A century and a half later the house now known simply as President Lincoln’s Cottage has been opened to the public after a $15 million restoration and offers an intimate glimpse of Lincoln’s presidency and family life. The cottage is sited on a 256-acre compound about three miles from the White House amid buildings that housed 150 retired and disabled soldiers during the Civil War and now accommodates 550 veterans. When the Lincolns stayed there, they had a clear view of the unfinished Capitol dome from a wooded hill buffeted by balmy breezes.
The cottage was an ideal refuge from Washington’s brutal summertime heat and humidity, as well as from the swampy city waterways that harbored the typhoid bacterium that had killed the Lincolns’ son. For the first couple, it served as a June-to-November residence distant enough from the heart of Washington to shield them from prying eyes, but close enough that the president could commute to and from the White House on horseback. The Lincolns not only found welcome relief there from the pressures of life in the capital’s fishbowl, but also peace of mind as they coped with personal tragedy. “We can be as secluded as we please,” Mary told a friend the summer after the death of her beloved Willie. “When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us.”
At the cottage the Lincolns were able to host fewer formal events than at the White House, where disagreeable critics gossiped about their country manners when they entertained. Mary could pamper her husband without the distraction of dozens of White House servants and doorkeepers, not to mention the elegantly gowned Washington ladies who often competed for his attention. Instead they were attended by an intimate household staff that included Mary, affectionately known as Aunt Mary, whom they paid to cook for them.Tad, who at age 9 was desperately lonely after losing his brother, found new playmates among the Bucktail regiment, presidential bodyguards camped in tents adjacent to the cottage. Wearing a miniature officer’s uniform and answering to the nickname “3rd Lieutenant,” Tad often joined the men around their campfires or raced his pony alongside them across the grounds.
From the second-floor bedroom windows, the Lincolns could hear the sounds of music from campfires and smell the pungent aromas of open-air cooking. In the mornings, they might head outdoors to have coffee with the bodyguards or other soldiers camped on the grounds. Eyewitnesses noticed Mary watching from an upstairs window when her husband began his commute to work. On one occasion, when Mary took Tad to Vermont, a messenger knocked on the president’s door and entered the bedroom to find Lincoln and the commander of the Bucktails sleeping in the same bed. Though not an uncommon arrangement for the time among single men, the incident has elicited attention from several psycho-historians who believe Lincoln might have been gay. One telltale fact amid the speculation: The commander, Captain David Derickson, was twice married and the father of 10 children.
While the cottage allowed the Lincolns to escape the general hubbub of Washington, they also routinely confronted tangible reminders of the war. From the front yard, just past the lattice window of the cottage library, they could see the Union’s first soldiers’ cemetery, where as many as 30 burials took place daily. Mary often made the rounds at Union hospitals near the Soldiers Home. At least once on his daily commute Lincoln met a convoy of ambulances bearing wounded soldiers to those facilities and, according to the New York Tribune, “rode beside them for a considerable distance, conversing freely with the men.”
Lincoln also had periodic encounters during his commutes with so-called “contrabands”—escaped or liberated slaves who had taken up residence in nearby camps. “I used to see Mr. Lincoln almost every day riding out to the Soldier’s Home,” recalled Anna Harrison—one of more than 4,000 contrabands living at one of these makeshift sites. Another remembered Lincoln stopping once to listen and join in singing spirituals—a deeply moving story even if it cannot be corroborated. Beyond dispute is the fact that, because of his daily rides, Lincoln viewed these people first-hand, and perhaps realized the time had come for the administration to hasten and widen freedom.
Ironically, the Soldiers Home compound had been the brainchild of a former U.S. senator and secretary of war who was later sworn in as president of the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis. The cottage, a Gothic Revival structure graced by a generous veranda, was originally the manor house of an estate owned by Washington banker George W. Riggs. General Winfield Scott purchased the property in the 1850s with $100,000 confiscated during the Mexican-American War. Davis ordered the compound, which included two additional guest cottages, transformed into a “military asylum” with barracks for disabled veterans.
The Lincolns personally inspected the site soon after his inauguration in March 1861, and Mary hoped to begin occupying the main cottage that summer. “We expect to go out to the ‘Soldier’s Home,’ a very beautiful place…in about three weeks,” she wrote a friend on July 11. But 10 days later, Confederate forces triumphed at Bull Run, only a few miles west of Washington. Lincoln assumed crisis management of a city teeming with demoralized troops and vulnerable to attack. The Soldiers Home became a dream postponed.
Meanwhile, both the president and first lady grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of privacy and discomfort of life at the White House, which bustled from early morning to late at night with clerks, military advisers, journalists, Cabinet officers and members of the general public who lined stairways by the dozens three days a week in clamorous search of favors and jobs. During the torrid days of the Lincolns’ first summer in Washington, sweat-drenched White House secretaries threw open the second-floor windows to admit air—only to face invasion by oversized bugs.Nothing could dissuade Mary from moving her household to the retreat the following summer. Unable even to enter Willie’s bedroom after his death on February 20, she longed to escape memories haunting the White House. By mid-June, she had the family in residence at what she called the “very charming place.” Still wearing black for Willie, she struggled to regain her nerves outside the public eye.
In agreeing to the move, the president had to choose between his wife’s need for seclusion and his own need to stay close to the city’s military telegraph lines, which provided the only good communications link to the front. He chose both. The family took up residence at the cottage and Lincoln began riding almost every morning to the White House and returning late at night—trips that normally took about half an hour.
Lincoln preferred traveling on horseback, often alone and unguarded. He usually rode along Vermont Avenue, passing first elegant stone homes, and then modest wood-clad dwellings, which eventually yielded to small farms and wilderness as he stirred up the dust or occasional mud on Seventh Street Pike (now Georgia Avenue). He passed all manner of citizens on these remarkable daily commutes. Walt Whitman, then a volunteer nurse, described Lincoln en route to the White House one morning: “Mr Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized easy-going grey horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man.” After seeing the black-clad figure, by his own account, “almost every day,” Whitman began to imagine that Lincoln recognized him, and made a slight nod in greeting.
When Lincoln was recognized, which was often, he might offer a wave or doff his stovepipe hat. During one trip a shot rang out, and his top hat flew from his head. Whether the bullet came from a would-be assassin or a startled Union sentry no one ever learned. Lincoln spurred his horse and galloped through the Soldiers Home gates, telling everyone there about his close call. As reports of assassination plots grew more frequent, Lincoln reluctantly allowed a 25-man cavalry unit to accompany him and sometimes traveled in a carriage rather than sitting in the saddle.
Back at the cottage each night, Lincoln frequently sat in the first-floor library reading Shakespeare—often aloud to whatever guests arrived to confer or share supper. Lincoln’s secretary John Hay sheepishly remembered nodding off during an extended performance. But the exhausted president was not always in a welcoming mood. When a colonel stopped by late one afternoon in August 1862 to beg the ordinarily compassionate president to order the release of the body of his wife, recently drowned, Lincoln, busy reading reports of another battle brewing at Bull Run, exploded: “Am I to have no rest? Is there no hour or spot where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?”
When he was in town the next day, a chastened Lincoln went out of his way and called on the colonel at his hotel, apologized for being “a brute last night” and ordered the colonel’s request granted.
During the summer of 1862, 150 years ago, Lincoln undoubtedly worked on at least two drafts of his historic Emancipation Proclamation at the residence. No one knows for certain where he completed the draft that he released to the public on September 22, but there can be little doubt that he took advantage of the relative quiet at his summer retreat to labor over at least some of the wording—and all of its likely consequences.
Nothing tested the Lincoln family’s summertime arrangements more than the crises of 1863. In July, the president remained glued to the White House and the nearby War Department telegraph room as Union and Confederate forces met in an epochal battle in Gettysburg, Pa. On July 2, the second day of fighting, word reached Lincoln that Mary had been injured in a carriage accident near Soldiers Home. The driver’s seat had come loose—perhaps the work of a saboteur—sending the coachman flying to the ground and leaving Mrs. Lincoln alone and terrified as the horses ran wild. She jumped out of the carriage and hit her head.
Writing to his older son Robert, a student at Harvard, the president initially described Mary as only “very slightly hurt by her fall.” But her injury became infected and her condition worsened as Lincoln began grappling with the New York City draft riots. Unable to devote time to his wife, he recruited a nurse and urged Robert to come at once to their summer retreat. But the adventurous young man dawdled in New York till the middle of the month, eager to observe the riots. Mary recovered not long after Robert arrived, but perhaps in return for her husband’s inattention, she took the boys on an extended vacation to Vermont, leaving Lincoln alone at the cottage for weeks.
The following year, the Lincolns returned to their retreat by July 1. A week later the couple bore witness to a surprise Confederate military raid. General Jubal Early’s forces came so perilously close to the residence that advisers convinced the first family to evacuate and return to the White House in the dead of night. But over the next few days, Lincoln excitedly visited the front and encouraged his Soldiers Home security detail to leave their posts and join in the defense of the capital. At nearby Fort Stevens, the tall target came under fire himself, reportedly escaping injury only when Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice, allegedly ordered him to get down or be killed.
Once Early was repulsed, Lincoln resumed his commute. He was now a candidate for reelection, but since the tradition of the day forbade presidential nominees from stumping on their own behalf, he was able to enjoy the cottage for months. Despite the tension that accompanied mounting casualties in the Union Army, the family stayed longer than ever. Mary ordered a major renovation and redecoration and was delighted by the result. The president could not convince his wife to return to the White House until servants began complaining about the autumn chill.
After he was safely reelected Lincoln no doubt looked forward to returning to the cottage in 1865. Mary anticipated spending another summer there as well, even as she made additional plans to take her husband and sons to Vermont, which she had so enjoyed the previous season. In the end, Mary visited neither refuge.
Instead, Lincoln’s assassination on April 14 forced her from both environments and shattered a family that had found such serenity at its retreat. When the widowed Mary Lincoln returned to Illinois, she confided to a friend that she grieved not only for her lost husband, but for her beloved summer residence, too: “How dearly I loved the ‘Soldiers Home[’],” she lamented, “& how little I supposed, one year since, that I should be so far removed from it, broken hearted, and praying for death.”
Harold Holzer is the author of Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1861. His latest book is Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context, and Memory.