President Lincoln at the Soldiers’ Home

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At the Soldiers’ Home just as at the White House, Abraham Lincoln shouldered the burdens of wartime leadership and personal and national tragedy. During this time of grief and stress, Lincoln often was described as sad, restless, and always anxious about the future of his country. One officer from the Union Light Guard stationed at the Soldiers’ Home encountered the President outside around midnight one evening. The officer commented:

I saw a man walking alone and leisurely across the path I was taking . . . and as I came near him I saw it was Mr. Lincoln. At an earlier hour I would have kept from speaking, but, prompted by anxiety, I said, “Mr. President, isn’t it rather risky to be out here at this hour?” He answered, “Oh, I guess not I couldn’t rest and thought I’d take a walk.” He was quite a distance outside the line of infantry guards about the house where the family was staying. He turned back after I spoke to him, and I passed on to where the escort was camped.

— Lieutenant George C. Ashmun, officer of the Union Light Guard

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An Overview of President Lincoln’s Cottage

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After a $15 million restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, non-profit organization, President Lincoln’s Cottage opened to the public for the first time in 2008, giving Americans an intimate, never-before-seen view of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and family life.

Designated a National Monument by President Clinton in 2000, President Lincoln’s Cottage served as Lincoln’s family residence for a quarter of his presidency and is where he was living when he developed his Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln’s Cottage is located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in northwest Washington, DC.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is President Lincoln’s Cottage?

President Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation while living in a Gothic Revival Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC. Lincoln’s time at the Cottage served as bookends for Civil War — he first visited the grounds three days after his inauguration and last rode out to the site the day before his assassination. While living at the Cottage for 13 months from June-November of 1862-1864, Lincoln regularly commuted to the White House. The Cottage opened to the public in 2008, and is run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, non-profit organization, through an agreement with the Armed Forces Retirement Home.

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The Cottage

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On a hill overlooking downtown Washington is a cottage built for George W. Riggs around 1842. Architect John Skirving designed the house in the Gothic-Revival style popularized by A.J. Downing. In 1851, the estate was sold to the Federal Government, which purchased it in order to found a home for veteran soldiers.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln lived in that cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home from June into November to escape the heat and distractions of life at the White House. The tranquil surroundings at the Soldiers’ Home offered refreshing breezes and relative privacy during a period when the President confronted all-consuming decisions about military strategy, domestic policy, and foreign relations, and could not escape Washington or his responsibilities.

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The Soldiers’ Home

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Establishment of the “Military Asylum”

The Armed Forces Retirement Home was established on March 3, 1851, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation to found “a military asylum for the relief and support of invalid and disabled soldiers of the army of the United States.” Events leading to the establishment of a military asylum had been building for a number of years, beginning with the first recommendation for a soldiers’ home in November 1827, when Secretary of War James Barbour suggested the founding of an Army Asylum in his Annual Message to the President.

…The institution bearing the above name is a large, fine building, built of stone, in castelated style, about two miles and a half from Washington, due north. The grounds are extensive and beautiful, and belong to the Government, which erected the large central building for disabled, homeless soldiers of the regular service, of whom a large number here rest from the services in the field. Near the central building are several two-story cottages… in the Gothic style, and occupied by the Surgeon in charge, the Adjutant General and other functionaries, and one is occupied during the Summer by the President and his family.

- Noah Brooks, journalist, July 4, 1863.[1]

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The Landscape

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Robert Lautman, 2000

The landscape surrounding President Lincoln’s Cottage is historically significant for its association with the life of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The Cottage is located on the campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (the AFRH—historically known by many names, including the Soldiers’ Home) in the northwest quadrant of Washington, District of Columbia.

The character of the landscape surrounding the Cottage is representative of its varied history. In 1842, the property was the rural, private estate of George W. Riggs. The Federal Government approved purchase of the land in 1851 for the foundation of a home to care for veterans, called the U.S. Military Asylum. The establishment of a military asylum on the grounds of the once private estate brought a shift in form and program to the landscape that continues to evolve today with the changing needs of the AFRH. Today, the 276 acre landscape features a mix of historic and modern buildings, rolling hills, wooded paths, and sweeping views of Washington, DC.

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Other Presidential Residents

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“The drive by the east winds gracefully through field and forest until it reaches the immediate neighborhood of the [Soldiers’] Home—a large brick building [sic], with extensive piazzas, usually occupied by blue-coated veterans. The dormitories, kitchen, farm-house, residence of the Superintendent and his subordinates, cluster about the Home, and close by it is the little cottage, not now used, but made familiar to everybody as the Soldiers’ Home cottage occupied by Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, Hayes, and Arthur during the summer months of their administrations.”

—Harper’s Weekly, June 26, 1886.

Beginning with James Buchanan and ending with Chester A. Arthur, the Soldiers’ Home served as a seasonal home for at least four presidents. The prestigious presidential connections and beautiful campus made the Soldiers’ Home a popular driving destination for the local elite as well as visitors to the capital city.

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Lincoln’s First Ride

On March 7th 1861, Abraham Lincoln rode out the to Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home for the first time. This was just three days after his Inauguration. Erin Carlson Mast, Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, discusses this important moment in the history of President Lincoln’s Cottage in the following video.

Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011.

The Right Move at the Right Time

This post is part of our Black History Month blog series.

In addition to freeing slaves in Confederate controlled areas, the Emancipation Proclamation’s biggest impact on the Civil War was that it expressly supported the recruitment and enlistment of black soldiers. Though there certainly was a mixed reaction to this measure in the Union Army, by no means did white Union soldiers throw down their arms in protest or have any such drastic negative reaction that the legend states there was. Continue reading

Black Reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation

This post is part of our Black History Month blog series.

Though many black leaders decried Lincoln’s tardy efforts to act definitively on slavery, when he finally did release the Emancipation Proclamation, both the freed and enslaved African-American community rejoiced at this decisive step towards freedom. Today’s black history month post will highlight a few of these responses.

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