Democrat James Buchanan succeeded Franklin Pierce as President, serving from 1857 to 1861. Pierce had failed to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for reelection in 1856 due largely to his inability to calm the growing tensions in the country over the issue of slavery. Buchanan proved no better.
Benjamin Brown French had left government service in the summer of 1855 after serving for two years in President Pierce’s administration. Finding himself increasingly at odds with the pro-slavery stance of the Democratic Party, French had joined the new Republican Party in 1856, and had become a leader in the local party establishment in Washington, D.C.
During the Buchanan years, French kept busy with family matters, which included caring for his wife Bess, who was suffering from illness, and tending to their fine home and garden in Washington. He took pride in his young adult son Frank’s admission to practice law in New York City and was continuously frustrated over his teenager Benny’s lack of ambition. As French described in his journal, “(Benny) is given to fine dressing and rowdyism. He hates to study or to do anything useful…”
French earned an income as an attorney representing clients with claims against the federal government. He left this work behind him in mid-1860, when the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives elected him to the paid position of Clerk of the Committee of Claims.
Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States on Nov. 4, 1860. French wrote on Nov. 11, “Lincoln is President-elect of these United States. My political hopes so far are realized, but my fears that the threats of the South are really to bring trouble upon the whole Union, by being carried into stern action, almost render me joyless at the grand result.”
In early 1861 French was appointed as Marshal-in-Chief for Lincoln’s inaugural parade, an enormous responsibility. He had his first opportunity to speak with Lincoln at a reception on March 1, and later wrote in his journal, “I had considerable conversation with Mr. Lincoln, and was very much pleased at his offhand, unassuming manner, and I believe he will make a first-rate president.”
On March 2, 1861, the Evening Star newspaper in Washington published the “Order of Procession” for the parade provided by Marshal-in-Chief B.B. French. The article stated that French “particularly desires that the Marshals, Assistant Marshals, and Aides will wear common black hats, black frock coats, black pantaloons over boots, and white or light-yellow buckskin gauntlet gloves.” French also specified the colors of the men’s scarves, rosettes, saddle cloths and batons.
The parade participants began arriving at Washington’s city hall at 9 a.m. on inauguration day, Monday, March 4. The “column of march” was organized according to French’s plan, and it began making its way toward Capitol Hill at 11 a.m. The procession, which included numerous military units and hundreds of government officials and other dignitaries, stopped at the Willard Hotel where Lincoln had been staying. There the open carriage carrying Lincoln and President Buchanan joined the parade near the front of the line.
Thousands of onlookers crowded the parade route, and windows and balconies were filled with people, and some had even climbed trees to get a better view. Sharpshooters were strategically stationed on top of buildings due to the fear of an assassination attempt.
The parade stopped at the Capitol Building, where Lincoln took the oath of office and gave his inaugural address from the east portico. Seven southern states had already seceded from the Union, yet hope remained that war could be avoided. Lincoln’s closing remarks at the end of the ceremony will never be forgotten: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
After the impressive ceremony, the military units reformed in procession, and accompanied President Lincoln and Mr. Buchanan’s carriage to the White House.