Civil War to Civil Rights
— Downtown Heritage Trail —
"Tonight, beautiful women, perfume, and the violins' sweetness ... [yet during the war] the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying." Walt Whitman
At 10:30 p.m. on March 4, 1865, a tired and gaunt President Lincoln arrived at this site, his wife Mary in white lace and silk with purple and white flowers in her hair. The ball celebrating his second inaugural was being held in the Grand Hall on the top floor of the Patent Office next to where you stand (today a Smithsonian Museum).
It was a bittersweet affair. Union victory was in sight, but the ravages of war weighed heavily on the president, and were reflected in his weary, weathered face. He left before the midnight supper, never being one for social occasions. In six weeks he would be gone, felled by an assassin's bullet at Ford's Theatre just two blocks from here.
Lincoln would have come this way often. The Patent Office and the General Post Office Building, facing it across F Street, were the two most important federal buildings to be built after the White House and the Capitol. Both buildings were designed in part by Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Treasury, and were partially complete by the time Lincoln came to Washington as a one-term congressman from Illinois in 1848. They towered over the little two- and three-story shops and homes around them. In one of these small buildings adjacent to the Post Office, Samuel B. Morse ran the nation's first telegraph office.
During the Civil War, this street would have been the scene of intense activity. The Post Office doubled as a food commissary. The Patent Office, scene of Lincoln's second inaugural ball, had been a hospital. The poet Walt Whitman, who nurse the wounded there, witnessed it all and recorded the dramatic contrasts.
Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held in the Patent Office, now a Smithsonian museum. ["Bill of Fare of the Presidential Inauguration Ball ..." ] (Library of Congress.)
Walt Whitman, about 1860. (Library of Congress.)
above and right
The Patent Office, seen in 1848, towered over the neighborhood. Samuel B. Morse ran the nation's first telegraph office on this block. (Library of Congress.)
A drawing of the Old Post Office Building about 1843 when only the section facing F Street was complete. A corner of the Patent Office appears at the left. (Library of Congress.)