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Cool Things - Ball Gown Worn to Lincoln Inaugural

Gown worn to Lincoln's inaugural ball by Margaret Usher

The wife of the Secretary of the Interior wore this gown to President Abraham Lincoln's  inaugural ball.

Margaret Usher's husband, John Palmer Usher, first became acquainted with Lincoln in the mid-1850s when both men were attorneys in Indiana and Illinois. Lincoln appointed Usher Secretary of the Interior in 1863 after the latter had served nearly a year as Assistant Secretary. Upon learning of her husband's appointment, Margaret wrote from Indiana: "I do most heartily congratulate you and rejoice in your good fortune. I do not believe that Mr. Lincoln could have made a better selection."

The couple was living in Washington, D.C., when, two years later, President Lincoln was reelected for a second term. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1865. Because of Usher's position in the president's cabinet, he and his wife of course received an invitation to the inaugural ball held two evenings later.

Margaret Usher chose to wear this smoke blue silk gown with blue velvet trim and gold silk balls to the ball. Her dress consists of an evening bodice (pictured below, left), skirt and jacket (pictured above, right). View the back of the skirt and jacket. One newspaper reported that 5,000 people attended the event.

Usher resigned from his post just four days after the ball. Lincoln accepted his resignation and agreed that Usher would step down in May. In the meantime, Margaret left Washington to visit relatives in Illinois. The day after she left, John Wilkes Booth shot the President while he attended a performance at Ford's Theatre. The President died the following morning.

Evening bodice for ball gown

 

The Assassination

Usher wrote to his wife after Lincoln's death and described the events surrounding the assassination. Usher had attended a cabinet meeting the morning of April 14 where, he claimed, "the President never appeared to better advantage." Later that day, Usher dined with friends and returned to his hotel where he learned that the President had been shot. He rushed to the side of the dying leader:

"I found the President in a house opposite the theatre into which with some difficulty I was permitted to enter. He was upon a bed in a low back room with a shed roof scarcely large enough to admit twenty persons. I heard his thick heavy breathing as soon as I entered the outside door. . . . Soon Mrs. Lincoln came in and the scene that then occurred beggars description . . . he never opened his eyes or spoke a word but remained wholly insensible. His breathing was deep almost a snore till toward the last it was almost a moan."

One month later, Usher stepped down as Secretary as he and the President had agreed. He wrote to Margaret,"My dear wife, This is the last of the Secretary. In the morning I turn all over to Mr. Harlan." Usher left Washington for Kansas to become the Solicitor General for the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific Railroad. Eventually he and Margaret settled in Lawrence, Kansas, where Usher served as Mayor from 1879 to 1881. Margaret lived in Lawrence until her death in 1911.

This dress is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History. A copy of the invitation is in the Kansas Historical Society's State Archives. 

In 2010, the museum received funds to preserve the ball gown through the American Heritage Preservation Grant project offered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  The gown currently is undergoing treatment by a professional conservator.

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Entry: Cool Things - Ball Gown Worn to Lincoln Inaugural

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2005

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.