After helping to organize the dedication event for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., that took place on Nov. 19, 1863, Benjamin Brown French continued in his role as Commissioner of Public Buildings for Washington, D.C.
He was kept busy by his many duties, including overseeing the construction of the Capital Dome. The fantastic cast-iron structure continued to rise throughout the Civil War, serving as a palpable symbol that the nation would endure despite the terrible conflict that was raging between the Union and the Confederate States.
French also carried on with his role as a trusted personal aide to President and Mrs. Lincoln, assisting with their many White House receptions. These typically featured long lines of people — dignitaries and sometimes members of the public — who were eager to greet the Lincolns in person. French’s special duty was to introduce visitors to Mrs. Lincoln who, as French wrote in his journal, typically “did her part of the reception with her usual ease and urbanity.”
On April 2, 1865 Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and his followers abandoned Richmond, Va., which had served as the capital of the Confederacy since May 1861. The Union’s nine and a half-month campaign against Richmond and Petersburg, Va., ended the next day when the two cities surrendered. Confederate soldiers retreating from Richmond set fire to armaments, bridges, and strategic buildings. The flames raged out of control, leaving much of the city in smoldering ruins.
The people of Washington reacted to the fall of Richmond with pure jubilation. As French described, “… I found all the population apparently about half crazy. Women were on balconies waving flags, and at windows waving handkerchiefs. Men were shouting and shaking hands and running to and fro … cannons were being fired, bands of music were moving rapidly from place to place playing ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and I immediately found myself, involuntarily, marching to the music.”
French was ordered to illuminate all the public buildings in Washington as part of a grand patriotic celebration to be held the next day, Tuesday, April 4. He and his staff succeeded in arranging for the Capitol Building, the White House, the State Department, the War Department, the Treasury Department, the Post Office, the Patent Office, the Library of Congress, and other federal structures to be lit up. Owners of many residences, offices and stores also lit up their own buildings. A local newspaper reported the next day that “The city after nightfall was a blaze of illumination, and the gleam of fireworks, the crash of inspiring music, and the declamations of popular speakers added to the inspiring effect.”
French wrote, “After lighting up my own house and seeing the Capitol lighted, I rode up to the upper end of the City, and saw the whole display. It was indeed glorious … I have never seen such a crowd out-of-doors in my life …” He wrote with pride that he had arranged to have a huge transparent banner hung on the Library of Congress that was lit by gaslight, with enormous letters painted on it that read, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes,” a verse from the 118th Psalm.
On April 9, 1865, after losing the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, Commanding General of the United States. Although other military actions would occur later, this event effectively marked the end of the Civil War. The next day French and his wife Mary Ellen embarked on a sightseeing trip to Richmond, which is about 97 miles south of Washington. They were part of a large group made up of congressmen, senators, congressional staffers, and their wives.
In Richmond, the Frenches toured Jefferson Davis’ mansion, which French found to be “elegantly fitted up and furnished.” He commented, “Jeff skedaddled, leaving everything in order.” They climbed to the top of a government building, “from where we had a view of the entire city, and then we could fully appreciate the vandalism — the revenge — the wickedness … Nearly all the business portion of the city was a heap of smoking ruins!” French and Mary Ellen later returned to Davis’ mansion, where French had someone play Yankee Doodle on Davis’ piano.