February 5, 1862 – First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held a grand ball for 500 guests at the White House, despite the continuing war.
Mrs. Lincoln’s idea to hold a gala event only for selected invitees disregarded advice from State Department protocol officers, who urged her to either hold small private affairs or open the White House to the public. All guests were required to present a ticket to gain admittance, and several took offense at not being invited. Attendees included members of the cabinet, military (including General-in-Chief George B. McClellan), diplomatic corps, Congress, Supreme Court, and prominent social circles, along with their spouses.
Senator Benjamin F. Wade of Ohio, insulted by the ticket of invitation advertising a “dancing party,” sent a message: “Are the President and Mrs. Lincoln aware there is a Civil War? If they are not, Mr. and Mrs. Wade are, and for that reason decline to participate in feasting and dancing.” The first lady relented and removed dancing from the program.
Guests began arriving in carriages at 9 p.m. They were allowed into the Green, Red, and Blue parlors, and the Lincolns received them in the East Room, with the president wearing a black swallowtail coat. Mrs. Lincoln showed off the newly refurbished White House residence, with the U.S. Marine Corps Band playing a new song, “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Both President and Mrs. Lincoln periodically disappeared upstairs to check on their son Willie, who lay seriously ill with typhoid and was being tended by doctors.
The dining room doors opened at midnight for the guests to indulge in an enormous buffet provided by Maillard’s of New York, America’s most lavish caterer. The New York Tribune reported that it was “one of the finest displays of gastronomic art ever seen in this country.” The correspondent for the Washington Star called the ball “the most superb affair of its kind ever seen here,” with the buffet featuring “turkey, duck, venison, pheasant, partridge and ham.”
Despite criticisms about the first lady holding such a lavish ball while Americans languished in the despair of war, social circles generally praised her efforts.
Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7066-76; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 413-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 167; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q162