By Kevin Bowman
On the afternoon of April 13, 1865, President Lincoln traveled out to his summer retreat at the Soldiers’ Home. He was followed by his cavalry escort, remembered Maunsell B. Field, senior political aid of the Treasury Department. As noted by historian Matthew Pinsker in Lincoln’s Sanctuary, Field too was heading out to the Soldiers’ Home and was joined for a moment by the President who stopped and discussed “indifferent subjects.” Field described that Lincoln appeared somber and exhausted as the President rode ahead to take a private ride around the Cottage grounds. One can only speculate the President’s emotions during this visit to the Cottage.
Undoubtedly, if Field’s description is accurate, Lincoln felt the weight of four years of unparalleled death and destruction in civil war carried out through his own desire and hopes of preserving the Union. With the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just days before, certainly his hopes seemed a reality. Lincoln knew, however, that reconstruction would be “fraught with great difficulty,” as he noted himself in a public speech at the White House just two days prior to his April 13th visit to the Cottage. It is hard to imagine having exhausted so much energy only to foresee perhaps years or decades of further social, political and economic strife. Perhaps this was the impetus of the down-trodden nature that Maunsell Field described in Lincoln.
Unforeseen for Lincoln that day was the reality that this visit to his summer cottage would be his last. The following day, Good Friday, while watching an evening play of Our American Cousin at downtown Ford’s Theater, Lincoln was shot by famed actor John Wilkes Booth. The next morning, at approximately 7:20, the President succumbed to his wound. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a confidante of Lincoln who often enjoyed residing near the President at the Soldiers’ Home, noted, “now he belongs to the ages.”
Today, the story of the life of Abraham Lincoln belongs to us all. Amidst festivals of cherry blossoms and the joys of warming weather, this week we look forward while we reflect on the life and contributions of Abraham Lincoln. How wonderful it is that at President Lincoln’s Cottage, we can reflect on his trials and contributions in the place where he lived and worked. Here, this week, we can experience and perhaps understand the weights and freedoms he felt at his summer retreat, especially this week, the anniversary of Lincoln unknowingly said “Good-bye” for the final time.