A closer look: The frigid second inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, served his first term from 1869 to 1873. His second inauguration on March 4, 1873, went down in history as one of the coldest on record, the temperature reaching just 6 degrees at sunrise with driving winds from the northwest blowing throughout the day. “For the event great preparations had been made, and nothing occurred to mar the occasion, save the weather, and that could not have been worse," The Philadelphia Inquirer concluded. This rare stereoview image of the parade that morning, blurry as it is, reveals a windswept Washington on the cusp of many changes.

Detail of the Inaugural parade, March 4, 1873 (author's collection).


The photo was taken from the roof of a commercial storefront building on the southeast corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. We are looking to the northwest, gazing out over the rooftops. In those pre-elevator days, none of the buildings rose more than four stories, and most were shorter. Virtually none of these buildings survive today, save for the Treasury Department, which is dimly visible at the end of the avenue in the upper left.

The parade occupies only the southern half of Pennsylvania Avenue. Spectators are lined up in the middle of the street, standing on the eastbound streetcar tracks. Pedestrians and carriage traffic move freely on the open, north side of the avenue. Pennsylvania Avenue appears smooth and flat. As John Richardson recounts in his new book, Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation's Capital, the avenue had been paved in 1871 with wooden blocks as part of Governor Alexander Shepherd’s sweeping program of infrastructure improvements for the District. The rough cobblestones that had been there during the Civil War were a thing of the past.

The entire stereoview.
The avenue had also been cleaned for the inauguration, although the fierce winds nevertheless kicked up thick clouds of dust, which blew in everyone's faces. The Evening Star exulted about the city’s dignified appearance after all the work that Governor Shepherd had undertaken: “[I]t is a most fortunate circumstance that just at this period, so many strangers should visit our city. It cannot fail that they will give Washington its due, and return home with the conviction that the national capital is not the straggling village or mudhole they have been made to believe, but a rapidly progressing and prosperous city…”
Another view of the parade, as seen from the Treasury grounds (Source: Library of Congress).
The scene we are observing is the morning parade. It began at the White House, escorting the President to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony. After the ceremony and the inaugural address on the east front of the Capitol, the parade would resume in the afternoon to escort the President back to his reviewing stand at the White House.

On the Streets

As the parade began forming, Pennsylvania Avenue bustled with activity. “The avenue this morning was alive with fluttering decorations, and at an early hour many ladies took seats in the temporary balconies erected in front of the stores, buried to the chin in furs and wrappings,” the Star observed. “The private stands and windows along the entire route were crowded to excess." Shops along the parade route offered sandwiches, cups of warm coffee, and bowls of soup, all for ten cents each. "It is needless to say they were well patronized," according to the Star, "as also the cake stands situated on the cross streets." The Star noticed "an aged colored individual with his baggage and likely provisions in a coffee sack," making his way through the crowd, "greeting all whom he met with 'How you do boss.'" Hucksters held up signs offering "boots blacked," "clothes brushed," and "papers to read."  Meanwhile, the police were busy tamping down petty crime. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “the city was filled with pickpockets from the North, and they did a thriving business, judging from the numerous complaints made at police headquarters.”

Detail of the Blanchard and Mohun store at 11th Street.
Across the avenue in our image, D Street branches off at an angle to the right. (This segment of D Street is now gone.) We see several storefronts here—a photographic gallery where stereoviews such as this one would have been sold, a furniture store, and on the northeast corner of 11th Street, the Blanchard and Mohun bookstore, which had been founded before the war. Its second-floor balcony, festooned with bunting, brims with spectators.

Other businesses along Pennsylvania Avenue that were notably decked out for the celebration included Galt’s Jewelers, Ellis’ music store, Judd and Detweiler printers, Hall and Hume’s grocery, and Governor Alexander Shepherd’s plumbing business, located just south of here at 12th Street. Prominent restaurants, such as Oyster Bay, the Chesapeake, and Aman’s, were also brightly decorated, as were the big hotels, including the Ebbitt, Willard, National, Metropolitan, and St. Marc.

Calling card from the popular Aman's Restaurant, on 9th Street near Pennsylvania Avenue (Author's collection).
In our image, directly across 11th Street from Blanchard and Mohun's, stands a four-story building with a white front. In 1881 this building would become the offices of The Evening Star newspaper. At the time of the Grant inauguration, the Star had its headquarters across the street on the south side of the avenue. It was by no means the only newspaper in town, although it was one of the most prominent. The Washington Post would not be founded until 1877.

In the Parade

The parade consisted of an assortment of military units, marching bands, and civic organizations. The military units, decked out in their fancy regalia, were the most impressive. “The long line of human beings in their many styles and colors of dress, the glistening of rifles, the clash of sabres, the prancing of steeds all seemed to enthuse the looker on,” according to the Inquirer, while the Star commented on the drum majors, “with their magnificent chakos and batons, glistening with gold and silver,” wryly observing that “from their proud and erect bearing, it was quite evident that some of them 'felt' themselves." All told, some 12,000 marchers participated, including several units of African-American soldiers. “The sixth division consisted of colored troops, who, with their bands of music and drum corps presented a highly creditable appearance,” the Baltimore Sun noted.

Everyone tried to make the best of the inclement weather. "The participants in the procession, both civil and military, seemed to stand the cold remarkably well, though blue noses and watery eyes were the rule rather than the exception," the Star remarked, noting that “About 9 o’clock one of the West Point Cadets was overcome by the cold, while standing in line on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 21st and 22nd streets, and fell to the pavement. He was picked up by his comrades and carried into a bakery on the north side of the avenue, and Dr. Wm. Lee called in. Restoratives were applied and in a short time he recovered consciousness…”

The saga of frostbitten West Point cadets was one of several anecdotes about that day that would become richly embroidered as time went by. Original accounts mentioned only a few such victims at the most. The Baltimore Sun, for example, reported that “two or three of the West Point cadets had their faces, hands and feet badly frosted this morning, and several other soldiers suffered very severely from the intense cold and biting wind while forming and during the parade." Yet 13 years later the number had increased substantially. In his 1886 memoir, journalist Ben: Perley Poore recalled that "so intense was the cold that...many of the cadets and soldiers had to leave the ranks half-frozen." By 1995, historian Kathryn Allamong Jacob was writing that "A constant stream of ambulances transported frost-bitten cadets from the line of march to local hospitals." I could find no mention in contemporary accounts of such ambulances or hospitals.

President Grant appears

Meanwhile, President Grant joined the parade wearing a dark blue beaver overcoat with velvet collar and riding in a "handsome open barouche.” The elegant carriage was drawn by “four superb dun-colored horses of high mettle,… the proud-stepping animals attracting much admiring comment,” as reported by the Sun. Grant was "hailed with cheers as he progressed along the line of the march, the ladies in the windows and balconies waving their handkerchiefs and the gentlemen wafting their hats and caps in spite of the intense cold." At 7th Street, "one little fellow, almost covered in wraps, from which protruded only a blue nose, two cherry-red lips, and a pair of roguish eyes, made himself conspicuous...by breaking the line and running after the President's carriage for nearly half a block, shouting at the top of his voice, 'Hurrah for Grant!'"

Source: Perley's Reminiscences (1886).
Arriving at the Capitol, Grant met with senators and congressmen indoors and then came out to the inaugural stand on the east side of the building, where he was sworn in at 12:30pm. He then gave his inaugural address.

Grant at the Capitol. Source: Perley's Reminiscences (1886).
"Although the President read in quite a loud tone of voice, his words were inaudible even to persons directly below him, owing to the stiff breeze which was blowing at the time, and which interfered with the transmission of sound.... An enterprising photographer had erected a tower, on the summit of which he had perched his camera obscura, and during the reading of the address was busily engaged in taking views of the scene."

Grant's inaugural address on the Capitol steps (Courtesy of Nathan Moore).
After the inaugural address, the parade reformed and escorted the President back up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The Star noted that "The Boston Lancers [a military group] donned their overcoats on the return trip, the keen air reminding them of a New England winter's gale." At the corner of 10th street the parade paused briefly, and a crowd of spectators surrounded the President's carriage. "Two enthusiastic colored men advanced and shook hands with the President, the crowd cheering and swinging their hats," according to the Star.

The parade continued to the White House, where Grant and his family took their places on the reviewing stand to watch and acknowledge the rest of the marchers. Early that evening fireworks were set off from the south lawn of the White House while VIPs prepared for the much anticipated inaugural ball.
The ball

Inaugural balls in those days seemed to be cursed for one reason or another. We previously told the story of the supper table brawl at Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball at the Patent Office. Much care had been taken to ensure that Grant's inaugural ball would be in spacious quarters and would feature a supremely elegant dinner spread. A massive temporary wooden building was constructed at Judiciary Square, 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, costing $10,000. "It was complete in all its accommodations, and was profusely and elegantly decorated with flags, banners, mottoes, evergreens, flowers etc. It was brilliantly illuminated by thousands of gas jets," the Sun reported.

However, event planners failed to consider the possibility of unseasonably cold weather. “There is no use disguising the fact that the cold paralyzed all the good results for which the [organizing] committee have for many weary weeks worked so hard and so faithfully…,” the Star concluded. “The cold endured during the day scarcely acclimated any one for all to be endured at the ball…. Ladies, for the evening, ignored all vanities, and appeared in the warmest wrappings they possessed; gentlemen were en r├Ęgle in hats and overcoats…. It was late before the company arrived, as it took some time for everyone to make up their minds, after the sufferings of the day, to again venture forth.” Once they arrived, “everyone wanted something hot, and tea, coffee, and chocolate were in vogue and were swallowed in haste before the ball began.” The gourmet food all quickly turned cold and unappetizing, some guests even claiming that the champagne had frozen.

The inaugural ball (Source: Library of Congress).
Eventually, the sheer presence of some 6,000 people helped warm the flimsy ballroom. After the President arrived around 11:30pm, dancing began. Among the thick garlands and potted ferns typical of Victorian decoration were numerous canaries in cages suspended from the ceiling. “Much was expected in the way of cheerful music from the army of canary birds provided for the ball-room, but they were too cold to sing. Now and then a squad of them would get excited by the band-music, and set up a lively little song, but they didn’t find the temperature good for their throats, and pretty soon they would stop piping, put on their wraps, and tuck their bills and toes under their feathers for comfort,” according to the Star. "Not a canary-bird sang," journalist Mary Clemmer Ames later wrote. "No, they were as paralyzed with cold as the bipeds below."

The plight of the poor, shivering canaries touched many hearts and led to exaggerated stories over the years. Kathryn Allamong Jacob wrote that "those that hadn't perished were shivering balls of yellow fluff." A recent blog article went even further, claiming that dead canaries "slipped from their perches and fell on the unfortunate dancers below." However, I found nothing in contemporary accounts to suggest that any of the birds died. Even if they did, they were in cages and would not have fallen on the dancers.

Jacob wonders if Grant might have viewed the disastrous chill as an omen of bad times to come. Indeed, Washington—and the country at large—stood on the cusp of major political, economic, and social changes. Governor Shepherd would soon be removed from office, denounced as a "boss" by his political detractors, as Grant’s administration became embroiled in deeper corruption scandals. A financial panic that autumn would plunge the entire nation into economic decline for several years. And the hard-won civil liberties that African Americans had gained since the war—reflected in their ubiquitous presence and acceptance throughout the inauguration festivities—would soon be lost as Reconstruction ended in 1876, ushering in the harsh Jim Crow era.

But all of that was still in the future on this hopeful but ominously cold March day in 1873.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included Mary Clemmer Ames, Ten Years in Washington (1882); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington, A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (1962); Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Capital Elites: High Society in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War (1995); Mrs. John A. Logan, Thirty Years in Washington (1901); Ben: Perley Poore, Perley's Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the National Metropolis (1886); John P. Richardson, Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation's Capital (2016); and numerous newspaper articles.

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