Mrs. Lincoln Hosts Grand Reception at the White House

February 5, 1862

White House party is held which the Washington Star calls the “Most superb affair of its kind ever seen.”  Invitations to 600-700 people had been issued so that Mrs. Lincoln could show off White House, whose redecoration had cost more than $20,000.  Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning wrote that the party was  a very large and very brilliant one.  Did not get home til 2 Oclock in the morning.”   Lincoln assistant William O. Stoddard wrote that “it was an exceedingly brilliant and distinguished assembly.  Seldom, indeed, on this Continent, have so many men of mark been gathered at one time under one roof….It was almost strictly ‘official,’ few, indeed, obtaining admission, who had no official claim to an invitation.”

The event was described by residential aide John G. Nicolay as a “very respectable if not a brilliant success.  Many of the invited guests did not come, so that the rooms were not at all over-crowded.  Of course the ladies were all beautifully dressed having no doubt brought all their skill and resources to a culmination for this event….the East Room was filled with well dressed guests, looking very beautiful and the supper was magnificent.”  Guests came from congressional, military and diplomatic circles and were admitted only with their invitations in hand.  Nicolay noted that begging for tickets was such that attendees “will be forever happy in the recollection of the favor enjoyed, because their vanity has been tickled with the thought that they have attained something which others have not.”

Nicolay wrote his fiancé: “The grand party came off last night according to programme, and was altogether a very respectable if not a brilliant success.  Many of the invited guests did not come, so that the rooms were not at all over-crowded.  Of Course the ladies were al beautifully dressed having no doubt brought all their skill and resources to a culmination for this event.  A lamentable spirit of flunkeyism pervades al the higher classes of society, they worship power and position with a most abject devotion, and cringe in most pitiable slavishness to all social honors and recognitions.  Those who were here, therefore, (Some of them having sought, and almost begged their invitations,) will be forever happy in the recollection of the favor enjoyed, because their vanity has been tickled with the thought that they have attained something which others have not.

I will not attempt the labor of a detailed description of the affair…Suffice it to say that the East Room was filled with well dressed guests, looking very beautiful and the supper was magnificent, and that when all else was over, by way of an interesting finale the servants (a couple of them) much moved by wrath and wine had a jolly little knock-down in the kitchen damaging in its effects to sundry heads and champagne bottles….”

Boston journalist Ben Perley Poore reported more extensively on the reception: “Washington ‘society’ refused to be comforted.  Those within its charmed circle would not visit the White House, or have any intercourse with the members of the Administration.   This gave great annoyance to Mr. Seward, who used diplomatic and consular appointments, commissions, and contracts unsparingly for the purchase of a friendly feeling.   At his urgent solicitation the President consented to an evening reception at the White House, by invitation. ‘I don’t fancy this pas business,’ said the President, good-naturedly, but the metropolitan practicians could not refrain from applying for them.  The evening of February 5th, 1862, found the court-yard of the White House filled with carriages and ambulances brining ‘fair women and brave men.’”

“The President and Mrs. Lincoln received their guests in the East Room, where he towered above all around him, and had a pleasant for those he knew.  Mrs. Lincoln was dressed in a white satin dress with low neck and short sleeves.  It was trimmed with black lace flounces, which were looped up with knots of ribbon, and she wore a floral head-dress, which was not very becoming.   Near her was her eldest son, Mr. Robert Lincoln (known as the Prince of Rails), and Mr. John Hay, the President’s intellectual private secretary.  In addition to the East Room, the Red, Green, and Blue Parlors (so named from the color of their paper-hangings and the furniture) were open, and were ornamented with a profusion of rare exotics, while the Marine Band, stationed in the corridor, discoursed fine music.

“Mr. Seward was in his element, escorting, as in duty bound, the ladies of the Diplomatic Corps.  Mr. Chase, the dignified and statesman-like Secretary of the Treasury, seemed to have forgotten for the moment that his coffers were ‘short.’  Mr. Stanton, vigorous and thoughtful, was the object of much attention, and the patriarchal locks and beard of the not over-scintillant Secretary of the Navy were, of course, a feature.  The other members of the Cabinet were present, as were Justices Clifford, Wayne, and Grier, of the Supreme Court.

Senator Sumner, as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, was the centre of a diplomatic circle, where all the ‘great powers,’ and some the smaller ones, were represented.  Ladies from the smaller ones, were disappointed in not seeing the gorgeous court costumes, having forgotten that our court-dress is the undertaker-like suit of black broadcloth so generally worn.   But they gazed with admiration upon the broad ribbons and jeweled badges worn on the breasts of the Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor, Knights of the Bath, etc., ‘with distinguished consideration.’  Vice-President Hamlin might have called the Senate to order and had more than a quorum of members present, who, like himself, had their wives here to cheer their labors. Mr. Speaker Grow could not see around him so large a proportion of the ‘Lower House,’ but there was — so a Kentucky lady said — ‘a right smart chance of Representatives.’

General McClellan, in full uniform, looked finely.  Among his staff officers were the French Princes, each wearing a captain’s uniform.  The Comte de Paris was tall and very handsome, while the Duc de Chartres was taller, thinner, less handsome than his brother.  Both were remarkably cordial and affable, and, as they spoke English perfectly, they enjoyed the gay scene.  General Fremont, in a plain undress suit, seemed rather downcast, although his devoted wife, ‘Jessie,’ more than made up for his moodiness by her animated and vivacious conversation.   There were, besides Generals McDowell, Stone, Heintzelman, Blenker, Hancock, Hooker, Keyes, Doubleday, Casey, Shields, and Marchy, with Captain Dahlgren and the Prince Salm-Salm.  Of those present many fought, and some fell on the various fields of the next three dreadful years.   There were others who were destined to do their duty and yet be mistaken and defrauded of their just inheritance of glory.   Such was the fortune of war.

An incident of the evening was the presentation of General Fremont to General McClellan by President Lincoln.   General Fremont was in the hall, evidently about to leave, as Mrs. Fremont had her shawl on, and Senator Sumner was escorting her toward the door, when the President went after them, and soon turned toward the East Room, with the Pathfinder at his side, Senator Sumner and Mrs. Fremont following.   The presentation was made, and a few remarks were exchanged by the Generals, two men who were destined to exert a marked influence on the future destiny of the nation.

A magnificent supper had been provided in the state dining-room by Maillard, of New York, but when the hour of eleven came, and the door should have been opened, the flustered steward had lost the key, so that there was a hungry crowd waiting anxiously outside the unyielding portal.  Then the irrepressible humor of the American people broke forth — that grim humor which carried them through the subsequent misery.   ‘I am in favor of a forward movement!’ one would exclaim.  ‘An advance to the front is only retarded by the imbecility of commanders,’ said another, quoting a speech just made in Congress.   To all this General McClellan, himself modestly struggling with the crowd, laughed as heartily as anybody.  Finally the key was found, the door opened, and the crowd fed.

The table was decorated with large pieces of ornamental confectionery, the centre object representing the steamer ‘Union,’ armed and bearing the ‘Stars and Stripes.’  On a side table was a model of Fort Sumter, also in sugar, and provisioned with game.   After supper promenading was resumed, and it was three o’clock ere the guests departed.  The entertainment was pronounced a decided success, but it was compared to the ball given by the Duchess of Richmond, at Brussels, the night before Waterloo.  People parted there never to meet again.  Many a poor fellow took his leave that night of festivity forever, the band playing, as he left, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.’

The Abolitionists throughout the country were merciless in their criticisms of the President and Mrs. Lincoln for giving this reception when the soldiers of the Union were in cheerless bivouacs or comfortless hospitals, and a Philadelphia poet wrote a scandalous ode on the occasion, entitled ‘The Queen Must Dance.’

There was no dancing, nor was it generally known that after the invitations had been issued Mrs. Lincoln’s children sickened, and she had been up the two nights previous to the reception watching with them.  Both the President and Mrs. Lincoln left the gay throng several times to go up and see their darling Willie, who passed away a fortnight afterward.  He was a fine-looking lad, eleven years of age, whose intelligence and vivacity made him a general favorite.   Some of his exercises in literary composition had been so creditable that his father had permitted their publication.  This bereavement made Mr. Lincoln and his wife very indulgent toward their youngest son, who thenceforth imperiously ruled at the White House.

Published in: on February 5, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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