Here Comes the Sun: Seeing Omens in the Weather at Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, Civil War and Reconstruction Specialist in the Manuscript Division. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, for a limited time [March 4-7, 2015] the Library of Congress will display both the four-page manuscript copy and the reading copy of the address in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building.)

Saturday, March 4, 1865, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, “opened rather disagreeably” with a combination of “drenching rain,” drizzling, and “a heavy gale” in the morning. Such were the downpours that The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) even joked “the police were careful to confine all to the sidewalks who could not swim.”

Crowds wade through pools of water and mud to attend Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, held on the east front of the United States Capitol, March 4, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Crowds wade through pools of water and mud to attend Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration, held on the east front of the United States Capitol, March 4, 1865. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Despite the foul weather, thousands of people assembled on the east front of the United States Capitol to witness the first president since Andrew Jackson being inaugurated for a second term of office. Lincoln’s second inauguration also offered the novelty of being the first inauguration held in the shadow of the Capitol’s newly completed cast-iron dome and witnessed by a substantial number of African Americans, some of whom wore blue uniforms reflecting their status as soldiers in the Union army. What a difference four years had made. In 1861, dust – not mud – was the problem, the dome was under construction, and black men were barred from service in the army.

After Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee was sworn in as vice president in the Senate chamber about noon, invited guests then moved outside to the East Portico of the Capitol to witness Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. The president stood behind a small metal table, put on his spectacles and read from a two-columned page of type, which he had cut-and-pasted to guide his reading of his inaugural address. At just over 700 words, Abraham Lincoln’s speech would be the second shortest presidential inaugural address in American history, while also managing to be one of the most profound and memorable. He identified slavery as the cause of the war and looked to God as the arbiter of how long the war would continue. And although the war had not yet ended, Lincoln looked forward to a national reunion by urging “with malice toward none; with charity for all” to achieve “a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” At the conclusion of Lincoln’s address, Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase administered the oath of office, and Abraham Lincoln had once again been inaugurated as president of the United States.

While we tend to remember the stirring words Lincoln spoke in his inaugural address, many who witnessed the event were also struck by the good omens seen in the weather. Accounts vary as to the exact timing of the sun’s appearance, but observers noted that while Lincoln gave his address and took the oath of office, the clouds parted and the sun shone brightly on the ceremony. Lincoln’s secretary John G. Nicolay wrote to his fiancé Therena Bates that “Just at the time when the President appeared on the East portico to be sworn in, the clouds disappeared and the sun shone out beautifully all the rest of the day.” Michael Shiner, an African-American laborer at the Washington Navy Yard recorded in his diary, “Before he came out on the porch to take his [word omitted] the wind blew and it rained with out intermission and as soon as Mr. Lincoln came out the wind ceas[ed] blowing and the rain ceased raining and the Sun came out and it was as clear as it could be….”

Abraham Lincoln reading his Second Inaugural Address. This was the only event at which President Lincoln was photographed while delivering a speech. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Abraham Lincoln reading his Second Inaugural Address. This was the only event at which President Lincoln was photographed while delivering a speech. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Several witnesses to the meteorological change interpreted it as a portent of better days ahead.

Charles Frederick Thomas, superintendent of construction on the Capitol dome, wrote to his family that “on Saturday morning there was a terrible Storm of wind and rain which continued for about an hour and then a few showers until about 11 o’clock. When the President commenced his address the clouds broke away, and by the time he had finished, the sun shone in all its splendor, which I may hope is a good sign for us.” Even Justice Chase, who when secretary of the treasury had not always appreciated Lincoln, wrote to first lady Mary Lincoln that “I most earnestly pray Him, by whose Inspiration it was given, that the beautiful Sunshine which just at the time the oath was taken dispersed the clouds that had previously darkened the sky may prove an auspicious omen of the dispersion of the clouds of war and the restoration of the clear sunlight of prosperous peace under the wise & just administration of him who took it.”

According to Lincoln’s friend, reporter Noah Brooks, even the president had noticed the sun’s appearance, and “went on to say that he was just superstitious enough to consider it a happy omen.” But as Brooks later considered the significance of the sunshine at Lincoln’s second inauguration, he noted that Lincoln, “illumined by the deceptive brilliance of a March sunburst, was already standing in the shadow of death.”

Abraham Lincoln would serve just over a month of his second term. He was assassinated by the actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, and died on April 15, 1865.

Lincoln’s words on March 4, 1865, live on, and his Second Inaugural Address is considered one of the finest ever delivered by an American president.

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