In August 1861, just after the Union Army was routed at Bull Run in the first big Civil War battle, the new First Lady deemed it “absolutely necessary to her health that she should enjoy a release from her arduous responsibilities in the more invigorating air of the sea shore,” the New York Times reported.
Long Branch, she decided, would provide the cure. It was a fashionable resort—a rival to Newport and Cape May and a destination for Parisian dress designers scouting the latest American styles—and Mary Todd Lincoln’s visit would give it lasting presidential cachet.
She stayed at the grandest hotel in town, the Mansion House, whose gingerbread piazzas stretched along the beach like an elongated version of the steamboats that brought many of the vacationers. “There are subdued complaints,” the Times wrote, “that the wife of the President is not as accessible as she should be, and that she has taken only one or two airings on the beach since she arrived.”
But all was forgiven at the “grand hop” held in her honor, which, it was written, “excelled in the brilliancy of its appointments, and threw into the shade all previous entertainments of the kind.” A band played patriotic airs. Gentlemen wore white cravats and white kid gloves. Mrs. Lincoln arrived at 10 pm with a wreath of white flowers in her hair. She left at midnight, but the echoes of her visit reverberated for decades.
Seven presidents followed her to Long Branch, including James Garfield, who died there in September 1881 while convalescing from his shooting nearly three months earlier, making it the nation’s summer capital for much of the next half-century.