Lincoln’s Other White House: The Untold Story of the Man and His Presidency

by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, 262 pages, $24.95.

George Washington had his Mount Vernon and John Kennedy his Hyannisport. Both homes were integral parts of those presidents’ time in office. Yet while second White Houses are important in understanding presidential rule and have become popular pilgrimage sites, the Soldiers’ Home—where Abraham Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency—has until recently stood as the nation’s most forlorn former home of a chief executive.

In 2000 the National Trust for Historic Preservation set out to change that. It placed the crumbling Washington, D.C., house on its most endangered list. President Clinton then made it a national monument. Restoration is ongoing, and now Elizabeth Smith Brownstein has written an intimate account of the house and its occupants. The home, as Brownstein shows through documents, letters and reminiscences, is an essential and overlooked part of the Lincoln presidency. It was a place where Lincoln could comfortably work, meet with political and military leaders and spend time with his family.

Washington in the 1860s was a grim, unfinished capital, a muddy city filled with roaming pigs. Lincoln disliked the executive mansion, a place he considered a “dammed old house,” overrun by the avaricious who craved his help as well as the curious who tramped through the private rooms. The Lincolns happily retreated to the Soldiers’ Home—an early Gothic Revival complex with pyramidal gables that served as a home for wounded soldiers starting in June 1862.

For Lincoln, as Brownstein reveals, it was a place where he could follow the war, talk with generals as well as craft the Emancipation Proclamation, admitting to family nurse Rebecca Pomroy, “I shall encounter bitter opposition, but I think good will come of it.” He also found much-needed solace there from the weight of his office and the recent death of his son Willie. The family brought with them their menagerie of ponies, goats, cats and turkeys. Lincoln read to the wounded soldiers. Friends came by to play whist and hear stories. And it was not uncommon for late night guests to be greeted by a sleepy chief executive wearing his night clothes and holding a candle.

The book is dense with primary material on his life there, and offers brief profiles of people like Benjamin French, the commissioner of public buildings, who worked with Mrs. Lincoln to refurbish the home. Yet for a book that hopes to lay out the building’s importance in the White House years of the 16th president, there is a want of material on what the building really looked like inside and out.

Brownstein proves most successful, though, in discussing the president’s relationship with his guards, the men of Company K of the 150th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, the “Bucktails.” The soldiers called Lincoln “Uncle Abraham,” and regularly played checkers and took meals with him. As drummer boy Harry Kieffer noted, “He loved his soldiers as his own children.” Mrs. Lincoln made sure the men were well fed, and they happily played with young Tad and commissioned him a “third lieutenant.”

So much has already been published about Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincoln’s Other White House should add important knowledge about the president’s neglected retreat, and how while there he fought for a semblance of peace during a time of war.

 

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.