Portrait: Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration, March 1861


Abraham Lincoln had little time to celebrate his inauguration as President of the United States on March 4, 1861. Already since his election the prior November, his country had crumbled. Seven states had seceded to form the Confederate States of America and inaugurated Jefferson Davis their president. War seemed likely. Lincoln himself literally had to sneak into Washington to avoid assassination plots. Soldiers guarded his every move. His former law partner Billy Herndon described Lincoln that day as “filled with gloomy forebodings of the future.”
Still, thirty thousand well wishers crammed into Washington for the swearing in that day. After a damp and cold morning, the sun broke through by the time Lincoln reached Capitol Hill. His inaugural speech, which he read while standing beneath the unfinished Capitol Dome, would be among his finest, and both the ceremony and the ball that night went off without a hitch.
The drawing here, a full-page panorama from Harper’s Weekly, shows Lincoln and outgoing President James Buchanan riding together to the ceremony, just reaching the foot of Capitol Hill. Buchanan tips his hat to the crowd. Click on the image to see it full size. Notice the double row of soldiers with bayonets lining the route, the cavalrymen leading the carriage. One soldier on a horse just behind the carriage holds a spyglass toward the crowd. Not seen here are the sharpshooters stationed in nearby windows and on rooftops, the soldiers patrolling side streets, and the additional infantrymen marching behind — all in case of trouble.
The pomp and ceremony seem so normal in this image, and give little sign of the carnage to come. Within a few months, war would come and, before it was over, over 600,000 soldiers North and South would die and countless thousands more would be crippled or maimed for life. But on this day, the transfer of power went smoothly, crowds could still cheer, politicians could still wave their hats, and people could still be happy.

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