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Exhibit Highlights Lincoln's Second Inauguration

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Exhibit Highlights Lincoln's Second Inauguration


Exhibit Highlights Lincoln's Second Inauguration

Exhibit Highlights Lincoln's Second Inauguration

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum is displaying a piece of inaugural history. The exhibit includes artifacts from President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball in 1865. The exhibit is called "The Honor of Your Company Is Requested: President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball."


When Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Tuesday, his hand will be placed on the Lincoln Bible, the first time that Bible has been used since Abraham Lincoln's own inauguration back in 1865. Here in Washington, one can step back into that time in a different way by going to the party that celebrated Lincoln's second term. It was held in the elegant building that now contains the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and there you'll find displayed on the floor numbered shoeprints, arrows and a dance.

Mr. CHARLES ROBERTSON (Guest Curator, The Honor of your Company is Requested: President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball Exhibit, Smithsonian American Art Museum): No, four.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROBERTSON: Follow the arrow, of course.

MONTAGNE: This is embarrassing - oh, yes, and one.


MONTAGNE: Oh, that's rather elegant.

The Waltz was one of the more popular dances in Lincoln's day. Those dance steps are part of a new exhibit at the museum titled...

Mr. ROBERTSON: The Honor of Your Company Is Requested: President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball.

MONTAGNE: Charles Robertson is the guest curator of the exhibit. It traces Lincoln's brief time from his bid for reelection to his assassination at Ford's Theater. And at the heart of the exhibit is the gala event one Washington newspaper described as surpassing any previous event of the sort since inauguration balls were inaugurated.

What was the sense of things for this inaugural ball?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Right, you would think with the horrible, bloody casualties of the Civil War it would be a very solemn occasion, but in fact, because we were so near the end of the war and it was almost over, it was a time for celebration, euphoria, really.

MONTAGNE: And the party, says curator Charles Robertson, was open to the public.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Any gentlemen could buy a ticket for $10, which admitted him and two ladies of his choice.

MONTAGNE: One item on display shows just how much dancing was done that night. The rose-colored type is so faded Charles Robertson has to lean in close to make it out.

Mr. ROBERTSON: Here is the dance card which was specially printed for the occasion. So, some of the popular dances were quadrille, Scottish, lancers, polka, waltz, Virginia reel.

MONTAGNE: Taking up much of a wall nearby is a print so large you could almost dance into the night's festivities yourself.

Mr. ROBERTSON: It's an artist's conception of what this room looked like, and we see the gas lighting on pipes specifically installed for the ball hanging from the ceiling. We see the president and the first lady on a dais here on the edge of hall. And then on the other side, on a raised platform, was the band, and the band was paid a $1,000 for this - for the night, which was quite a substantial sum at the time.

MONTAGNE: All of those in attendance dressed to the nines; gowns, suits and military dress uniforms were the order of the night. Under glass, there's a gray silk lady's jacket actually worn to the ball. It has blue velvet trim and accents in the finest needlework. Then, like now, the night's fashions dominated the next day's news, especially for the first lady.

Mr. ROBERTSON: And so, the newspaper said Mrs. Lincoln, quote, "looked extremely well and was attired in the most elegant manner. She wore an elaborate white satin gown, complimented by jewelry of the rarest pearls and a fan trimmed with ermine and silvered spangles. Trailing jasmine and clustered violets adorned her hair."

Mr. ROBERTSON: But by far the most in newsworthy event of President Lincoln's second inaugural ball seems to be an extravagant midnight buffet.

Mr. ROBERTSON: There were huge confectionary models of the Capitol, of Fort Sumter, of Admiral Farragut lashed to the mast of his ship. I mean, this caterer went way overboard.

MONTAGNE: So did the guests. When there was not enough space for thousands of hungry revelers to eat all at once, the dinner turned into a melee.

Mr. ROBERTSON: They were jostled, glasses were broken and it was really chaos. The Evening Star reported, quote, "The floor of the supper room was soon sticky, pasty and oily with wasted confections, mashed cake and the debris of fowl and meat." And the New York Times reported, quote, "In less than an hour, the table was a wreck, positively frightful to behold."

MONTAGNE: And that's how the inaugural ball ended?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Well, they danced...

MONTAGNE: Did they go back to dance?

Mr. ROBERTSON: Oh, they danced until 4 o'clock in the morning, and some stayed even until dawn.

MONTAGNE: Charles Robertson curated The Honor of Your Company Is Requested: President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball, on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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