Three miles north of the White House and the Capitol stands the 19th-century equivalent to Camp David. Housed on the stately grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a refuge for veterans since the 1850s, this 34-room Gothic Revival cottage offered summer respite to Presidents Buchanan, Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur. Its heyday, though, was in the 1860s, when it witnessed a quarter of President Lincoln’s presidency. War plans, drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the dramatic reelection campaign all occurred within these walls. If you go to just one off-the-beaten-path spot in Washington, this would be an excellent choice: President Lincoln’s Cottage.
The Lincolns first occupied this place in June 1862, seeking some relief and quiet after the sudden death of their son, Willie. Sadly, the death of another child put this sanctuary within the reach of the First Family: The house was built in 1842 for George Washington Riggs of the Riggs Bank fame. Perched atop a hill overlooking the capital, this was to be the successful banker’s country seat. “I shall have my whole time,” Riggs wrote hopefully as he moved here in semi-retirement, “to devote to my family and my little farm.”
This was not to be: Riggs’ youngest daughter Mary died here at age two, and the grieving family left this home for the city below. The cottage and over 200 acres around it were sold to the government to use as a retirement compound for veterans that, with its hilltop breezes, soon began to double as a presidential retreat during DC’s sweltering summer months (an interesting connection I discovered between my travels: The formation of the Soldiers’ Home had a long and tortuous road, but it began with an official recommendation in 1827 by James Barbour, then the US Secretary of War–the owner of the Jefferson-designed mansion ruins I just visited outside of Charlottesville).
“We are truly delighted with this retreat,” wrote Mary Todd Lincoln in 1862, and the president himself seemed to welcome the escape from the “iron cage” of the executive mansion. He commuted daily on his horse, passing by soldiers, contraband camps of freed slaves, and other Washington residents. “I see the president almost every day,” recalled Walt Whitman, who lived then on L St. and Vermont Ave.: “Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man… We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.” A true-to-life statue of the president and his horse mark the cottage.
The house is only accessible as part of an hour-long tour, and an online reservation is recommended. It all begins across from the cottage, in the visitors’ center that offers several small exhibits, including a chilling account of modern slavery (“An estimated 12 million people are enslaved worldwide–more than were held at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” one of the displays read, as survivors recounted their stories on a small screen).
Through April 30, 2013, the centerpiece of the exhibits is the rare, signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Forty-eight of these copies were signed by Lincoln and sold to raise money for the care of Union soldiers (the whereabouts of only 26 are known today). As you proceed to the cottage, summer and fall of 1862 come into focus. Much of the document was fleshed out, discussed, and drafted right here.
Photography is prohibited at the exhibitions and in the cottage. Granted, there isn’t too much to photograph: Most rooms are empty. The Lincolns brought 19 carts of furnishings when they stayed here June to November in 1862, 1863, and 1864, but no records remain of what these were. Instead of appointing the place in period pieces, it was decided to strip the walls to their Lincoln-era appearance and let the bones of the cottage speak for themselves. Twenty-three layers of paint were removed in my favorite room, the library–look closer, and you will see the horizontal ghost lines of bookshelves that once held documents, law books, and Lincoln’s beloved Shakespearean plays. This spare decor is surprisingly impactful.
In each room, the guide conjured glimpses of life at the cottage, framed with recordings–conversations that once took place here, memories of encounters, snapshots of Lincoln as a wartime president, a grieving father, a man tired and anxious but also surprisingly approachable. In one story, a British tourist, intent on seeing Niagara Falls and meeting the president, talked his way through the guards one evening. Lincoln greeted him in the living room, in slippers, his hair disheveled, and spent hours talking about the visitor’s travels and Lincoln’s childhood in a cabin smaller than the room they occupied now. I did not expect to be so moved.
War was never too far from the cottage. The Lincolns shared the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home with 300 veterans and members of the military guard. As he sat in his library, the view outside was of the growing national cemetery: 5,000 Civil War soldiers were buried here between 1861 and 1864, until a larger cemetery was established over Robert E. Lee’s Arlington farm. The Lincolns saw 30 to 40 military funerals out of their windows every week. The rolling hills of the cemetery are minutes away from the cottage, and we wandered there after the tour. On a foggy day, this was a quiet, haunting place, and a fitting conclusion to a memorable afternoon.