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.
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!