Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Visit to President Lincoln's Cottage

My birthday falls a couple days after Christmas, so I usually have the fortune of being on vacation then and can take full advantage of the day off.  This year, I had intended to tour Ball's Bluff out near Leesburg.  Unfortunately, the forecast called for torrential downpours, and I had no desire to tromp around the battlefield in the rain and mud.  This trip would have to wait until clearer skies.  Instead, I decided on a visit to President Lincoln's Cottage in northwest DC.  My father-in-law, also known as "the Colonel," accompanied me on the outing.

The Gothic Revival style cottage, part of the Soliders' Home, served as Lincoln's residence from June to November 1862-1864.  Think of it as a Civil War-era Camp David.  The cottage was built by Washington banker George Riggs in 1842.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation spent $15 million restoring the home, which opened to the public in 2008.  The historic property is located on the campus of the current-day Armed Forces Retirement Home at the corner of Upshur St., N.W. and Rock Creek Church Rd., N.W.  The tour of the cottage requires a ticket, and advanced purchase is recommended.  I reserved our tickets on-line before going.

History of Lincoln's Cottage and the Soldiers' Home

The story of the Soldiers' Home dates to the antebellum era, when key military and political leaders pushed for the establishment of a residence for retired and disabled soldiers.  Gen. Winfield Scott, who was general-in-chief of the Union Army at the start of the Civil War, exacted a tribute of $150,000 from Mexico during the Mexican War and set aside $100,000 of this money for a soldiers' home.  Robert Anderson, future commander of the Federal garrison at Ft. Sumter, was also instrumental in the effort to provide for the nation's elderly and disabled soldiers.  Senator Jefferson Davis, who later became President of the Confederacy, was the primary mover on Capitol Hill.  He introduced legislation to create a "U.S. military asylum," which finally became law in March 1851.

North side of President Lincoln's Cottage.  A statue of Lincoln and his horse is located to the left of the photograph.

The government purchased the cottage and surrounding 256 acres from Riggs in 1851 for use as the Soldiers' Home.  Three additional buildings were constructed on the campus prior to the Civil War.  All four of these buildings survive today.  James Buchanan was the first President to reside at the Soldiers' Home.  (Incidentally, he stayed in a different cottage from Lincoln's.)  Located three miles from downtown Washington on the third highest point in the city, the Soldiers' Home offered a cool and tranquil getaway from the oppressive humidity and maddening bustle of the city.

Wartime view of the south side of the cottage from Mary Todd Lincoln's personal photo album (courtesy of National Park Service).  As Mrs. Lincoln told a friend in July 1862, "We are truly delighted with this retreat."

Current view of the south side of the cottage
Lincoln visited the Soldiers' Home not long after his inauguration, but the turbulent events of the first summer of the war got in the way of staying there in 1861.  The following year, Lincoln and his family took up residence in the cottage.  At the Soldiers' Home, Lincoln sought distractions from the stresses of everyday life, and often enjoyed reading, playing with his son Tad, and entertaining visitors.  The war, however, was never very far away, and Lincoln could not escape his presidential responsibilities for long.

Close-up view of the life-sized sculpture of Lincoln and his horse in front of the cottage's north side

Historical marker in front of the Lincoln statue pictured above
Each day, Lincoln commuted to the White House in the morning and returned later in the evening.  A cavalry escort accompanied Lincoln on his daily ride, but the President objected to such protection and was sometimes uncooperative with his security detail.  The 150th Pennsylvania Regiment, Co. K, served as a presidential guard and encamped on grounds of the Soldiers' Home when Lincoln resided there.  In July 1864, Lincoln and his family were evacuated from the Soldiers' Home as Confederate Gen. Jubal Early approached Ft. Stevens, about two miles from the cottage.  This precautionary measure still did not stop Lincoln from riding out to observe the ensuing battle.

Lincoln took advantage of his time at the Soldiers' Home to reflect on the issues facing the nation, including the momentous policy of emancipation.  Lincoln likely worked on revisions to the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage over the course of the summer of 1862.  The President also held meetings at the cottage to discuss military affairs, including the removal of Gen. George B. McClellan from command.  The President apparently visited the Soliders' Home for one last time on April 13, 1865, just one day before he was assassinated at Ford's Theatre.

Tour of Lincoln's Cottage

The Colonel and I started our tour of the cottage at the Visitor Education Center, which features four informative permanent exhibits covering the history of the Soldiers' Home, Lincoln as commander-in-chief, wartime Washington, and the Lincoln family at the Soldiers' Home.  Not surprisingly, the display on Lincoln's presidency places a heavy emphasis on emancipation, and the exhibits do a thorough job of walking visitors through the entire story of emancipation, including such topics as contraband, the First and Second Confiscation Acts, and the 13th Amendment.  This effort at public education goes beyond the simplistic "Lincoln freed the slaves" story that so many tourists likely learned in school.

Visitor Education Center, located across from President Lincoln's Cottage.  (Photography is prohibited inside the Visitor Education Center and Lincoln's Cottage, so I was unable to get interior shots.)
As an enthusiast of local history, I was also pleased to discover a temporary exhibit on historic prints of the nation's capital during the Civil War.  The maps and engravings offer visitors a way to visualize what Washington was like at the time of Lincoln's presidency.  (This exhibit only runs through January 15, 2012, but the National Trust should consider making it permanent.)  We did not have time to stop by "Lincoln's Toughest Decisions Gallery," which allows visitors to interact with digital letters and other documents to decide how they would have advised Lincoln as a member of his Cabinet.

After viewing a short audiovisual presentation at the Visitor Center, we headed to the cottage for our guided tour.  The building contains 34 rooms, but we saw only a fraction of them during the hour-long tour.  The National Trust has opted on a minimalist approach to furnishing, which leaves the visitor to reflect more on the spirit of the place than on historical trappings.  The guide tied the cottage into the larger picture of Lincoln's life and presidency, including his beliefs on equality of opportunity and slavery.  Once again, there was an emphasis on emancipation, and the guide even highlighted the role of U.S. Colored Troops in winning the war.  The National Trust also supplemented the tour with multimedia technology.  Unfortunately, on the day I was visiting, a glitch in a video projection distracted a bit from the flow of the tour, but overall the technology was well-integrated into the guide's narrative. 

As we left the cottage, I felt that I had come away with a better understanding of the place that the Soldiers' Home occupied in Lincoln's presidency.  The National Trust really has done the country a valuable service in preserving and interpreting this treasure for future generations.  Visitors to our nation's capital, as well as local residents, should not miss the opportunity to check out this historic site.

Sources and Additional Information

President Lincoln's Cottage maintains a website with an excellent overview of the history of the Soldiers' Home and Lincoln's time there.  Additional information, including hours of operation and directions, can also be found on the website.  Tickets for the tour can be purchased here.

Parking is located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, a welcome relief from the challenges of parking on DC city streets.

For additional information on Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home, check out these sources:
The Lincoln Institute, "Soldiers' Home," Mr. Lincoln's White House; National Park Service, "President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home," Discover our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary: American Presidents; National Park Service, "President Lincoln's Cottage: A Retreat," Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plans; National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home.

No comments: