Hotels and Other Public Buildings

The scope of the President’s “visits” around Washington rather limited. He arrived in Washington at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Station, near the capitol, which was the only railroad station in Washington, from which one could only take trains to and from the North. On a few occasions in his term in office, such as his speech at the Gettysburg Cemetery on November 19, 1863, the President had to use the train station. Noted assistant William O. Stoddard, “He never could be persuaded to travel any distance from the scene of his immediate duties – never out of close communication with the army.”1

When he arrived in Washington in February 1861, Mr. Lincoln and his family took up temporary residence at Willard’s Hotel, a rambling structure on Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House. The visitors were packed three to a room. ‘The halls and parlors are radiant nightly with ladies, many stopping at the house, and others who come in from the neighborhood to spend the evening, to see, be seen, promenade, dance, etc.,” wrote one New York visitor. “Besides the large number stopping at this house, hundreds are attracted from the other hotels, and private houses, hoping to get a look at Mr. Lincoln and occasionally they succeed in their wishes, but it increases the jamb to an intolerable degree, and renders it unpleasant.”2 For those visiting Washington, Willard’s was the natural headquarters of the Union. It was a center of gossip, commerce and politics, but after his inauguration, the President generally avoided it – letting his secretaries who ate in the Willard’s dining room collect the gossip instead.

One occasion on which Mr. Lincoln violated that rule was when Union General Robert C. Schenck was brought to the hotel to recuperate after being wounded in the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. Many other Republican politicians – such as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase – had already tried to persuade Schenck to run against Copperhead Democrat Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio. According to Vallandigham biographer Frank L. Klement, Mr. Lincoln “called upon Schenck, trying to convince him that he could do a greater service by sidetracking Vallandigham than by leading a brigade on the battlefield. Further, the president assured Schenck that a major general’s commission would soon be his. Schenck, although Vallandigham’s neighbor in Dayton, bowed to the pressure exerted by Chase and Lincoln.”3 Although Democrats swept most congressional seats that fall, with the aid of redistricting Schenck defeated Vallandigham – to the great pleasure of Republicans.

Some presidential trips, such as those to the photographic studios of Matthew Brady, might be tedious. Others might be more fun — such as those to Stuntz’s toy store. Although Tad found much to amuse himself around the White House, Stuntz’s toy store on New York Avenue was where the President took his son Tad in search of additional diversions. “Inside was a long tunnel of a room whose shelves were piled high with everything a child could wish. To enter it was like going into a Christmas scene in toyland. Here Mr. Lincoln could watch Tad’s illumined face and, throwing off his burdens for a moment, enter the uncomplicated world of a child’s delight,” wrote historian Ruth Painter Randall.4 Other outings might be sad – as when President Lincoln traveled to Oak Hill Cemetery in July 1862 for the burial of Edwin Stanton’s infant son. Mr. Lincoln’s son Willie had been buried in Oak Hill Cemetery on Road and Washington Streets in Georgetown only five months earlier.

On his first Sunday in Washington, President-elect Lincoln attended St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Park from the White House. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln had been married by an Episcopal minister, but Mrs. Lincoln considered herself a Presbyterian. Although the President himself belonged to no church, his regular church home was New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short distance from the White House. He had regular contacts with other clergy, however, and made his final cabinet appointment in order to appease Methodist supporters.

The President’s social life was rather circumscribed. “When Mr. Lincoln first came to Washington, as President, there was very little in the way of public amusement to call out him or anybody else, and for a long time he worked away steadily in his official treadmill, hardly caring for or thinking of any such thing as recreation,” wrote Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard. “Gradually, however, under the auspices of new managers of experience and enterprise, the crowded and excited capital was endowed with several highly meritorious places of amusement, theatrical and musical. A good degree of healthy sociability was restored to the various social circles of the city. The very levees at the White House became more brilliant, more conversational, and less insufferably tedious. All other faces put on a more cheerful aspect, and, though Mr. Lincoln never, to the day of his death, entirely recovered the old elasticity of his spirits, he seemed to feel in some degree the general reaction, and was willing to listen to the various plans suggested for relaxation and amusement.”5

Mr. Lincoln frequently went to Secretary of State William Seward’s house and the War Department telegraph office at night, but his only real diversion were occasional lectures at the Capitol or the Smithsonian or more frequently, trips to Grover’s or Ford’s Theaters. Historian Allen C. Guelzo wrote: “Once in Washington, Lincoln took every opportunity to be a regular theater-goer, attending the opera nineteen times (for Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment), visiting Leonard Grover’s National Theater on E Street twenty-one times, and John Ford’s Theater (itself a converted Baptist church, rebuilt after a fire in 1863 as a ‘magnificent new Thespian temple’) on 10th Street at least ten times during the presidency. There, without fear of serious interruption by office-seekers or generals, usually in the company of his secretaries or an invited politician or just his footman, Charles Forbes, Lincoln could indulge his passion for the stage.”6

The relaxation was important. Biographer Josiah G. Holland related: “A lady who was, for a time, a member of his family, related to the writer an incident touching his love of music and its effect upon him. One evening he was prevailed upon to attend the opera. He was very tired, and quite inclined to remain at home; but, at the close of the evening’s entertainment, he declared himself so much rested that he felt as if he could go home and work a month.”7

Mr. Lincoln “went often to the theatre, usually accompanied only by a friend, and taking pains to enter the place unrecognized,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. “He sought the theatre only as a means of amusing a spare hour, diverting his mind from the cares and sorrows that weighed him down. Naturally fond of music, he was glad, when he had an opportunity, to listen to the signing or the playing of some visitor who might call on the family….And he seemed to find his greatest pleasure in simple and pathetic ballad music. Generally, however, he was kept too busy in his cabinet, during the evening, to go down to the parlor, where Mrs. Lincoln received her friends. It was her custom, when those called whom she thought the President would like to see, to send him word; and his excuses, if he did not come, were accepted.”8 One person who did not normally go to the theater with the President was son Robert Todd Lincoln. “Personally I never attended a play with my father, but that was a purely accidental matter, as I was very little in Washington while he was there.” At least one acquaintance of Robert said he blamed himself for not accompanying his parents to Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and perhaps preventing his father’s assassination..”9

In October 1862, John Hay described the city’s growing theater scene: “An enterprising manager named Grover, bought a circus, turned out the horses and turned in Setchell, who makes people laugh, and therefore, deserves well of the Republic. Mr. Ford, seeing the path to usefulness lay in the same direction, entered a Baptist Church, kicked out the Deacons, and made private boxes of their stalls, and with commendable despatch cushioned the mortified pews into comfort, and consecrated the temple anew to Thalia.” He added that “Ford’s Theatre has been, during the last month, the scene of a most brilliant dramatic triumph, one which does as much honor to the audience as to the artist.”10

President Lincoln did not always pay attention at these performances. Union officer James Grant Wilson wrote:”About the end of March, 1865, I accompanied to the theatre the President, Mrs. Lincoln and the young lady who was with him when the assassin’s bullet closed his career a fortnight later. He sat at the rear of the box leaning his head against the partition paying no attention to the play and looking so worn and weary that it would not have been surprising had his soul and body separated that very night. When the curtain fell after the first act, turning to him, I said: “Mr. President you are not apparently interested in the play.’ ‘Oh, no, Colonel,’ he replied; ‘I have not come to for the play, but for the rest. I am hounded to death by office-seekers, who pursue me early and late, and it is simply to get two or three hours’ relief that I am here.’ After a slight pause he added: ‘I wonder if we shall be tormented in heaven with them, as well as with bores and fools?’ He then closed his eyes, and I turned to the ladies.”11

It was a diversion that got him away from the White House on April 14, 1865 but cost him his life. Mr. Lincoln went to the theater to relieve the pressure of his job, but the effect was not always evident to on-lookers. Elizabeth Custer, wife of General George Custer and a free theater-goer, noted in April 1864 that the president was “the gloomiest, most painfully careworn looking man I ever saw. We have sat in a box opposite him at the theatre several times, and reports of his careworn face are not at all exaggerated.”12

James Grant Wilson went to Grover’s Theater with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln on March 15, 1865. The President appeared to doze through much of the performance, but he awakened to put his hand on Colonel Wilson’s shoulder and tell him a story about General Ulysses S. Grant: “Well, when Grant was about ten years old, a circus came to Point Pleasant, Ohio, where the family lived, and the boy asked his father for a quarter to go to the circus. As the old tanner would not give him the necessary coin, he crawled in under the canvas tent, as I used to do; for in this days. I never possessed a quarter of a dollar. There was a clever mule in that circus that had been trained to throw his rider, and when he appeared in the ring it was announced that any one in the audience that would ride him once around the ring without being thrown would win a silver dollar. There were many candidates for the coin, but all were thrown over the animal’s head. Finally the ringmaster ordered the mule taken out, when Master Ulysses presented himself saying: ‘Hold on, I will try that beast.’ The boy mounted the mule, holding on longer than any of the others, but at length, when about seven-eights of the ring had been achieved amid the cheers of the audience, the boy was thrown. Springing to his feet and throwing off his cap and coat, Ulysses shouted in determined tone: ‘I would like to try that mule again,’ and again the audience cheered him. This time he resorted to strategy. He faced to the rear, seized hold of the beat’s tail instead of his head, which rather demoralized the mule, and so the boy went around the ring, winning the silver dollar. And, just so General Grant will hold on to Bob Lee.”13 It was the last time President Lincoln attended the theater until the night of his assassination.


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times, p. 190 (from William Stoddard, White House Sketches, No. 12.”).
  2. Harry E. Pratt, editor, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 67-68.
  3. Frank L. Klement: The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War, p. 105.
  4. Ruth Painter Randall, Lincoln’s Sons, pp. 138-139.
  5. Michael Burlingame Editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Report of Lincoln’s Secretary: William O. Stoddard, p.190.
  6. Allen C. Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, p. 316.
  7. Josiah G. Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, pp. 430-431.
  8. John S. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, p. 69.
  9. Goff, Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right, p. 69 (Nicholas M. Butler, “Lincoln and Son,” Saturday Evening Post, February 11, 1939).
  10. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 321.
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p.425 (James Grant Wilson, Putnam’s Magazine, February-March, 1909).
  12. Ralph Kirshner, The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames and Their Classmates after West Point, p. 69.
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 425.


John Hay