Homes: Soldiers' Home
Just three days after his inauguration in 1861, President Lincoln took an early morning horseback ride to visit the Soldiers' Home. Both President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had summer cottages in the Northeast section of the city to get away from the heat and humidity near the Potomac River. Mary, in particular, loved the home where the family had more private space than at the White House which was open to virtually anyone who came visit. Here, Stanton and Mr. Lincoln could relax with their children and be entreated to join juvenile games like "mumble-the-peg."
Presidential aide William O. Stoddard wrote 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.”1 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.”2
Mr. Lincoln's assistants also enjoyed the summer respite. John G. Nicolay wrote his fiancee on June 15, 1862: "Mrs. Lincoln moved out to the 'Soldiers Home,' about a mile and a half from the city this past week, so that John and I are left almost alone in the house here. The President comes in every day at ten and goes out again at four. I am very glad of the change for several reasons, particularly that it gives us more time to ourselves, the crowd only coming when they know the President to be about."3
A security detail usually accompanied the president. Sergeant Smith Stimmel recalled: “During the summer and fall [Mrs. Lincoln] often rode out with him from their summer home, and on other occasions. When the weather was a little chilly, the President wore a man’s gray shawl over his shoulders, and as they got into their carriage I have often seen her adjust the shawl about his shoulders in an affectionate manner.” Often, however, President Lincoln went alone. Noah Brooks wrote: “He 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.”."4
Lt. Colonel Thomas Chamberlin recorded 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 marshall of the Nineteenth Pennsylvania District, with head-quarters in Meadville.”5
The President did not always cooperate with his assigned security detail. Kieffer recalled frequently seeing the President “enter his carriage before the hour appointed for his morning departure for the White House, and drive away in haste, as if to escape from the irksome escort of a dozen cavalrymen, whose duty it was to guard his carriage between our camp and the city. Then when the escort rode up to the door, some ten or fifteen minutes later, and found that the carriage had already gone, wasn’t there a clattering of hoofs and a rattling of scabbards as they dashed out past the gate and down the road to overtake the great and good President.”6 Mr. Lincoln's movements were not exactly secret and raised the interest of Confederates and Confederate sympathizers. “Lincoln does not leave the White House until evening, or near twilight, and then only with a driver, he takes a lonely ride two or three miles in the country to a place called the Soldiers’ Home, which is his summer residence. My point is to collect several of these Kentuckians whom I see about here doing nothing, and who are brave enough for such a thing as that, and capture Lincoln, run him down the Potomac, cross him over just where I crossed, and the next day have here.” So reported a Confederate officer to Jefferson Davis.7
The home was originally built by a Washington banker who sold it for use by old or injured soldiers. It was founded in the early 1850s by General Winfield Scott, for whom was named the main building next to the cottage" where Mr. Lincoln's family stayed. (The cottage is located on the grounds of the Soldiers and Airmen's Home, near the intersection of Park Place and Rock Creek Church Road in Northeast Washington.) According to historian William C. Davis: "Sometimes he even ate with the men in the huge dining room, whose long tables seated up to two thousand at once. Now and then, like soldiers everywhere, the volunteers managed to get liquor onto the premises, and when that happened a drunken fight or two was sooner or later inevitable. In the president's presence, the men would be on their best behavior, and likely he saw nothing of this sort with his own eyes, but he may well have heard the rumpus from his room."8 Mr. Lincoln's bedroom was located in the southwest corner of the building and in the summer of 1862, he worked on the Emancipation Proclamation there.
It was the cottage's parlor that was the center of social life. Historian Matthew Pinsker wrote: “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.”sup>9 According to Pinkser, “The main parlor at the former Riggs cottage appears to have been opposite the front entryway. It had gib windows that opened onto a porch facing the northern edge of the rounds and the nearby cemetery. A fireplace occupied one wall, useful during late autumn evenings when the air around the cottage grew chillier. The residence was also equipped with gaslights. By the standards of the Victorian era, the parlor was only lightly furnished with a handful of sofas and chairs and appears to have been separated from a dining area and the stairwell merely by a folding screen.”10 Pinsker noted that “recollections by guests at the cottage suggest that the president was more likely to turn to his favorite poets or dramatists when he was outside of the office and not trying to make a political point or neutralize an unwanted request. There were evenings full of the famous anecdotes and even some sentimental ballads, but they appeared to be less common. The Lincoln parlor generally embodied a dignified nineteenth-century ideal.”."11
The atmosphere at the Soldiers' Home was less formal than in downtown Washington - even for Edwin Stanton. "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," wrote journalist Noah Brooks. "I found 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."12
"Mr. Lincoln was very regular about his habits. He called for his carriage every morning about the same hour, and while I was with him at least, he left for his home every night about the same time," reported one White House coachman. "He was greatly interested in his children and they used to come to meet him and ride up to the house with him."13 Senator Orville Browning reported in his diary at visit on June 30, 1862: "The President got home soon after we reached there. He asked me to sit down with him on the stone steps of the portico - then took from his pocket a map of Virginia and pointed out to me the situation of the army before Richmond, and gave me all the news he had from there. He then took from his pocket a copy of Hallack's poems, and read to me about a dozen stanzas concluding the poem of Fanny. The song at the end of the poem he read with great pathos, pausing to comment upon them, and laughed immoderately at the ludicrous conclusion."14
At the Soldiers' Home, the President stayed in a twelve-room cottage that was nearly three miles northeast of the White House; Secretary Stanton and his family stayed next door. Occasionally, the two Union leaders commuted to and from work together in downtown Washington. The location's elevation and shade presented a cooler alternative to the swampy environment around the White House. According to journalist Noah Brooks, the Soldiers' Home was "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, built of stone, 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 family. Mr. Lincoln comes in early in the morning and returns about sunset, unless he has a press of business - which is often - when he sleeps at the White House and has 'grog' sent up from Willard's. He goes and comes attended by an escort of cavalry company, which was raised in this city for the purpose, and the escort also stands on 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 a 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".15
There was a peacefulness at the Soldiers' Home which contrasted with the constant pressure of the White House. George Templeton Strong, an official of the Sanitary Commission, described the home: "From the cane factory on North Capitol Street grew the rest house known as the Soldier's Home. It was a collection of frame structures, enclosed by a picket fence, with the name of the Sanitary Commission flapping on an awning over the entrance. Between the buildings on sunny days, pale soldiers were to be seen lounging against the walls, resting on their crutches or sitting in wooden chairs."16 Artist Francis Carpenter reported: "The Soldier's Home,' writes a California lady, who visited Mr. Lincoln there, "is a few miles out of Washington on the Maryland side. It is situated on a beautifully wooded hill, which you ascend by a winding path, shaded on both sides by a wide-spread branches, forming a green arcade above you. When you reach the top you stand between two mansions, large, handsome, and substantial, but with nothing about them indicative of the character of either. That on your left is the Presidential country-house; that directly before you, the 'Rest' for soldiers who are too old for further service...The 'Home' only admitted soldiers of the regular army; but in the graveyard near at hand there are numberless graves - some without a spear of grass to hide their newness--that hold the bodies of volunteers. While we stood in the soft evening air, watching the faint trembling of the long tendrils of waving willow, and feeling the dewy coolness that was flung out by the old oaks above us, Mr. Lincoln joined us, and stood silent, too, taking in the scene."17
President James Buchanan had previously stayed at the Soldiers' Home, but the pressure of military affairs kept President Lincoln at the White House during the first summer of his Administration. When he did begin commuting from his office at the White to the Soldiers' Home, the President rode back and forth on horseback. According to Noah Brooks, "While the President's family were at their summer-house, near Washington, he rode into town of a morning, or out at night, attended by a mounted escort; but if he returned to town for a while after dark, he rode in unguarded, and often alone, in his open carriage. On more than one occasion the writer has gone through the streets of Washington at a late hour of the night with the President, without escort, or even the company of a servant, walking all of the way, going and returning.18
Being at the Soldiers home did not always bring rest. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote in his diary on September 21, 1863 about the President’s response to the Battle of Chattanooga: “The President came to me this afternoon with the latest news. He was feeling badly. Tells me a dispatch was sent to him at the Soldiers' Home shortly after he got asleep, and so disturbed him that he had no more rest, but arose and came to the city and passed the remainder of the night awake and watchful. He has a telegram this P.M. which he brings me that is more encouraging. Our men stood well their ground and fought like Union heroes for their country and cause. We conclude the Rebels have concentrated a large force to overpower Rosecrans and recapture Chattanooga. While this has been doing, Halleck has frittered away time and dispersed our forces. Most of Grant's effective force appears to have been sent across the Mississippi, where a large force is not needed. Burnside is in northeastern Tennessee, two hundred miles away from Chattanooga. While our men are thus scattered, a large division from Lee's army in our front has been sent under Longstreet to Bragg; and Hill's and Ewell's corps, it is reported, are there also. I trust this account is exaggerated, though the President gives it credence. I do not learn, nor can I ascertain, that General Halleck was apprised of, or even suspected, what was being done; certainly he has made no preparation. The President is, I perceive, not satisfied, but yet he does not censure or complain. Better, perhaps, if he did.”19
Later in the War, President Lincoln was generally followed by an armed military guard, but on one occasion in 1864, Mr. Lincoln's hat was pierced by a bullet as the unaccompanied President neared the Soldiers' Home. Mr. Lincoln told to Ward Hill Lamon the story of an attempted assassination that took place near the Soldier's Home:
'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.20
In 1864, wrote Pinsker, “The Lincolns arrived to a residence that had recently undergone a few thousand dollars’ worth of redecoration. In the spring, Mary Lincoln had hired John Alexander, a local upholsterer, to provide ‘repairs and refitting & furnishing’ to the former Riggs country home. Alexander, who had previously worked on renovations at the White House, changed or added wallpaper to eight of the fourteen rooms. He washed the floors and windows and touched up the interior paint. He moved two large miros, hung pictures, and added a variety of new lace chamber curtains, linen sheets, and various types of parlor curtains.”21
In July 1864, the President encountered a different kind of danger when Confederate General Jubal Early invaded the outskirts of Washington. According to California journalist Noah Brooks: "...The President and his family have been living out at the Soldiers' Home, about four miles only this side of the rebel line of skirmishers; but on Sunday night Secretary Stanton sent out a carriage and a guard and brought in the family, who are again domesticated at the White house. The lonely situation of the President's Summer resident would have afforded a tempting chase for a daring squad of rebel cavalry to run some risks for the chance of carrying off the President, whom we could ill afford to spare just now."22
David Homer Bates of the War Department’s Telegraph Office wrote in his diary in August 1864: “Maj. Eckert & I went to the Soldier’s Home last night to experiment with an instrument for telegraphing by means of a calcium light. A key is arranged so as to show the light at pleasure & by this means dots & dashes can be made quite successfully. We communicated with Chandler who was at Smithsonian Institution, very readily. The Prest., Adml Davis of the Navy, Col. Nicodemus of the Signal Corps. Col. Dimick were in a tower at Soldier’s Home witnessing the experiments.”23
The Soldiers' Home was not necessarily easy to find as Methodist minister John McClintock emphasized in a note to the President in the summer of 1864: "Man proposes, but God disposes. I left Willard's at 7-1/4 last night to meet your kind engagement with me at 8 --- The driver, it seems, did not know the way, or else was drunk. He brought up at Fort Stevens, & when the guard there showed us the need of retreating, his next move was on Fort Slocum! It was now 10 at night, & of course, I could not intrude upon you after that hour."24 Englishman George Borrett recorded his own late-night visit to the Old Soldier's Home with the escort of the daughter of a Treasury Department official:
"We had sat there but a few minutes when there entered through the folding doors the long, lanky, lath-like figure [of President Lincoln]...with hair ruffled, and eyes very sleepy, and -hear it, ye votaries of court etiquette! Feet enveloped in carpet slippers. We all rose somewhat confused by this abrupt introduction to the presence of the highest in the land, except, of course, [the daughter of Assistant Treasury Secretary George Harrington], who immediately offered her hand to the President, and in a few apt words explained who she was, and why she was there. Mr. Lincoln advanced to me and my fellow-travellers, shook each of us warmly by the hand, expressed his pleasure at seeing us, and told us to take seats and make ourselves comfortable. We did so, and were at home at once. All my uneasiness and awe vanished in a moment before the homely greeting of the President, and the genial smile which accompanied it; and had they not, a glance at one of the carpet slippers jogging up and down upon the knee of the other leg in the most delightful freedom of attitude, would have reassured me...
Not all visitors were so well behaved. On June 26, 1863, several New York army officers sought an audience with President Lincoln on behalf of New York State Governor Horatio Seymour, who was concerned about the draft in the days before the New York City draft riots:
"It was a bright night and about nine o'clock when were turned from the highway into the winding roads of the Soldiers' Home. We saw gleaming amid the shrubbery in all directions the bayonets of the soldiers who guarded the President's residence. There were at that time many fears expressed that a cavalry raid would be made for the purpose of capturing the President.
Sometimes, even the President's incredible patience was strained by such visits - which were less numerous at the Soldier's Home than at the White House. One Union colonel called at the Home in search of a favor and discovered Mr. Lincoln's wrath instead of his mercy. But the President regretted his action and later visited the officer and told him: "I treated you brutally last night, I ask your pardon. I was utterly tired out, badgered to death. I generally become about as savage as a wild-cat by Saturday night, drained dry of the milk of human kindness. I must have seemed to you the very gorilla, the rebels paint me. I was sorry for it when you were gone. I could not sleep a moment last night, so I thought I'd drive into town in the cool of the morning and make it all right."27
The 1864 Stranger's Guide-book to Washington City reported: “On a high plateau, three miles north of the Capitol, is the ‘Soldier's Home’ or ‘Military Asylum.’ The site was selected by General Scott, the object being the establishment of a home for the wornout veterans of the United States Army. From its elevation a charming view is had of all the surrounding country. The main building is 593 feet long, and is built after the Norman style of architecture, of East Chester marble. A mess room 60 feet long is in the rear of the main building. Two smaller buildings, one 52 by 40 feet, and the other 48 by 40 feet, are near the main building, and are known as officers' quarters. The Presidents of the United States have, for a few years past, occupied one of these last-mentioned buildings as a summer resort. The drives leading to this retreat are exceedingly fine and romantic.”28