View Full Version : Wartime retreat with the wounded

02-18-08, 07:58 AM
Monday, February 18, 2008

Wartime retreat with the wounded
Lincoln shared lawn of cottage with wounded, active-duty troops

By Emily Brown, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, February 18, 2008

WASHINGTON — Paul Harper, 82, chuckled between cigar puffs. A sitting president interacting daily with active troops and veterans?

“It would be kind of odd,” he said.

The World War II and Korea veteran, a resident of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (know as the Soldiers’ Home) in Washington, sat in the sun on a mild February day, a few feet from Abraham Lincoln’s summer cottage located on the grounds.

“We don’t never see the president,” Harper said of President Bush. “He don’t have time for us old folks.”

It’s perhaps no longer possible for a wartime president to seek out troops regularly for their thoughts on the war, but that is what Lincoln did. His summer cottage shared a lawn with the Soldiers’ Home, and servicemembers were at Lincoln’s doorstep.

The cottage opened to the public for the first time last week.
A place for reflection

The cottage served as a retreat for Lincoln, though it brought the president face to face with the Civil War.

Perched on one of Washington’s highest points, with a breeze not possible three miles away at the White House, Lincoln mulled each battle’s progress. The cottage, which had a view of the Capitol’s dome midconstruction, was where Lincoln could decide how to constitutionally emancipate slaves. It provided a barrier from the daily functions of being president and let a man, known for his ideas and introspection, think.

This is where he and his family mourned his son, Willie, who died in February 1862. Here Lincoln escaped the lines of visitors that came to the White House, and with whom he would spend up to four hours each day listening to and greeting. While most visitors to the cottage were invited, the public often found its way and came for one reason or another.

“He was besieged with these people,” said Frank Milligan, director of President Lincoln’s Cottage. “But he felt he had to meet with them. It was his job.”

This also applied to soldiers. Wounded Union troops living at the adjacent Soldiers’ Home pitched tents and drilled on his lawn. Grave sites multiplied on the grounds.

“We have found refuge in the soldiers’ home, but in a way it brings us closer to the war than ever before,” wrote first lady Mary Lincoln.

By today’s standards, it was hardly a retreat.

“It wasn’t like he was getting away to Camp David,” Milligan said. “It wasn’t a place where he could just hide.”

On his daily commute to and from the White House, Lincoln discussed the front lines with soldiers in the hospitals he passed along the way. They were his eyes and ears on the battlefield. Their stories and opinions helped him decide how to wage the war, Milligan said.

But the commute was dangerous. Even with the assigned guards, Lincoln would often slip away to ride alone. One night a sniper attempted to assassinate the president. His hat was retrieved with a bullet hole through the crown.

When Fort Stevens, about two miles from the cottage, was under attack by Confederate troops, Lincoln went two days in a row to observe the battle. There, Lincoln became the only sitting U.S. president to come under enemy fire, according to the National Park Service. As it continued, the family was evacuated to the White House in the middle of the night.

The Lincolns lived at the cottage on and off for a total of 13 months between the summer of 1862 and the fall of 1864. Three other presidents also used the home: James Buchanan, Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur.

But it was the amount of time Lincoln spent there and the decisions he made there that merit its historical significance. He paced the floors and developed his policy of emancipation and plotted wartime strategy.

“[Lincoln] is a national figure in a way that Buchanan, Hayes and Arthur never were,” said Matthew Pinsker, author of “Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home.” The interaction and stories that come from his time there “are a big part of Lincoln becoming a father figure to the Union army.”


02-18-08, 07:59 AM
Tour of home offers insight into Lincoln’s ideals

By Emily Brown, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, February 18, 2008

Last Monday, the 34-room Greek Revival country home on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or Soldiers’ Home, opened to the public for the first time. Tourists will encounter an experience much as Americans would have had in the 1860s, with entertainment in the parlor and a few words from the president that will offer a glimpse into his world.

The cottage was built in 1842 by George Washington Riggs, a prominent banker in Washington. He sold the house and the surrounding 256 acres to the government in 1851 and the Soldier’s Home and officers’ quarters were built. Riggs’ country manor was opened to presidents as a secure retreat from the city in 1857.

“It’s almost like a preservation miracle,” said Matthew Pinsker, author of “Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home” and a history professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. “There’s a building nobody’s ever seen and nobody knows about and it still exists today as it did then.”

When remodeling and preservation of the home began in 2000, the site was structurally sound. Acres of green space still surround the home.

For guests visiting the cottage in the 21st century, imagination plays a major role in the tour. Period-appropriate furniture, though not original to the house, gives an idea of how the parlor and library would have looked during Lincoln’s day. Actors recorded written conversations between the president and guests in order to capture his essence, through audio and visuals.

Frank Milligan, director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, said the tour is about the man more than the house. Research shows what went on inside the house, he said, but not details such as which room Lincoln slept in or how exactly his dining room table was set.

“Our goal is to interpret Lincoln’s ideas on preservation of the Union, democracy, liberty and freedom,” Milligan said. “These were the principles and ideals that informed his decisions as president and that is why we honor Lincoln.”

In 2000, President Clinton named the cottage a national monument and the National Trust for Historic Preservation began the renovations necessary for restoration and opening it to the public.

An influx of residents to the Soldiers’ Home after the Civil War is the most likely reason the cottage stopped being used as a presidential retreat. The house became a dorm for the Soldiers’ Home band, an infirmary, a guest house, a dorm for the first women accepted into the Soldiers’ Home (in the mid-1950s) and a bar and lounge for residents.