The Executive Mansion was a difficult place to live during the Civil War. The President's bedroom was just down the hall from his second floor office, where he was besieged day and often night by job-seekers, commissioner-seekers, pardon-seekers, civil and military officials. To escape them and the humidity of Washington's summers, the Lincolns in 1862 began to use a cottage of the Soldiers' Home on a hill northeast of the White House. From there, President Lincoln commuted into his official residence.
Journalist Noah Brooks wrote: "In the summer the family lived in a stone cottage on the reservation belonging to the Government, in the suburbs of Washington, known as the Soldiers' Home. A few servants were then kept at the White House, and in case of extraordinary business being on hand the President tarried there all night. But usually he was driven out at the close of the day's work, and the evenings at the Soldiers' Home cottage were often very delightful. The distance from the city kept away importunate office-seekers and other petitioners, and familiar friends would call and help to pass the evening in social chat. One or two would sometimes be invited to spend the night, and the family circle was then more like that of a private household than at other times during the Presidential term."1
Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote for a newspaper in May 1862: "The President and his family have removed for the summer to the charming country seat known as the 'Soldiers' Home,' about three miles from the city. Mr. Lincoln usually rides in on horseback, about nine o'clock in the morning, accompanied by 'little Fred' [Tad] on his pony. His health is better this season than last, and he manages to keep up his spirits, in spite of his burden of anxiety."2 Mary Lincoln wrote a friend two months later: "We are truly delighted with this retreat, the drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day bring its visitors."3 Given the proximity of the White House to the pestilential and putrid Potomac Canal to the south, any alternative housing must have seemed delightful.
Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote in Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers Home: "The cottages at the Soldiers' Home offered an attractive alternative to the White House, especially in hot weather, because they were well situated on cool, shaded hills. They also offered the advantage of being outside the city while not too far from the presidential office. It took an ordinary carriage driver about half an hour to navigate the three-mile journey across the District. In the Civil War era, the grounds covered nearly three hundred acres, offering a panoramic view of the capital and surrounding countryside. At the outset of the Lincoln administration, a local newspaper praised the area as 'one of the most charming rural retreats in the vicinity of Washington."4
The atmosphere at the Soldiers' Home was less formal than in downtown Washington -- and it was less overrun by unwanted visitors. David Homer Bates of the War Department's Telegraph office recalled: "One evening, in the summer of 1864, I rode out to the Soldiers Home with important despatches for the President and Secretary of War, who were temporarily domiciled with their families on the grounds of the Home. I found [Edwin M.] Stanton reclining on the grass, playing with Lewis, one of his children (now living in New Orleans);. He invited me to a seat on the greensward while he read the telegrams; and then, business being finished, we began talking of early times in Steubenville, Ohio, his native town and mine. One of us mentioned the game of 'mumble-the-peg,' and he asked me if I could play it. Of course I said yes, and he proposed that we should have a game then and there. Stanton entered into the spirit of the boyish sport with great zest, and for the moment all the perplexing questions of the terrible war were forgotten. I do not remember who won."5
In this less formal and pressured environment, Stanton and President Lincoln could relax, even playing with their children. It also offered an opportunity to interact with ordinary Americans in a less structured way than in the White House. Pinsker wrote that Mr. Lincoln was "at ease with the nation's ordinary people, someone capable of 'conversing freely with men' and willing to listen to 'those who had borne the brunt of the fight.' Lincoln's genuine accessibility often helped win over skeptics who felt empowered by his apparent interest in them." Pinsker maintained that "the president's decision to relocate to the Solders' Home takes on a broader meaning, serving not just as his family's private retreat but also as a striking example of his outreach efforts. The daily commute promised regular, unstructured interaction with the people, which sometimes had value beyond calculation, as the clipping from the Tribune attests."6
Stoddard wrote in a newspaper dispatch in October 1863 : "The return of Mrs. Lincoln, to resume her wifely care of the President's valuable health, seems to have already given a more cheerful look to his Excellency's care-worn face. The family is still at the Soldier's Home, and for some weeks will remain there. The other absentees will speedily follow the lady of the White House, and in a few weeks the forlorn looking attaches and officers, who now parade the Avenue of a sunny afternoon, will be ready to vote that Washington is once more inhabited."7
Although President Lincoln escaped the heat of the city, he did not escape the burdens of his office. Visitors sometimes accompanied Mr. Lincoln to the Soldiers' Home or were summoned there for visits. At the end of July 1864, for example, Carl Schurz visited with President Lincoln at the White House . The German-American politician was on leave from his duties as a general in the Union Army. The President was often interested in Schurz's insights into military, politics and policy questions. At the time they met, Mr. Lincoln had problems in all three areas. Even Republicans were seeking an alternative to his reelection. Schurz recalled:
I called upon Mr. Lincoln on a hot afternoon late in July. He greeted me cordially, and asked me to wait in the office until he should be through with the current business of the day, and then to spend the evening with him at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, which he occupied during the summer. In the carriage on the way thither he made various inquiries concerning the attitude of this and that public man, and this and that group of people, and we discussed the question whether it would be good policy to attempt an active campaign before the Democrats should have 'shown their hand' in their National Convention. He argued that such an attempt would be unwise unless some unforeseen change in the situation called for it. Arrived at the cottage, he asked me to sit down with him on a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished, and began to speak about the attacks made upon him by party friends, and their efforts to force his withdrawal from the candidacy. The substance of what he said I can recount from a letter written at the time to an intimate friend.
Schurz observed that President Lincoln "spoke as if he felt a pressing need to ease his heart by a giving voice to the sorrowful thoughts distressing him. He would not complain of the fearful burden of care and responsibility put upon his shoulders. Nobody knew the weight of that burden save himself. But was it necessary, was it generous, was it right, to impeach even the rectitude of his motives? 'They urge me with almost violent language,' he said, 'to withdraw from the contest, although I have been unanimously nominated, in order to make room for a better man. I wish I could. Perhaps some other man might do this business better than I. That is possible. I do not deny it. But I am here, and that better man is not here. And if I should step aside to make room for him, it is not at all sure - perhaps not even probable - that he would get here. It is much more likely that the factions opposed to me would fall to fighting among themselves, and that those who want me to make room for a better man would get a man whom most of them would not want in at all. My withdrawal, therefore, might, and probably would, bring on a confusion worse confounded. God knows, I have at least tried very hard to my duty - to do right to everybody and wrong to nobody. And now to have it said by men who have been my friends and who ought to know me better, that I have been seduced by what they call the lust of power, and that I have been doing this and that unscrupulous thing hurtful to the common cause, only to keep myself in office! Have they thought of that common cause when trying to break me down? I hope they have.'"8
Schurz was one of many guests. Pinsker wrote: "It is impossible to specify an exact number of visitors who spent such evenings at the Soldiers' Home cottage. There were probably hundreds who passed through the parlor during the first family's three seasons in residence, with a core group of about a dozen regulars and an unknown number of overnight guests."9
President Lincoln did not escape the dangers of war at his getaway cottage. President Lincoln was generally followed by an armed military guard, generally Company K of the Pennsylvania Bucktails regiment. Lt. Colonel Thomas Chamberlin wrote of his military service at the Soldier's Home: "The President was also not an infrequent visitor in the late afternoon hours, and endeared himself to his guards by his genial, kind ways. He was not long in placing the officers in his two companies at their ease in his presence, and Captains Derickson and Crozier were shortly on a footing of such marked friendship with him that they were often summoned to dinner or breakfast at the presidential board. Captain Derickson, in particular, advanced so far in the President's confidence and esteem that in Mrs. Lincoln's absence he frequently spent the night at his cottage, sleeping in the same bed with him, and - it is said - making use of his Excellency's night-shirt! Thus began an intimacy which continued unbroken until the following spring, when Captain Derickson was appointed provost marshal of the Nineteenth Pennsylvania District, with head-quarters in Meadville."10
Journalist Brooks, whose relationship with the President meant he too visited the Soldiers Home wrote in July in 1863 that President Lincoln "goes and comes attended by an escort of a cavalry company which was raised in this city for the purpose, and the escort also stands guard at the premises during the night. But to my unsophisticated judgment nothing seems easier than a sudden cavalry raid from the Maryland side of the fortifications, past the few small forts, to seize the President of the United States, lug him from his 'chased couch,' and carry him off as a hostage worth having."11 A year later, President Lincoln's family was evacuated when Confederate troops threatened the outskirts of the capital.
On one occasion in the summer of 1864, Mr. Lincoln's hat was pierced by a bullet as the unaccompanied President neared the Soldiers' Home. Mr. Lincoln told about the experience to Ward Hill Lamon, who was a friend and U.S. Marshal in Washington:
'Last night, about 11 o'clock, I went out to the Soldier's Home alone, riding Old Abe, as you call him [a horse he delighted in riding], and when I arrived at the foot of the hill on the road leading to the entrance of the Home grounds, I was jogging along at a slow gait, immersed in deep thought, contemplating what was next to happen in the unsettled state of affairs, when suddenly I was aroused -- I may say the arousement lifted me out of my saddle as well as out of my wits -- by the report of a rifle, and seemingly the gunner was not fifty yards from where my contemplations ended and my accelerated transit began. My erratic namesake, with little warning, gave proof of decided dissatisfaction at the racket, and with one reckless bound he unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug-hat, with which I parted company without any assent, expressed or implied, upon my part. At a break-neck speed we soon arrived in a haven of safety. Meanwhile I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwacker in the middle of the night.12
This attack may have presaged the abduction of President Lincoln which John Wilkes Booth has been planning before he decided on assassination in April 1865. Booth became famous but the Soldiers Home faded into history and this essential Lincoln landmark was long neglected. A major restoration of the Soldiers Home by the National Trust for Historic Preservation is now underway.