Civil War in Washington DC: The Willard Hotel and President Lincoln’s Inauguration

by Sandra Merville Hart

By 1860, the Willard Hotel, located at 1401 Pennsylvania NW, was a center of activity in the bustling capital then known as Washington City.

The South began seceding after Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. He had to travel from Illinois to Washington City for his inauguration.

Allan Pinkerton, head of Pinkerton National Detective Agency, learned of assassination plots for president-elect Lincoln’s life in Baltimore. He feared that he would be killed. Though Lincoln was reluctant to believe his life was in danger, he agreed to Pinkerton’s alternate travel plans. It meant that his family would come later. Ward Hill Lamon was Lincoln’s bodyguard.

Unfortunately, secrecy was required to ensure Lincoln’s safety. That meant he arrived at dawn in Washington City without the fanfare that normally accompanies such an event.

The president-elect was ushered into the less-crowded ladies’ entrance to Willard Hotel on 14th Street where one of the Willard brothers met him on February 23, 1861.

Many people ridiculed Lincoln for sneaking into the city and he soon regretted his decision.

Mary and the boys arrived and the family stayed in a comfortable second-floor suite.

Henry Willard learned that Lincoln had forgotten to pack his bedroom slippers and talked to his wife. She offered him a colorful pair that she recently knitted for her grandfather. Lincoln borrowed them for the remainder of his stay.

Mary Todd Lincoln didn’t receive the same warm welcome from the Washington society ladies at the hotel. They seemed to dislike her from the beginning.

Abraham Lincoln stayed at Willard Hotel for ten days. Then his Inauguration Day arrived. On March 4, 1861, over 25,000 people gathered at the Capitol to witness the swearing in of the sixteenth president.

No one could have foreseen the turmoil of the next four years on that cloudy, blustery day.

The Willard Hotel is steeped in history. There is a scene at this hotel in my novel, Avenue of Betrayal, Book 1 of my “Spies of the Civil War” series, where the characters dine there. I was thrilled to use such an important location as part of the story.  


Epstein, Daniel Mark. Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, Ballantine Books, 2004.

Selected by Dennett, Tyler. Lincoln and the Civil War In the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939.

“The Willard Hotel,” White House History, 2020/06/11

“The Willard Hotel in the 19th Century,” Streets of Washington, 2020/06/11

Waller, Douglas. Lincoln’s Spies, Simon & Schuster, 2019.