American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

Featured Document: “Washington, District of Columbia. Crowd at President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration” (March 4, 1865)

Published March 30, 2011

As we prepare to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama this month, historical comparisons are perhaps inevitable. Indeed, the president-elect himself has encouraged them by choosing to appropriate two potent symbols of a previous inauguration, that of his presidential idol, Abraham Lincoln.

As has been widely reported, President-elect Obama will be using the burgundy velvet-covered Bible used by Lincoln at his first inauguration in 1861. In addition, the president-elect will replicate the last leg of Lincoln’s inaugural train journey to Washington from Springfield, Illinois, where Obama launched his presidential campaign almost two years ago. Lincoln’s 1861 journey took twelve days, during which time he made 101 speeches, stopping in cities as large as Philadelphia and Baltimore and as small as Peekskill, New York. While President-elect Obama’s itinerary is somewhat more modest, he will also hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls that Lincoln encountered. Arriving at Washington’s Willard Hotel, Lincoln reputedly found he had misplaced his inaugural address (other variations of the story have the document being lost in Cleveland and Indianapolis). On a more sinister note, rumors of an assassination plot circulated in Baltimore, always a hotbed of southern sympathies, and Lincoln was ridiculed by the media for “sneaking” through the city, with false reports circulating that he had disguised himself in military attire or hidden in his luggage.

Lincoln’s inauguration, March 1865
Source: Alexander Gardner, “Washington, District of Columbia. Crowd at President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration,” black and white photograph, 1865; from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

In an added note of historic poignancy, the Library of Congress recently announced that it had uncovered several photographs of Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865. The photographs, including the one shown above, were misidentified as being from Grant’s inauguration, the confusion arising from a mislabeled date that was only recently spotted by a researcher. Of particular interest is the presence in the photo of African-American soldiers, visible in the bottom right-hand corner of both frames. African-American soldiers marched in a presidential inauguration for the first time on that mud-spattered day in March 1865.

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