Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Disastrous Dinner Party with Prince Napoleon

Prince Napoleon in 1860
After an awkward first meeting at the White House on August 3, 1861, Abraham Lincoln invited Prince Napoleon to a dinner party at the White House later that evening.

Napoleon accepted and Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, threw herself into party preparations. As a fan of French fashion, Mary Todd was ecstatic about the opportunity to impress the French nobleman and spared no expense on the event. She personally selected the menu, flowers and even the vegetables from the White House garden.

Yet, despite her best efforts, she also stumbled in her attempt to gain the favor of the prince. The night started off badly when the Marine band played the French national anthem “La Marseillaise ” upon Napoleon's arrival. As this song was written after the French Revolution for the newly formed French Republic, which the prince's uncle, Napoleon I, then overthrew during his coup de'tat in 1804, and the song was banned by the prince's cousin Napoleon III for a period of time during his own rule, it was more than inappropriate. During the dinner, renowned Union General, Winfield Scott, continued to alienate the prince when he bragged that his own military career could be compared to that of Napoleon I.

Abraham Lincoln 1861
Despite the gaffes, the prince did not let on that anything displeased him and politely ate his dinner and talked with the other guests before he gave his farewells at the end of the evening.

It wasn't until 50 years later when a French magazine published excerpts from Prince Napoleon's diary that his true feelings were revealed. Describing his hostess for the evening, Napoleon wrote:

Mrs. Lincoln was dressed in the French mode without any taste; she has the manner of a petit bourgeois and wears tin jewelry.” He also described the meal that evening as “a bad dinner in the French style.”

Napoleon was not kind to Abraham Lincoln either, describing him as:

“badly put together, in a black suit,” with “the appearance of a bootmaker. What a difference between this sad representative of the great republic and her founding fathers!” yet also stated he was “a good man, but one without greatness nor very much knowledge.”

Mary Todd Lincoln
Napoleon's Lieutenant Colonel, Camille Ferri Pisani, had much kinder words for the Confederates, whom he met after leaving Washington the next day and heading south to inspect their army. After a meeting with Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Pisani praised Beauregard in a letter to a friend:

“He is very brave. Everything in him points to a remarkable military aptitude, if not to superior intelligence.”

Obviously enamored with the Confederates, he also praised the Confederate cavalrymen:

“Their beautiful male Virginian faces, their magnificent mounts and the boldness of their riding technique make it impossible not to admire these ragged riders.”

Yet, despite Napoleon's uncomfortable experiences at the White house, the French diplomat's bias for the Confederates and France's business connections to the southern cotton industry, which France relied on heavily for a steady supply of cotton, France never sided with either the Union or the Confederates and officially remained neutral throughout the entire war.


American Heritage; The Tour of Prince Napoleon; 1957; Volume 8; Issue 5

New York Times; a Peevish Prince, a Hairy-Handed President, a Disastrous Dinner Party; Adam Goodheart; August 2011

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