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|Posted: Tue Jan 13th, 2009 03:04 am||
The Iron Duke
|Lincoln Cottage provided refuge from capital but not toll of war
By BETTY GORDON
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Washington — Sometime before 8 o’clock on most mornings in the summer of 1862, a tall figure clad in black and wearing a top hat could be seen on horseback riding south on dusty Rock Creek Church Road.
When he reached Rhode Island Avenue, about two-thirds of the way to his destination, the slim, bearded man would be just blocks from a contraband community, home to thousands of runaway slaves. As he approached his workplace, he would pass Union troops camped in their tents.
After a ride of 30 to 45 minutes, Abraham Lincoln would dismount at the White House and spend the day wrestling with the monumental challenges of the Civil War.
In late afternoon or early evening, the president would climb onto his horse, Old Bob, and head north, back to the two-story cottage on the pastoral grounds of a retirement home for military veterans, where he and his family would spend the night.
Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, a little-known venue barely three miles north of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., is where the president bunked for a quarter of his administration, spanning the summer and early fall of 1862, 1863 and 1864. Here he had informal interaction with wounded men returned from combat who could provide firsthand testimony to the commander in chief about the war.
It is also where the president received Cabinet members, planned military strategy, distilled the ideas and language for the Emancipation Proclamation and made some decisions about his 1864 re-election campaign and his party’s platform. In other words, aside from the White House, it was probably the most significant site directly related to the Lincoln presidency.
The Gothic Revival house, built in 1842 (and later enlarged) for Washington banker George Riggs, is set among the trees on a hill overlooking the capital city.
The government bought the 34-room cottage and more than 250 acres from Riggs in 1851, and it built a dormitory for the veterans, between 100 and 150 of whom lived on site. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton frequently stayed nearby, and he often joined Lincoln for breakfast and the ride into town.
At the cottage, the Lincolns could escape the noise, humidity and heat of the city. It was a tranquil spot, a sort of 19th-century version of Camp David, where they could entertain friends (Lincoln loved to recite poetry from memory in the evening or read aloud from Shakespeare, one of his favorite writers), have a modicum of privacy (though uninvited guests often stopped by) and delight in taking walks and drives. And at this refuge, Lincoln could sit on the porch in the evening with his young son Tad and play a quiet game of checkers. (Older son Robert was away at Harvard University.)
The Lincolns first moved their 19 wagonloads of belongings into what Mary Lincoln called their “country retirement” in June 1862, only four months after their 12-year-old son Willie had died of what was probably typhoid fever.
At first, little attention was paid to security. Lincoln settled into his commute, sometimes accompanied by his private secretary, John Hay, who referred to his boss as the Tycoon. Or he was driven by carriage.
Mary was gravely concerned for her husband’s safety. The country, after all, was at war, and on occasion they could hear cannon fire in the distance.
“It was dangerous because the route never varied,” cottage guide Shira Gladstone said.
By late summer of 1862, Lincoln agreed to let 20 to 30 members of the 11th New York Cavalry be his security detail as he rode back and forth to town. At the cottage, two companies of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers were assigned to guard the first family.
Even at his retreat, the war’s toll was never far away. From his front door, the president had a clear view of the first National Cemetery, where 35 to 40 burials took place every day.
The back porch afforded a more optimistic view — the ongoing construction of the Capitol dome and the unfinished Washington Monument.
Visitors to the sparsely furnished home, opened for tours last February after a seven-year, $15 million renovation, can see period-accurate furniture and walk in the Lincolns’ footsteps. Using pictures, video and readings from Mary’s letters and other documents, the hourlong tour relies more on atmosphere and anecdotes than on indisputable evidence.
The house contains nothing that actually belonged to the Lincolns. What little is known has mostly been gleaned from personal correspondence (soldiers and guests included), much of it mined by Matthew Pinsker, author of “Lincoln’s Sanctuary” (Oxford University Press, $17.95). In fact, though the staff can make an educated guess, no one knows for sure which upstairs room the Lincolns slept in.
The Lincolns were not the first presidential family to inhabit the cottage, which was declared a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 2000. President James Buchanan, who was in residence in 1857, recommended it to the Lincolns. President Rutherford Hayes stayed at the cottage in the summers of 1877-80, and President Chester Arthur lived there in the winter of 1882 while the White House was undergoing repairs.
In the intervening years, the cottage served as an infirmary, dorm and even a lounge. Unpreserved and isolated from other Washington sites, it was known chiefly to scholars.
The site was also one of three considered for the construction of the Lincoln Memorial, begun on the National Mall in 1914.
In 1999, the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation stepped in and got the cottage’s restoration under way. The latest addition, a 7-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Lincoln and his horse on the carriage oval in front of the cottage, will be dedicated Feb. 12.
It seems possible that in 1865, with the war finally over, the Lincolns would again have summered at the Soldiers’ Home. On April 13, the president rode out to his sanctuary, Pinsker says, citing a recollection from Treasury Department official Maunsell Field.
But it was not to be. The next night at Ford’s Theatre, Lincoln was assassinated.
"Cleburne is here!" meant that all was well. -Daniel Harvey Hill