Lincoln's Leadership in Memoriam

On a hilltop in northwest Washington, DC, on the edge of North Capitol Street, stretches the 16-acre U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, unmistakable for its neat rows of white headstones.  This Memorial Day, President Lincoln’s Cottage, where I served as CEO and Executive Director until last year, is once again hosting a remembrance ceremony with partner organizations at the cemetery. The event was cancelled the past two years due to the pandemic. I am grateful the event is able to resume this year, as it offers the community a unique opportunity to learn the history of hallowed ground hidden in plain sight.  Indeed, the cemetery holds many distinctions. It is the predecessor of Arlington National Cemetery.  Thousands of soldiers were buried there as a consequence of the Civil War.  General Logan, founder of Memorial Day, is laid to rest in a beautiful mausoleum there.  Veterans continue to be interred in those hallowed grounds to this day.  And yet few know it exists.

The cemetery is a mere 200 yards from the front door of what is now called President Lincoln’s Cottage, where Abraham Lincoln lived and worked for more than  12 months of his administration. He made crucial decisions shaping the fate of our nation from that hilltop and saw the human cost of war all around him.  He did not evade it.  He faced it.  During his first summer in residence, when he was drafting the Emancipation Proclamation, more than  1000 soldiers were buried in the cemetery.  Contemporary accounts make it clear how deeply Lincoln was affected by the lives lost. A visitor from California reported that Lincoln joined them, “… in the graveyard near at hand there are numberless graves – some without a spear of grass to hide their newness,” and  recited  lines from  a William Collins poem, “How sleep the brave, who sink to rest/By all their country’s wishes blessed.”  His reaction to lives lost wasn’t always so restrained. Following the Battle of Fredericksburg, when he learned of the casualties, Lincoln “groaned, wrung his hands and showed great agony of spirit.”  No one could have predicted the devastation or duration of the war, nor how Lincoln, with comparatively little military experience, would lead.

Four years after President Lincoln’s election, Lincoln purportedly wrote the “Bixby letter” as it has come to be known, to Lydia Parker Bixby, a widow and mother who had lost multiple sons in the Civil War.  Although there is controversy around the piece–how many sons she lost, whether Abraham Lincoln himself wrote it–it is nonetheless true that Mrs. Bixby and Mr. Lincoln were no strangers to grief.  The letter has come to symbolize both the extreme loss suffered by families and the nation, and Lincoln’s empathetic leadership and willingness to confront tragedy.  For Lincoln, the human consequences of war were not abstract.

How many leaders choose to live in a place that forces them to face the consequences of their decisions so directly each day?  While the Cottage may have offered more privacy than the Executive Mansion, it was not an escape from the depths of the crisis the country was facing.  Living there brought the Lincolns closer to both lives lost and lives permanently altered by the war. There is ample evidence that the president valued the wisdom of his senior advisors, but he was not content to only hear from those closest to him.  Thanks to the press and oral histories, we know Lincoln’s daily commute between the Cottage and the White House resulted in chance encounters with people from all walks of life, including wounded soldiers being brought to area hospitals, and the newly freed living in refugee camps. He both welcomed and sought-out different perspectives, giving him a more complex picture of what was happening and how those most affected felt about it.

By living next to the USSAH National Cemetery, Lincoln had to grapple with the devastating consequences of his decisions while holding firm in his belief that, “The struggle of today, is not altogether for today–it is for a vast future also.” He demonstrated empathy for present concerns while also taking the long view of what was at stake for humanity.  In the midst of the layers of threats and crises today, we would all do well to remember not only those who died serving this country, but those who defended its ideals.

Erin Carlson Mast is the President and CEO of the Lincoln Presidential Foundation in Illinois.  She was the CEO & Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage from 2010-2021.

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