Saturday, December 17, 2011

First White House Levee of the 1861-62 Winter Social Season

On December 17, 1861, the Lincolns hosted their first public reception at the Executive Mansion of the 1861-62 winter social season.  While thousands of soldiers were encamped in and around Washington, the harsh realities and carnage of the war had not fully set in.  Major battles in the coming year at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg would change all that.  But, that lay in the future. For now, Washingtonians could enjoy the holidays and a respite from the war.

An illustration of a White Reception during the winter 61-62 social season that appeared in Harper's Weekly on January 26, 1862. (Son of the South)

The reception, which was held in the East Room, began at 8 in the evening and was scheduled to last until 10:30.  William Watts Hart Davis, a colonel in the 104th Pennsylvania, remembered the large crowd: "squeezing and pushing, smashing of hoops, and treading on tender dresses, all sorts of people in all sorts of costumes, and homely women with sharp shoulder-blades and low-necked dresses."  Davis also remarked on the simple etiquette of the evening, which he found refreshing, and reinforced the idea of the White House as belonging to the people.

Photograph of the South Portico of the White House during the Civil War.  (White House Historical Association)

This was no ordinary party for Washington high society such as those of antebellum days, but drew senior military officers and others who the war had brought to Washington.  The Washington Evening Star's observed that the crowd consisted, "pretty largely of the military ingredient, but including, as well, a smart sprinkling of black coats and crinoline."  Several cabinet members and and a number of members of Congress attended the reception.  The British minister, whose government was threatening war with the U.S. over the Trent affair, saw fit to stay away that evening as did the French and Spanish ministers.  However, the diplomatic corps was represented by the ministers of Russia, Sweden, Bremen, and Nicaragua.  Other notables present included famed balloonist Thaddeus Lowe.

Horatio Nelson Taft, a politically connected Patent Office clerk, noted in his diary that General McClellan and his wife drew the most attention as the "observed of all observers."  A correspondent of The Baltimore Sun recounted that "the rush of people for a time to get a sight of him [McClellan] impeded his progress, but he managed, however, to pass quietly from the room after promenading once across it."  The New York Herald reported that the "cordiality" with which the the President and General McClellan greeted each other, "gives the lie to the repeated assertion that there is not a perfectly good understanding between them, and that the former does not have confidence in the latter."

The President and First Lady stood in a receiving line to greet their guests.  The New York Herald observed that "the President, although not wearing that ruddy glow that he had when he first came to Washington from the West, looks quite healthy, and was as pleasant and social ..."  The First Lady was dressed in a a "figured  silk brocade with her head brightly wreathed in flowers," and appeared to be in fine spirits.

The East Room betrayed little hint of its brief use as quarters for  Union volunteers earlier in the war.  Mrs. Lincoln, a noted spendthrift had recently overseen redecorating of the Executive House.  The levee provided an opportunity to showcase her renovations of the Executive Mansion, which included buying imported drapes, carpets, dishes and furniture while exceeding Congressional appropriations by nearly $7,000.  The New York Times noted that "the principal apartments of the Executive Mansion have been refitted and refurnished, and this, with the recent artistic decoration, has increased the attractions of the place." 

Illustration of soldiers camped in the East Room early in the war.  By winter 1861, the soldiers were gone and the room had been redecorated along with the rest of the White House. (White House)
 The Marine Corps band provided music throughout the evening.  When it was getting late and time for the President to adjourn to his private quarters, the band played 'Hail Columbia' to signal for everyone to go home.

A photograph of the East Room circa 1862-67.  During the Lincoln Administration, the East Room had wall-to-wall red and blue floral carpeting, wallpaper with gold highlights, large glass chandeliers, tall golden mirrors.  (White House Historical Assoc)

The Baltimore Sun, December 17 and 19, 1861.
Davis, William Watts HartHistory of the 104th Pennsylvania Regiment.   Philadelphia:  J.B. Rogers, 1866.
New York Times, December 16, 1861.
Washington During the Civil War:  The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865.  Available online at Library of Congress.
Washington Evening Star, December 18, 1861.


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