Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Plywood Steps

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 19, 2011

Today the SCV will be sponsoring a sesquicentennial parade and reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. It will be interesting to see how many folks turn out for this event, and what sort of media coverage it gets.

I’ve never visited the Alabama State Capitol, but it nonetheless resonates with me because of a story told me many times by an old friend. In the summer of 1965 he was in high school, and lived with his family in Houston. The family’s social life revolved around church, where my friend’s father was music director and a deacon, and their vacations usually consisted of going to family reunions. This was not a lot fun for a teenager.

My friend prevailed upon his parents that summer to fore-go the usual family reunion, and instead take a long driving trip across the South, with particular attention to visiting Civil War sites. This was in the last year of the Civil War Centennial, and my friend already had a pretty big fascination with the subject.

Their visit to Montgomery came a few months after the famous Third Selma-to-Montgomery March, which had ended with a rally at the State Capitol, yards from the spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in a century before. My friend remembered that event vividly, and was as interested to see the Capitol as much for that recent history as for its association with the Civil War. One thing he remembered clearly from watching coverage of the anticipated rally was that the capitol steps, at least some of them, had been covered with sheets of plywood. These formed a steep slope, and my friend hadn’t quite figured it out. Maybe, he thought, they’d been put out to allow people in wheelchairs to participate in the rally, but they seemed at too great an incline for that.

So when he actually visited the Alabama State Capitol a few months later, my friend made it a point to ask about the plywood. What was it for, he asked a state trooper on duty nearby. What was the purpose of the plywood covering the capitol steps?

“So the coloreds couldn’t desecrate them,” was the trooper’s answer.

Is it fair that I think of that story every time I see a mention of the Alabama State Capitol or Jeff Davis’ inauguration? Probably not, but the paths our minds take when we think about things, and how we feel about them, often isn’t fair. It just is.

My friend, a son of the South, continued his fascination with the war, and the Confederacy. By his own admission, he bought into the Lost Cause without hesitation, even tacking up an enormous Confederate Battle Flag in his college dorm room at a school that had only desegregated a few years previously. But looking back on his youth now, all these decades later, he sees that offhand comment by the Alabama state trooper at Montgomery, juxtaposed against Jeff Davis’ inauguration and the Selma-to-Montgomery March, to have been the first, crucial step in his questioning of the Lost Cause and developing a more mature, complex understanding of both the history of the war and the historical heritage of his own family. It was the beginning of a hard process of realization, and it took him a long time to understand the realities of those events, and ugly legacies of them that have come down to us, right to the present day.

Added: Scott MacKenzie, via Kevin Levin, attended today’s event (with a little cardboard “UNIONIST” sign) and has the pictures.


Image: Inauguration of Jefferson Davis, Montgomery, Alabama, 1861. Library of Congress.

200 Dozen Quails, Larded and Roasted. . . .

Posted in Leadership by Andy Hall on July 15, 2010

President Grant reads his Second Inaugural Address at the East Front of the Capitol, March 4, 1873. Seated, bareheaded, to Grant’s immediate left is Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who had run against Grant the previous November. Image: Library of Congress.

In the U.S. presidential election of 1872, Ulysses S. Grant coasted to an easy victory, with 55% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes, more than a hundred more than needed to win the White House. Washington prepared for a grand inaugural, the first for a president reelected in peacetime since Andrew Jackson. Trains to Washington was swarmed with “inauguralists,” carrying with them only enough hand luggage to accommodate a couple of nights’ stay in the city. But that first week of March 1873 proved to be bitterly, bitterly cold. The president’s speech, delivered on the East Front of the Capitol, was mercifully short at just 1,338 words.

Grant’s inaugural procession marches up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. Image: Library of Congress.

But the preparations, months in the making, proceeded apace. The correspondent from the Titusville, Pennsylvania Herald got a sneak peek at the ballroom under construction a few days before the big event:

The ball room, with its sixty chandeliers is nearly completed; the arched ceiling being one mass of crimson and gold ornaments, on a back ground of white muslin. The bases of the arches that span the building and in support the roof, some thirty in number, are covered with a framework running up some twenty feet, and coming to a point at the top, not unlike the gable ends of the ancient buildings of Nuremberg. The woodwork m painted in imitation of columns, the colors used being light brown and yellow. On tho space at the top are painted patriotic legends, such as ”Pro Bono Publico,” “Ecce Homo,” etc. At the back of these the sides of the ball room are covered with white muslin so that the decorations stand out in bold relief.

The designs for the ends of this room are also very elegant. The one at the north end will represent an arch supported by columns, under which a [illegible] ground of red, white and blue will bear the names of Grant and [Vice President-elect Henry] Wilson. The whole finished off with the coat of arms of the United States, banners, festoons, gas-jets, transparencies, etc. The design at the opposite (south) end is not so elaborate, but still very neat. From a red Maltese cross in the center will radiate festoons of the national colors, bearing appropriate inscriptions in frames of laurel and gold. Looking down the immense hall, tbe effect produced is very beautiful.

The planned menu was no less grand. From the Waikato Times (New Zealand), 15 July 1873:

Presidential Bill of Fare — The grand “inauguration ball” in honor of President Grant, was given at Washington on the 5th inst., and if the assembled|guests consumed all the supper provided for them they must hare got almost satisfied by the close of the entertainment, and let us hope comfortable on the morning of the 6th inst. The following is the list of things, which, according to the New York Herald, of the 2nd inst., had been forwarded from that city to Washington in preparation for what it terms ” the grand blowout:” — 10,000 fried oysters; 8,000 scalloped oysters; 8,000 pickled oysters; 65 boned turkeys of 12lb each, 150 roast capons, stuffed with truffles; 15 saddles of mutton, about 10lb each; 40 pieces of spiced beef, 40lb each ; 200 dozen quails, larded and roasted; 100 game pates, 50lb each; 300 tongues, ornamented with jelly; 30 salmon, baked; Montpelier butter; 100 chickens; 400 partridges; 25 bears’ heads, stuffed and ornamented; 40 pates de foie gras, 10lb each; 2,000 head cheese sandwiches; 3,000 ham sandwiches; 3,000 beef tongue sandwiches; 1,500 bundles of celery; 30 barrels salad; 2 barrels lettuce; 350 chickens boiled for salad; 1 barrel of beets; 2,500 loaves of bread; 8,000 rolls; 21 cases Prince Albert crackers; 1,000lb butter; 300 Charlotte russes, 1½lb each; 200 moulds white jelly; 200 moulds blanc mange; 300 gallons ice cream, assorted; 200 gallons ices, assorted; 400lb mixed cakes, 150lb large cakes, ornamented; 60 large pyramids, assorted; 25 barrels Malaga grapes; 15 cases oranges; 5 barrels apples; 400lb mixed candies; 10 boxes mums; 200lb shelled almonds; 300 gallons claret punch; 300 gallons coffee; 200 gallons tea; 100 gallons chocolate; besides “oil, vinegar, lemons, and trimmings of all sorts.” The cost of this feast had not vet been estimated, but for the baking and preparing alone $10,000, and for the hire of the dishes $5,200 (with breakage and damage to be made good) had been paid. The supper would of course have been a little more bountiful, but that unfortunately the Americans are at present clothed in sackcloth, and engaged in rigidly observing the Lenten fast.

Despite such a vast and remarkable menu — and really, who wouldn’t be proud to lay out “25 bears’ heads, stuffed and ornamented” for a few thousand of your closest friends — the inaugural ball didn’t go well. Learning a lesson from his first inauguration, where the space allotted had been insufficicient for the crowds, a cavernous temporary structure was built on Judiciary Square. It was magnificently outfitted and decorated (above), but lacked one critical feature: it had no heat. On the evening of the ball, the mercury dropped to four degrees below freezing. A strong wind rippled through the huge building as guests put on their overcoats and bundled up against the chill. Hundred of canaries, brought in to sing and chirp happily, dropped to the bottom of their cages, frozen.

President Grant’s second inaugural ball, March 5, 1873. Library of Congress. The artist discretely omitted the fur coats, overcoats and hats donned by the attendees to keep out the cold. Image: Library of Congress.

Reflecting Grant’s own emphasis on civil rights, the inaugural committee had insisted that the ball be opened to all, “without distinction of race, color or previous condition.” But news reporters recorded disdainful descriptions of well-dressed African American couples, and commented on Naval Academy midshipmen dancing with “the wives of colored congressmen.” The dancing for all, to be sure, was enthusiastic; everyone took regular turns on the dance floor to keep the blood flowing in the deep winter chill. Little of the food was touched, and it soon congealed into a cold mess. Party-goers swarmed the hot coffee, tea and chocolate, which soon were exhausted. The guests, who’d purchased tickets at $20 each (about $370 today), had almost all gone home by midnight.

The Boston Daily Globe reported on March 7 that the ball had posted a net loss of $20,000.

h/t: Suzy Evans, Lincoln’s Lunch.