Have you ever heard of the Lincoln Cottage? I hadn’t until last month when I had the opportunity to go there and see it (and all its Gothic Revival goodness) for myself. I wondered how I hadn’t known about this landmark in Washington, D.C., only three miles away from the White House. After all, I grew up in the D.C./Baltimore area and had numerous school field trips to all of the major educational hotspots in D.C. (the National Zoo was always my favorite). Apparently it only opened to the public in 2008 and is run by the non-profit National Trust for Historic Preservation.
One fascinating aspect of the Lincoln Cottage is that it is located adjacent to a retired veteran’s building, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, which was, in Lincoln’s Day, a hospital for soldiers called the Soldier’s home. The wounded warriors of the Civil War and beyond came here to be treated, heal, or die. The dead were buried on site.
Lincoln surveyed the cottage just three days after his inauguration in 1861, and he lived there for 13 months between 1862 and 1864, riding his horse the three miles to the White House regularly. He wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation from his office at the Soldier’s Home during the summer of 1862. His last visit to the cottage was the day before he was assasinated. The American Civil War took place all around him in Washington, D.C. during much of his presidency.
One D.C. native wrote:
Arid hill, and sodden plain showed alike the horrid trail of war. Forts bristled above every hill-top. Soldiers were entrenched at every gate-way. Shed hospitals covered acres on acres in every suburb. Churches, art-halls and private mansions were filled with the wounded and dying of the American armies. The endless roll of the army wagon seemed never still. The rattle of the anguish-laden ambulance, the piercing cries of the sufferers… made morning, noon and night too dreadful to be borne. — Mary Clemmer Ames, Washington resident during the Civil War
Standing in Lincoln’s large, wood-lined personal office, I was able to understand Lincoln’s mind more clearly. Was he apart from the war when he spent time in his summer home? Was he gettig away from all of his stress as leader of the U.S.? Absolutely not. Looking out the triple windows, his windows, I saw what seemed like an endless field of white headstones, markers for graves that were contemporary with Lincoln’s time. The boys who were buried there were being buried there as Lincoln sat and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation from his desk in this very room. Zachary Klitzman writes, “At the Soldiers’ Home just as at the White House, Abraham Lincoln shouldered the burdens of wartime leadership and personal and national tragedy. During this time of grief and stress, Lincoln often was described as sad, restless, and always anxious about the future of his country.”
Mrs. Lincoln often visited the ailing soldiers on her own. And the soldiers gave the Lincoln’s son Tad a “mini” uniform and let him practice his skills alongside them. The soldiers seemed to be an extended family for the Lincolns, who had faced the loss of two of their own children, sons Eddie and Willie, by this point in time.
One interesting thing about the Lincoln Cottage is that it is devoid of artifacts. There are no pieces of furniture from Lincoln’s time, just a few replicas to educate the public about Lincoln. You can sit in the chairs yourself. There aren’t any roped off areas to speak of. There sits a rocking chair in one room where a quote of Lincoln was read – Lincoln was tired and overwhelmed, and a man came to him in the evening to ask Lincoln to do something. Lincoln was stern with the man and sent him away. After sitting in a similar rocking chair, all those years ago, Lincoln got to thinking about how he spoke to this man who had asked for help and felt badly, couldn’t even sleep properly that night. The next day, Lincoln sought this man out, having already made the arrangements to help.
I got the sense from visiting the Cottage and its grounds that Lincoln was an extremely contemplative man, moreso than I had realized, though this is a quality well-known about Lincoln from history. For me, the Lincoln Cottage put the mind of Lincoln into a setting for me and made his thoughts more real. The “story” has more meaning for me now that I have stood at the very same window and looked out over the view of endless headstones, right there in Washington, D.C., only three miles away from the White House.
You need to go check out the Lincoln Cottage for yourself. Go. Do Stuff.
[Much of my data comes from the Lincoln Cottage website, although I did a pretty good job of remembering historic details.]