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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball in 1865

The most dramatic historic event to take place in the Patent Office Building was President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. Held on March 6, 1865, Lincoln spared no expense to celebrate his re-election. On top of his personal achievement, the Civil War was nearing its conclusion and victory was clearly in sight.

Officials and dignitaries received engraved invitations. Most of the important political, military, diplomatic, and cultural leaders of the day also attended. The families of soldiers at war received the profits from tickets bought by the public. Any white gentleman who could pay the ten dollar entrance fee could bring one or more ladies with him. African Americans were excluded from high society events like the ball during this era.

The north hall of the Patent Office building had American flags draped throughout. A raised platform held blue-and-gold sofas for the presidential party. Overhead pipes suspended from the ceiling provided gas lighting. The great American poet Walt Whitman worked as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Patent Office Building. He was eager to inspect the halls being prepared for the inaugural festivities and recorded the following passage:

I have been up to look at the dance and supper rooms, for the inauguration ball, at the Patent office; and I could not help thinking, what a different scene they presented to my view since, fill’d with a crowded mass of the worst wounded of the war, brought in from second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburgh. To-night, beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz; then the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rag, the odor of wounds and blood, and many a mother’s son amid strangers, passing away untended.1

Upon arrival, guests made their way up the great stairway to the entrance on the south portico (porch). From there, they went to the third floor, which opened onto the other three great halls. A band performed in each hall: promenade music for the east gallery, dance music for the vast empty hall in the newly completed north wing, and dinner music for the west wing. At 10:30 p.m., President and Mrs. Lincoln arrived and proceeded to the raised platform in the north gallery. The New York Times described the president as “trying to throw off care for a while, but with rather ill success…; yet he seemed pleased and gratified, as he was greeted by the people. He wore a plain black suit and white gloves.”2 Mrs. Lincoln wore an elaborate white satin gown with pearls that was sewn by Elizabeth Keckley, an accomplished dressmaker and ex-slave. Mrs. Lincoln also wore a lace shawl and carried a fan trimmed in fur and silver spangles. Her hair was swept back and adorned with jasmine and violet flowers. The promenading and dancing proceeded until midnight, when an elaborate supper was served in the west hall among the patent model cases.

The buffet table stretched 250 feet in length. An enormous confectionary model of the U.S. Capitol made out of sugar served as the centerpiece. Oyster and terrapin stews, beef à l’anglais, veal Malakoff, turkeys, pheasants, quail, venison, ducks, hams, and lobsters, and ornamental pyramids of desserts, cakes, and ice cream lined the menu. By midnight there were more than 4,000 guests. The buffet table, placed in a corridor only twenty feet wide between model cases, could only accommodate 300 people at a time.

Upon the announcement dinner was ready, a mob rushed to the buffet. Chaos ensued. Foraging gentlemen grabbed large platters of food to carry to their guests, spilling much of it on the surging crowd. Glasses were smashed as waiters rushed in fresh supplies of delicacies. The next day, a New York Times newspaper account described the scene, “In less than an hour the table was a wreck. . . . positively frightful to behold.”3 The Washington Evening Star newspaper reported, “The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake, and debris of fowl and meat.”4 Despite this mishap, the ball was a great success. The president and first lady departed at 1:30 a.m., but dancing continued until dawn.


Questions for Reading 3

1. Imagine you are attending Lincoln’s ball. What do you see? What are you experiencing?

2. What does Walt Whitman’s reflection tell us about the history of the Patent Office Building? What had it been used for in the recent past? Do you think others at the ball might have shared this memory about the building?

3. How did guests behave when supper was announced? Do you think that would happen today in such a formal setting, taking into consideration the location of the buffet table? Why or why not?

4. What was done with the money raised by selling tickets? Do you think this was a good way to justify the opulence of the ball during wartime? Explain your answer.

Reading 3 was excerpted from Charles J. Robertson, “Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball," in Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark, Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution in association with Scala Publishers Ltd, 2006.

1 Charles J. Robertson, Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark (London: Scala Publishers, 2006), pp. 53-54.

3 “The Inaugural Ball,” The New York Times, 8 March 1865.

3 "The Inaugural Ball,” The New York Times, 8 March 1865.

4 "The Inaugural Ball,” The Washington Evening Star, 2nd edition, 25, no. 3749, 8 March 1865.

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