Tag Archive | Lincoln’s Sanctuary

Circus Trip 2018: The Soldier’s Home

Day 62, Saturday, September 15, 2018
President Lincoln and Soldier’s Home National Monument, Washington, D.C.

Visiting the Lincoln Cottage at the Soldier’s Home has been a dream of mine for years.  The cottage first came to my attention when I read Lincoln’s Sanctuary, a book by Matthew Pinsker, in 2012. The book documents Lincoln’s use of the home during the summers and early falls of 1862-1864.

Lincoln was bereft after the death of his beloved son Willie in February 1862, of typhoid fever.  So that summer, he and Mary moved to a cottage on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home, a retirement home for aged and infirm war veterans.  Little did they know, it would be a respite for three summers, and would be where he undertook some of the most important decisions of his Presidency, including firing McClellan and drafting the now famous Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862.

Lincoln’s cottage was only declared a National Monument on July 7, 2000, and opened to the public in 2008.  It is still on an active military installation, known today as the Armed Forces Retirement Home, Washington.  As a result of its fairly recent designation, many people, even Lincoln enthusiasts, have not heard of this important Presidential site.  Interestingly, Presidents Buchanan, Hayes, and Arthur also used the home as a summer retreat during their Presidencies.

The home was built between 1842 and 1843, by George Washington Riggs, who later went on to found the Riggs National Bank.  He sold the home and 251 acre property to the government in 1851, when they were looking to establish a home for veterans.  Lincoln and his family fell in love with the relaxed atmosphere of the home.  It was only three miles from the White House, and afforded the President a relatively easy commute on horseback.  Tad made friends with the soldiers who lived there, and was accepted as their mascot of sorts.

Poet Walt Whitman lived along the route of Lincoln’s daily commute, and the two took to greeting each other with a bow each day as Lincoln rode by.  And in a sad ending to his time at the home, the President and Mary were actually there before they took their last carriage ride to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

As the cottage is on an active military installation, you have to go through a check point and show ID to get there.  While you are onsite, you can only visit the cottage and its Visitor’s Center.  There you can purchase tickets and view exhibits, mostly related to the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Outside, there is a statue of Lincoln and his horse.  Perfect for selfies!

But the cottage is the real star.  Cottage is a bit misleading of a term, since it is actually a fairly large home.  It is built in the Gothic Revival style, with ornate gingerbread and gables everywhere.  So pretty!

The tour was fascinating, with the docent sharing stories of Lincoln entertaining people in the sitting room, late at night, in his pajamas and slippers.  Or writing at the desk; the desk here is a replica of the desk that sits in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.  The cottage is unfurnished, but you can imagine what it would have been like in Lincoln’s day.  I am always in awe when I get to walk in the footsteps of such a great leader.  My visit here was nothing short of incredible, and truly a bucket list item fulfilled.

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!