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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: President Lincoln at the Soldiers' Home

Only three miles from the White House, the Soldiers’ Home was created in 1851 as a home for retired or disabled enlisted soldiers. The cottage where the Lincoln family lived during the warmer months of 1862, 1863, and 1864 was built in 1842 as the summer house of George Washington Riggs, a prominent banker. In 1851, Riggs sold the property to the federal government, and that same year, Congress passed legislation that established the Soldiers’ Home as a place for retired or disabled soldiers.

The Soldiers’ Home was President Lincoln’s retreat from the White House. Considered “rural” at the time, the higher elevation of the Soldiers’ Home offered pleasant breezes and was an escape from the heat and humidity of the city summers. Washington was overcrowded with soldiers, businessmen, and fugitive slaves flocking to the city. Troops were drilling at all hours of the day and night. As a result of the population explosion, the water was polluted and disease was a constant threat.

President Lincoln first visited the Soldiers’ Home a few days after his inauguration. During the Lincolns’ time at the Soldiers’ Home, the president would have shared the grounds with approximately 200 residents who lived in the dormitory next to the cottage, the presidential guard camped on the grounds, and the officers who managed the retirement home and lived in houses on the property. When standing at the front door of the cottage, the president would have been able to see graves multiply in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, and from the veranda on the south side of the cottage, he would have been able to see the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome, both of which were unfinished at the time.

President Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their two sons, Robert and Tad, also spent time at the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. A third son, Willie, died in February 1862 due to drinking bad water and contracting what was likely typhoid. Mary Lincoln was devastated by her son’s death and wore mourning dress (black clothes) for a full year, not uncommon in the Victorian era. During his father’s presidency, Robert Lincoln attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Tad lived with his parents. While staying at the cottage, the Lincolns enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the Soldiers’ Home. On July 26, 1862, Mary Lincoln wrote a letter to a friend, Fanny Eames, from the Soldiers’ Home. “We are truly delighted with this retreat, the drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day, brings its visitors. Then too, our boy Robert is with us, whom you may remember. We consider it a ‘pleasant time’ for us, when his vacations, roll around, he is very companionable, and I shall dread when he has to return to Cambridge. I presume you will not return to W.[ashington] before cool weather, thus far we have found the country very delightful.1 After Lincoln's assassination, Mary Lincoln reflected, “How dearly I loved the ‘Soldiers’ Home’ and how little I supposed, one year since, that I should be so far removed from it."2

Another view of the Lincoln family at the Soldiers’ Home comes from Albert See, a member of the presidential guard stationed at the White House and Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War. He was a soldier in Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. In his autobiography, Albert See recollected, “When at the Soldiers’ Home one bright moonlight night, the president and Tad were playing checkers on the porch and as the sentinel passed by the president asked him if he ever played checkers and the sentinel said he did and the president said, “Set down your gun and come up with us, take a game.” He did so and said he did his best but was badly beaten."3

However, even though he was living at the Soldiers’ Home during the summertime, Lincoln kept up with his presidential duties. He commuted daily to the White House, passing hospitals and contraband camps on his way. He also conducted business at the cottage, holding meetings and welcoming visitors, including political opponents. President Lincoln could also reflect on the progress of the war and formulate major decisions. One of the biggest decisions of his presidency was to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which symbolically changed the course of the war. The president issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862 while living at his seasonal retreat, indicating the course of action he planned to pursue regarding slavery.

It is believed that Abraham Lincoln visited the cottage for the last time on April 13, 1865.4 The Lincolns planned to spend the upcoming summer season at the cottage, their first without an ongoing war. Their plans were dashed when actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln the next day, April 14, 1865, in Washington, DC, as the president and his wife enjoyed a play at Ford’s Theater.

1Mary Todd Lincoln to Mrs. Charles (Fanny) Eames, July 26, 1862 in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 130-31.
2Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 183.
3Albert N. See, Autobiography of Albert Nelson See with an introduction by Joseph S. Northrop (originally published by author 1921; Huntington, Ind.: Joseph S. Northrop, 1983), Henry Horner Lincoln Collection, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield, Ill.
4Pinsker, 204.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Look up the word “retreat”-- what is the definition? Why do you think Lincoln needed a retreat?

2. How did President Lincoln spend his time at the Soldiers’ Home?

3. Who were the primary residents of the property and how many were here during Lincoln’s time? How do you think the presence of retired and disabled soldiers would have affected the Lincoln family?

4. How did Mary Lincoln feel about living at the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home? What adjectives or words did Mary Lincoln use to describe life at the cottage?

5. Based on Mrs. Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Charles (Fanny) Eames letter, how might you describe the Lincoln family’s private life at the cottage? How does it compare with the ways that you and your family or friends spend time together?

6. What is your impression of Lincoln based on his behavior toward the soldier in the See story? How does this story support that impression?

Reading 1 is adapted from Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, eds., Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972); Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Albert N. See, Autobiography of Albert Nelson See with an introduction by Joseph S. Northrop (originally published by author 1921; Huntington, Ind.: Joseph S. Northrop, 1983).

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