous gowns were stained by gravies and pates. Glasses were broken, plates and cutlery dropped, and souvenir hunters took whatever wasn’t nailed down.

But, as the saying goes, a good time was had by all. They needed it.


Conroy, James B. – Lincoln’s White House: The People’s House in Wartime – Rowman and Littlefield, 2016

Leech, Margaret – Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865 – Harper & Brothers, 1941


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