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150 Years Ago: Wednesday, February 5, 1862


It’s dawn in Fort Henry, Tennessee. Confederate Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman and Colonel Adolphus Heiman have spent the last 24 hours preparing for a Union attack. The defense at the Fort is low, with only nine guns remaining above the rising river water. Tilghman knows that they don’t have the resources to hold the Fort. He makes the decision to take the majority of his 3,000 troops and move them 12 miles south overland to Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Along the way Union cavalry attempt to pursue them, but the roads are muddy and it makes fighting difficult, so the only damage they inflict is capturing a few Confederate prisoners.

This Confederate move leaves only a handful of artillerymen at Fort Henry. Heiman sends a message requesting reinforcements to Major General Leonidas Polk, who is more than 70 miles west in Columbus, Kentucky. He knows that reinforcements are very unlikely. The situation appears helpless, especially when Heiman receives reconnaissance information that greatly exaggerates the Union troop numbers and their movements. Tilghman and Heiman wait at their post, ready to receive a Union attack. It doesn’t come.

In Washington City, President Abraham Lincoln’s eleven year old son Willie is sick. He lies in bed with a fever and is finding it difficult to breathe. His mother Mary spends most of the day sitting beside his bed, holding his feverish hand in her own. Willie has been sick for a couple of weeks now, fluctuating between bad and good days. Today is one of the worse days he’s had. He’s been stuck inside and isolated from anything fun; he misses his younger brother Tad, his pony and their goats, Nanny and Nanko. His mother’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, keeps coming into the room, gently reminding his mother that she needs to get ready for this evening. He can tell his mother does not want to leave his side, but as First Lady she has a responsibility. She leans over to kiss him and smooths his brown hair, then heads across the hall to get ready after instructing the staff to interrupt her at any time if Willie’s status changes in the slightest. Doctors reassure her that Willie appears to be improving and is in no harm.

The highly anticipated and criticized White House ball is this evening. Between 600 & 700 invitations were sent out just days ago to politicians, diplomats, military leaders and members of high society. Holding the event had been of much debate, given Willie’s poor health and the simple fact that many in the President’s circle – including the President himself – thought it would be distasteful to celebrate and have lavish fun while hundreds of thousands of soldiers were in tents in the cold and rain, away from their loved ones. But there was also the argument that White House parties were tradition, so the Lincoln’s agreed to a modified engagement to suit the times. Everything has been carefully planned down to every last detail, but Mary adds a last minute change: Because of Willie’s illness, there will be no dancing tonight.

With the help of Elizabeth, Mary puts on a white satin gown with a low neck and short sleeves, trimmed with black lace flounces which are looped up with knots of ribbon. Last week they had received the news that Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had passed away in December. One of England’s primary diplomats, Lord Richard Lyons, is going to attend tonight so Mary had requested that Elizabeth incorporate black into the dress to symbolize mourning and sympathy for the Queen’s loss. To finish the outfit Mary graces the top of her head with a floral headdress, which is a signature look she often uses for White House events.

It’s time for the President and First Lady to make their entrance and greet their guests. Abraham comes into the room, gazing and smiling upon his wife. “Ooohh…our cat has a long tail tonight,” he says playfully to Mary and Elizabeth. He notices that once again she chose to have Elizabeth make her a dress with a very low and revealing neckline. Mary looks upon her husband for approval. Abraham is not willing to give her complete satisfaction. “Mother, it is my opinion that if some of that tail was nearer the head it would be in better style.” Mary knows this is the best she will get out of her husband; he does not understand the heavy burden on her to have the most fashionable attire and to appear as beautiful as possible so the press & high ranks of society will not criticize her appearance. She once again instructs her staff to summon her if there is any change in Willie’s condition and heads downstairs with her husband.

White House East Room After 1861 Remodel (Source: Library of Congress)

The Marine Band plays in the Central Hall while the President, First Lady and their son Robert (who is home from Harvard) stand at the receiving door of the East Room. This event is the first official showcase of Mary’s $20,000 expenditures (using government money) to remodel the dingy and outdated White House they had acquired, so visitors are allowed to walk in the various rooms on the first floor. Jessie Benton Fremont, wife of Major General John C. Fremont, greets the President and notices that his face seems very sad. Instead of welcoming his guests, the President speaks of his sick boy Willie. He tells Jessie and her husband that his son is very ill and that he fears the result. Jessie expresses their hopes for Willie’s recovery and walks away feeling a great deal of pity for a man with such a grieved appearance.

White House East Room, February 5, 1862 Ball (Source: Library of Congress)

Approximately 500 guests fill the rooms, making it a packed house while still providing space to comfortably move about. For several hours guests listen to the band playing respectable and patriotic songs, including a new song called “The Mary Lincoln Polka.” Around midnight everyone makes their way into the State Room for dinner, only to find two larges pieces of ornamental confectionery. The center object representing the steamer “Union”, armed and bearing the “Stars and Stripes.” On a side table is a model of Fort Sumter also built out of sugar and provisioned with game. The food has been brought in from New York and contains a variety of delicacies, which are said to cost over $1,000; though several would maintain later that the President paid for this out of his own pocket and did not use taxpayer money.

Throughout the night both Abraham and Mary sneak upstairs to check on Willie, whose health appears to be worsening. Guests stay as late as 3am and many call the evening a great success, though some still strongly disagree with the choice to hold such a lavish function during a war. This debate will not end after tonight.

About thecivilwarproject

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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