New Year’s Day reception at the White House

January 1, 1864

It was a cold, clear day for President Lincoln’s annual New Year’s Day reception.  Navy Secretary Gideon Welles writes in his diary: “A bright day ushers in the year.  Yesterday’s northeast storm had disappeared, and the clouds fell to the earth in heavy rain last night.”  Welles added: “Went with my family to the Executive Mansion at 11 A.M. to pay our respects to the President.  Foreign ministers and attaches were there.  Navy and Army officers came in at half past eleven.  The house was full when we left, a little before twelve.”“

Benjamin Brown French, federal commissioner of buildings, writes in his diary: “I left home about 10 A.M., [January 1], the sun shining and wind blowing from the N.W. Went to the President’s At 11 The Diplomatic Corps, Judiciary, & members of the Senate and House came.  Mrs. Lincoln not being quite ready, The President appeared without her, and the reception commenced.  At ½ past 11 she appeared and did here part of the reception with her usual ease and urbanity.  After the above-named dignitaries, the officers of the Army and Navy came, and then the people en masse.   Mrs. Lincoln remained till ½ past 12 and then, concluding she had done her duty, left, bidding me good morning.  Supposing my duty over I left.  I understand she afterwards returned, and my friend Mr. Stoddard acted in my place.

On leaving the President’s I went to P.M. Gen. Blair’s & saw him and his agreeable & handsome wife.  From there I went to Gov. Seward’s, then to V.P. Hamlin’s, who had a nice entertainment, and with his amiable wife and daughter made all callers perfectly at home.  At V.P. H’s I met my friend, Hon. E.B. French, with whom I went to Secy. Chase’s, where we found a crowd, and the elegant Mrs. Senator Sprague doing, in her usual graceful manner, the honors of the Mansion.  I think her one of the most lovable women I ever saw, and I wished her many, many, happy years from my very heart.  From Secy. Chase’s we went to Mayor Wallach’s where there was feasting in abundance…

Journalist Noah Brooks writes: “Here in Washington, New Year’s day was kept after the usual fashion of visiting and being visited.  The day was fearfully cold and windy, it being a galey day, if not a gala day, and last night was the coldest of the season, water pipes freezing up as tight as the money market, while the morning newspaper and the milkman were alike snapped up by the nipping frosts.  Yesterday the President received his friends and the public generally at the White House, beginning with the Diplomatic Corps, army officers and naval and marine officers, at eleven o’clock in the day.  These gentry made a brave show, as they marched up in all of their gold lace and toggery, General Halleck heading the military crowd, Seward leading his pet lambs of the diplomacy, and Admiral Davis sailed in at the head of the squadron of naval officers.  The foreign Ministers were especially gorgeously arrayed, being covered with stars, garters and medals of honor; the rush for a glimpse of these gay birds was very great, and Secretary Seward looked very like a molting barnyard fowl among peacocks, in such illustrious company.  The rush of the great multitude was as great in as in former years; and the crushing and jamming of bonnets and things was fearful.  One woman became separated from her family and a tender female shriek being heard, the paterfamilias of the lost one was sure that it was the voice of his beloved which he heard; likewise, his son, a youth of tender years, was led to believe that his mother was killed; whereat he bawled exceedingly, and there was a great deal of excitement at the entrance to the great drawing-room, where all of this took place, until every Jack got his Gill and all went well again.

The President looks better since he has had the varioloid.  I don’t mean to insinuate that the disease has added any new charms to his features; but his complexion is clearer, his eyes less lack-luster and he has a hue of health to which he has long been a stranger.  He stood up manfully against the great crush and bore the hand-shaking like a blessed old martyr, as he is.  My feminine readers will be interested to know that Mrs. Lincoln wore a purple velvet dress, decorated with white satin flutings (isn’t that what you call it?)  around the bottom; Valenciennes lace was on the sleeves, and an immense train flowed out behind.  Mrs. Lincoln never looked better than in the dark, rich tones of her reception dress, in which sh has, for the first time, left off her mourning garb….”

Count Adam Gurowski writes in his diary that generals “parade in splendid array, the stared ones!  misnamed generals.   Marses who very well known not to do it.  Halleck, the mighty do-nothing Commander; Meade, the disorganizaer of victory, and the man of maoeuvres, they and their adjuncts.  All of them bats, not eagles.”  Among the generals in attendance was General George C. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac.  CHECK  write in Meade at Gettysburg “Meade’s trip to Washington to see the President was made memorable when Margaret came down from Philadelphia to attend the New Year’s Day reception.  Both of them thoroughly enjoyed the White House affair.  Meade gracefully paid his respects to Mrs. Lincoln, who appeared with white flowers in her hair and a black lace shawl draped over her silk gown.  ‘How elegantly Mrs. L looked and how affable the Sec. [Stanton] was to you,’ he recalled to Margaret when memories of the trip were still vivid.

Boston journalist Ben Perley Poore wrote later: “At the New Year’s reception Mr. Lincoln was in excellent spirits, giving each passer-by a cordial greeting and a warm shake of the hand, while for some there was a quiet joke.  Mrs. Lincoln stood at his right hand, wearing a purple silk dress trimmed with black velvet and lace, with a lace necktie fastened with a pearl pin; her head-dress was ornamented with a white plume.   Secretary Seward was there, sphinx-like and impassible.   Governor Chase seemed somewhat perplexed, balancing, perhaps, between the succession to the Presidency or the Chief Justiceship; Secretary Welles’ patriarchal form towered above the crowd, and there were a few Senator and representatives, a majority of either House being, on dit, enjoying the hospitalities of new York.  But the army officers, as they came in from the War Department, headed by General Halleck, presented an imposing display, some with epaulettes and feathers, but a majority in battle attire.  The naval officers, headed by Admiral Davis, also presented a fine appearance.

“At twelve o’clock the portals were thrown open, and in poured the people in a continuous stream.  For two hours did they pass steadily along, a living tide, which swept in, eddied around the President and his wife, and then surged into the East Room, which was a maelstrom of humanity, uniforms, black coats, gay female attire, and citizens generally.

Chicago Congressman Isaac N. Arnold attends the reception:  “After congratulating the President on the great victories which had been achieved in the East and the West, and the brightening prospects of peace, [Arnold] said:

‘I hope, Mr. President that on next New Year’s day I have the pleasure of congratulating you on three events which now seem very probable.”

“What are they?” said he.

“First, That the war may be ended by the complete triumph of the Union forces.

“Second, That slavery may be abolished and prohibited throughout the Union by an amendment of the Constitution.

“Third, That Abraham Lincoln may have been re-elected President.”

“I think,” replied he, with a smile, “I think my friend, I would be willing to accept the first two by way of compromise.”

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