White House celebrations and serenades, then and now — all part of American history


Watching the joyous crowd of revelers assembled outside the White House on Sunday evening, May 1, 2011, my thoughts wandered to descriptions of crowds at the White House in Abraham Lincoln’s day about the very different White House environment of Abraham Lincoln’s time.

Sunday night’s “Goodbye and Good Riddance Osama” rally took place outside a well-defined and wisely respected perimeter of the White House Grounds. But during the Civil War, celebratory Washingtonians would gather under the President’s balcony and carry on like a rock and roll concert crowd, until the President showed up to speak with them.

On April 10, 1865, the day after General Lee surrendered his Army to General Grant, President Lincoln was called on by spontaneous, exultant crowds at the porch of the White House (North Portico). An appreciative but cautious Lincoln declined both times on the 10th, but he did promise to speak more formally the next evening, if the crowds were willing to return to the White House lawn.

Not wanting to spoil the upbeat mood of his admirers, however, Lincoln made some extemporaneous comments on the 10th as well, including a charming re-appropriation of the song “Dixie” for the United States of America:

“Fellow Citizens: I am very greatly rejoiced to find that an occasion has occurred so pleasurable that the people cannot restrain themselves. [Cheers.] I suppose that arrangements are being made for some sort of a formal demonstration, this, or perhaps, tomorrow night. [Cries of ‘We can’t wait,’ ‘We want it now,’ etc.] If there should be such a demonstration, I, of course, will be called upon to respond, and I shall have nothing to say if you dribble it all out of me before. [Laughter and applause.] I see you have a band of music with you. [Voices, ‘we have two or three.’] I propose closing up this interview by the band performing a particular tune which I will name. Before this is done, however, I wish to mention one or two little circumstances connected with it. I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. [Applause.] I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.”

The next evening, April 11, 1865, the President delivered what would turn out to be his last formal speech. With four horrific years of suffering behind them, and looking for a positive message for the future, the crowd at the White House was both enormous and enthusiastic beyond expectations. The President delivered a speech, which first acknowledged the Union victory and the courage and heroism of the troops, then turned to his visions for Reconstruction. In that address, he strongly alluded to, although not explicitly committing, his emerging support for granting the right to vote to African-Americans. Like virtually everything else Lincoln wrote, this work is well worth reading in its entirety (and it’s relatively brief).

I found eight separate “Response to Serenade” entries in my copy of Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, (Don E. Fehrenbacher, 1989, Library of America), as well as the April 11, 1865, Reconstruction Speech, which more or less qualifies as a ninth response to a serenade by Lincoln. The other occasions, dates, and topics are:
• September 24, 1862, following his announcement of intention to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
• July 7, 1863, following news of the July 3 victory at Gettysburg. Grant had also accepted the surrender of a Confederate Army at Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, but that news had not yet reached Washington.
• October 19, 1864, to a crowd celebrating Maryland’s adoption of a state Constitution which abolished slavery. Lincoln used this occasion to quash rumors that, if defeated in the upcoming election, he would abandon the government or destroy it. Instead, he focused on the positive force needed to sustain a republic.
• November 8, 1864, on the night of Lincoln’s election to a second term as President. The final results were not yet in, but his remarks are appreciative, gracious to his opposition (as Lincoln always was), and hopeful.
• November 10, 1864, Lincoln delivered a more formal “victory speech” to another White House lawn audience.
• December 6, 1864, was a somewhat curious appearance. Essentially, Lincoln reported that he had nothing new to report, and encouraged everyone to cheer for and send best wishes to General Sherman, whose Army had been out of communication for a number of weeks, and still about two weeks shy of emerging in Savannah, Ga., to end it’s fabled march from Atlanta.
• February 1, 1865, Lincoln delivered an inspirational and visionary speech to a crowd, which had shown up at the White House to celebrate the Congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. (Ratification by the states was still in process, and the 13th Amendment would be formally adopted on December 6, 1865.)

In addition to having long been fascinated by a less guarded time during which one could show up at the White House and hope to hear from the President himself, I am also struck by the similarities to this past week’s spontaneous and unifying White House rally. Lincoln never failed to express his deepest appreciation for the true heroes in uniform, and he invariably left his audiences with an understanding that an occasion to feel joy was not to be mistaken for a completed mission.

This past Sunday was truly remarkable, and I was glad to have some historical perspective when I witnessed happy college kids climbing in trees and “tweeting” and taking pictures from Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C.

Patrick Teegarden is our resident expert on the Civil War. He can be reached at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.

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