By Niles Anderegg and Rebecca Downes
As we celebrate our veterans and remember those who are no longer with us, it is important to think about how we, as a country, have dealt with our veterans in the past. Veterans Day as a national holiday is a 20th century invention born out of the tragedy of the First World War. For Lincoln and his contemporaries there was no official place for veterans in American society. But that does not mean that Lincoln did not have interest in and interaction with some of America’s earliest veterans.
Then as now there were groups that supported our nation’s veterans, one such group was the Association of the Surviving Soldiers of the War of 1812. The New York tribune reported that Lincoln spoke to this group on the fourth of July 18621. The speech Lincoln gave to these veterans is not one of high oratory (its focus is on the support these men had shown for the war effort). It does show how Lincoln took time to address and meet with veterans.
Lincoln had the opportunity to meet veterans in an informal setting as well: his own backyard. The Soldiers’ Home was created by the Federal Government in 1851 as a residence for elderly and disabled veterans primarily of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. The Soldiers’ Home also served as a summer retreat for presidents and their families. The Lincoln’s lived at the Soldiers’ Home during the summer and early fall months of 1862, 1863 and 1864. While there is little documentation that has been found so far regarding interactions between the President and the veterans who lived at the Soldiers’ Home, one can assume that there was at least a passing acquaintance among them. As one anonymous resident recalled of President Lincoln, “he was very kind and familiar to all of us.” 2
Lincoln always had a strong sense of history and remembered the sacrifice of those who had come before him, as he famously mentioned in the Gettysburg Address. Also, the formal and informal encounters with soldiers of yesteryear show us that Lincoln had an appreciation for the sacrifice given by veterans during our nation’s earliest years. As we spend the day remembering the bravery and heroism of our 20th and 21st Century veterans, let us pause and, like Lincoln, consider the part these men played in helping to protect and create the America that we know today.
2 Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home. Matthew Pinsker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. 172.