Tag Archive | Civil War history

Circus Trip 2018: Mary Todd Lincoln House

Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018

Lexington, Kentucky

The Mary Todd Lincoln House itself was built between 1803 and 1806, and originally served as an inn.  If you don’t know Mary Todd Lincoln or why you should care about her family home, she was the wife of our 16th President Abraham Lincoln. Mary’s father, Robert Todd, purchased the 14 room mansion in 1832 and lived here until his death in 1849.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House

 

Mary Todd Lincoln – 1846 – from Wikipedia

Mary was born in 1818, and didn’t move here until 1832, and even then, spent much of her time living in a boarding school for girls about a mile away.  Even though she could have traveled back and forth to school from home, she felt that staying at the school was a better option; she described the school as being more of a home for her than the home with her father and stepmother.  In her late teens, Mary moved to Springfield to live with her sister.  That’s my long way of saying that Mary Todd Lincoln really didn’t spent much time living in the Mary Todd Lincoln House, even though it was the family home during a part of her childhood.

Unfortunately, legal disputes after Todd’s death meant that the home was auctioned.  In the days after it left the Todd family, it was used as a boarding house, a grocery store, and even a brothel.  By the 1950s, the home was in rough shape, and a grassroots campaign began to save the home.  It was opened as a museum in 1977, making it the first museum dedicated to a First Lady.

Due to the fact that it is dedicated to Mary Todd Lincoln’s life, it tells a different story of her than is frequently depicted.  They are honest about her struggles with grief and mental illness but they also share that Mary was a very intelligent woman who played an enormous role in shaping her husband’s political career.  Abraham Lincoln married up; Mary Todd came from the upper class – high society of the West.  She knew politics, was very ambitious, and was not a woman content to wait in the wings in what was a society controlled by men.  The docents let visitors know about Mary’s qualities and her genteel upbringing.  They share openly about her trouble with her stepmother, and the fact that her father was often absent.  It was Mary’s sisters who felt more like mothers to her.

The home has been restored to what it would have looked like when Mary Todd Lincoln lived here, and they have been able to acquire some of the original Todd furnishings and household goods that were in the home.

They also have artifacts from Mary’s later life, including an original advertisement announcing the last night of Our American Cousin from its run at Ford’s Theatre, the play that Mary and Abraham attended the night Lincoln was assassinated.  If you read the date, you see that it was advertising the last night as Friday, April 14, 1865, the very night Lincoln was shot.

An advertisement for Our American Cousin

The docents at the home really do a great job of telling the story of Mary as her own person, rather than an extension of her later President husband.  As I have said, they are honest and candid about her shortcomings.  However, they also explain that her own and President Lincoln’s opponents painted an unfair portrait of her in the media, and their later “tell all” books.  Sensationalism drives sales; this hasn’t changed since the 1800s, and what better way to make a buck?

They allow photos within the home (yay!) and allow enough time in each room for guests to see everything and ask questions.  They really encourage questions even!  This was my second visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln Home, and it is still one of the best home museums I have been to.  If you are in Lexington, do visit!

 

 

 

Lincoln’s Sanctuary

Recently, I read Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, by Matthew Pinsker.  It was a great find at the library book sale, and I couldn’t resist picking it up for $1 when I saw it.

LincolnsSanctuary

Lincoln’s Sanctuary, by Matthew Pinsker

If you have never heard of the Soldier’s Home, it is on the grounds of a property that was established in 1851 as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, also known as the Military Asylum.  Its purpose was to care for the invalid and disabled veterans of the army.  The cottage was originally the home of George Riggs, the man from whom the property was purchased.  The cottage dates to 1842.  So, how does that relate to Lincoln you ask?

Well, the Soldier’s Home is approximately 3 miles from the White House, which was considered to be well outside of the city in the 1860s.  And it enjoyed a location atop a shaded hill, so it enjoyed cooler temperatures and breezes than the White House did.  It was a perfect summer retreat for someone who lived in Washington D.C., close enough to be able to travel daily to the White House, but far enough away to feel like you were getting a break to the country.

In all, Lincoln spent 13 months living at the Soldier’s Home during his Presidency.  He first visited 3 days after his inauguration, and his last visit was the day before his assassination.  He was able to use the peace and solitude to get some of his best thinking done, and as a result, he was able to produce some of his best work there, including, it is thought, the first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Matthew Pinsker does a wonderful job going chronologically through Lincoln’s Presidency, hitting the high points of Lincoln’s thoughts and actions, and tying these events in with Lincoln’s time at the Soldier’s Home.  Of course, some of it is speculation, because there aren’t surviving records to corroborate it, but the author makes educated guesses on Lincoln’s writings and conversations with others based on historic eyewitness accounts of visits, diary and journal entries from the time, and public records of when Lincoln and his family were in residence at the Home.

The book offers a look at the more intimate side of Lincoln’s life.  Those moments when he was able to let his guard down and enjoy his friends and family.  It also provides more than one eyewitness account of the sheer exhaustion and fatigue he experienced during his Presidency, when people expected him to be available to receive them at any hour of the day or night.  It made me think of the line of photos of Lincoln that hang in the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois, where 5 photos document the aging process.  In those photos, Lincoln goes from a young to an old man in the span of four years.

I do wish there were more description about what the Soldier’s Home was like when Lincoln stayed there, but the book is an insightful look into a place where Lincoln spent a significant amount of time, where friendships and professional relationships were developed and nurtured, and where crucial political decisions were made.  I’ve wanted to visit the Soldier’s Home since I first discovered it was open to the public, and this book made by want to visit even more.

Be aware however, that it is not a quick or easy read, and has a tendency to be rather dry.  Someone with only a cursory interest in Lincoln or the Civil War probably won’t find this book holding their interest.  But to the true Lincoln scholar, it offers another perspective that had not, to this point, been explored.

I didn’t know until after I read the book, but apparently it was commissioned by the Soldier’s Home to increase awareness of this amazing historic site, which was recently renovated and opened to the public in 2008.  And the proceeds from the sale of the book to to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to maintain the Soldier’s Home.  What a great way to fundraise!