—Harper’s Weekly, June 26, 1886.
Beginning with James Buchanan and ending with Chester A. Arthur, the Soldiers’ Home served as a seasonal home for at least four presidents. The prestigious presidential connections and beautiful campus made the Soldiers’ Home a popular driving destination for the local elite as well as visitors to the capital city.
Evidence found in Soldiers’ Home Board Meeting Minutes, diaries, newspapers, and other primary resources indicates that the following presidents resided seasonally at the Soldiers’ Home during their presidencies.
James Buchanan, (presidential term: 1857-1861)
Abraham Lincoln, (presidential term: 1861-1865)
Rutherford B. Hayes, (presidential term: 1877-1881)
Chester A. Arthur, (presidential term: 1881-1885)
Primary resources indicate the President Garfield intended to stay at the Soldiers’ Home, but did not actually reside there, partly due to his assassination on July 2, 1881.
James Buchanan (presidential term 1857-1861)
The first president invited to use the Soldiers’ Home, as a seasonal retreat, James Buchanan presumably resided in Quarters 1, which is located in the Home’s historic core. The Soldiers’ Home Board Meeting Minutes indicate Buchanan resided at the Home in July of 1858.
While staying at the Soldiers ’ Home or US Military Asylum as it was also called, Buchanan reportedly informed his niece, First Lady Harriet Lane, that he “slept much better at the Asylum than at the White House.”
The Secretary of the Board at the Soldiers’ Home invited Buchanan to return the following summer.
“…he should consider the vacant House and grounds at the Home, occupied by him last summer, at his disposal, whenever he shall see fit to reoccupy them.”
— Board Meeting Minutes, Soldiers’ Home, May 30, 1859.
Buchanan accepted the invitation to return and began staying at the Cottage as early as June that year, thus beginning the tradition of presidents using the Soldiers’ Home as a seasonal retreat to escape the heat of downtown Washington.
Documentary evidence suggests Buchanan used the Soldiers’ Home to relax and entertain, while he continued to conduct business exclusively at the White House when in Washington, DC.
At the Soldiers’ Home just as at the White House, Abraham Lincoln shouldered the burdens of wartime leadership and personal and national tragedy. During this time of grief and stress, Lincoln often was described as sad, restless, and always anxious about the future of his country. One officer from the Union Light Guard stationed at the Soldiers’ Home encountered the President outside around midnight one evening. The officer commented:
I saw a man walking alone and leisurely across the path I was taking . . . and as I came near him I saw it was Mr. Lincoln. At an earlier hour I would have kept from speaking, but, prompted by anxiety, I said, “Mr. President, isn’t it rather risky to be out here at this hour?” He answered, “Oh, I guess not I couldn’t rest and thought I’d take a walk.” He was quite a distance outside the line of infantry guards about the house where the family was staying. He turned back after I spoke to him, and I passed on to where the escort was camped.
— Lieutenant George C. Ashmun, officer of the Union Light Guard
Lincoln was preoccupied with his wartime responsibilities even at his country refuge. He took time to play with his son and read his favorite books, but he also used the Cottage as a quiet setting for important meetings, visits from well-wishers, and solitary reflection as he pondered decisions of profound national importance.
Rutherford B. Hayes (presidential term: 1877-1881)
“The President and his family have taken up their residence at the Soldiers’ Home for the summer.”
— Harper’s Weekly, July 24, 1880.
President Hayes stayed at the Soldiers’ Home every year of his presidency, between the months of June and November. Like Buchanan and Lincoln, Hayes used the Home as a refuge from the summer heat of downtown Washington. Unlike his predecessors, Hayes kept a detailed journal that chronicles many of his experiences at the Soldiers’ Home. One entry records his interaction with a Soldiers’ Home resident, who was a veteran of the War of 1812.
“July 10, 1879. – Yesterday the surgeon of the Home, Dr. Huntington, left word that there was at the hospital an old soldier named Sergeant Gaines who fought under Croghan at the defense of Fort Stephenson. This morning, taking my six o’clock walk, I called at the hospital and inquired for Sergeant Gaines. I was told that he was the old gentleman wearing a straw hat sitting on the porch. I approached him, he arose with a pleasant smile and greeted me with genuine politeness as I told him that I was President Hayes. He was rather below medium height with a good kindly face, and an intelligent-looking man. In reply to questions, he said: ‘”I enlisted at Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1812 at the age of fourteen. I was eighty last Christmas. Was born in Frederick, Maryland; went to Lexington, Kentucky…”
— The Diary and Letters of Rutherford B. Hayes.
ed. Charles Richard Williams. 1922.
The two excerpts from Hayes’s diary (below) illustrate the mix of leisure and business Hayes experienced at the Soldiers’ Home.
“This morning I have risen before 6 A. M. and will begin my morning walks. I weighed yesterday one hundred and ninety pounds. Warm morning walks will take off during this month at least five or eight pounds. I walked this morning over to the National Cemetery and east-wardly until the clock struck 7 A. M., when I returned by the President’s gate…”
— July 8, 1880
“I am told by Mr. Rainey, colored Congressman from South Carolina, that in Sumter and other counties the whites are resorting to intimidation and violence to prevent the colored people from organizing for elections. The division there is still on the color line….”
— October 5, 1878
Hayes’s personal recollections reveal a president taken with the healthy air of the Soldiers’ Home who devoted some of his time there to contemplating the complex issues afflicting the nation during his presidency.
On May 12, 1881, The Washington Post ran an article titled, “Mrs. Garfield’s Health.” The subtitles stated “The Executive Mansion Unfit for Human Habitation-Its Need of Sewage, Ventilation and Overhauling-A Bad Location.” The article reports a laundry-list of problems with the White House before closing with the advice, “…the President ought to lose no time in removing his family to the invigorating heights and air of the Soldiers’ Home.” President Garfield’s wife fell ill in May of 1881, purportedly with a case of malaria, which was affecting many residents of the White House at that time.
Despite advice suggesting an early move to the Soldiers’ Home that season, the Garfields apparently did not intend to move to the Soldiers’ Home until June. On June 1, 1881, The Washington Post reported that a house at the Soldiers’ Home had been thoroughly renovated for the President and First Lady’s impending arrival, and it was thought that, “Mrs. Garfield would be sufficiently recovered to be removed there by Thursday next.”
Preliminary research does not confirm that the Garfields moved to the Soldiers’ Home. The President was shot on July 2, 1881 and died on September 18, 1881, unable to fully recuperate from the attack.
Chester A. Arthur is the first and only president known to have stayed at the Home during the winter months, residing there until the winter of 1882, and returning to the White House to entertain for the New Year. A few months after President Arthur escaped the unsanitary conditions of the White House for the Soldiers’ Home, calamity struck.
“At 4 o’clock this afternoon fire was discovered in the President’s cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, caused by an overheated furnace. The President had gone into the city, leaving his sister, Mrs. McElroy, and her young daughter in the cottage. Much excitement prevailed for a time, but help soon arrived and the fire was subdued.”
— The New York Times, November 19, 1882.
No one apparently was hurt, but the house suffered an estimated $100 in damage from the fire.
Aside from the brush with fire, President Arthur reportedly enjoyed his time spent at the Soldiers’ Home and continued to withdraw there even after the White House was renovated. He took advantage of the abundant outlets for relaxation available at the Home, especially fishing.
“President Arthur has quitted the White House for the season, and is staying at that convenient resort for Presidents, the Soldiers’ Home. Nearly all of the many rumors as to where he will spend the heated term agree that he will do more or less fishing. An interesting line of inquiry would be whether the President’s special fondness for casting a fly has resulted in making that sport more sought after than it used to be.”
— Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1883.
Whether or not President Arthur wrote about the Soldiers’ Home remains a mystery. Nearly all of his personal papers were destroyed prior to and shortly after his death.
According to the Soldiers’ Home Board Meeting Minutes, President Garfield accepted an invitation in April 1881 to reside at the Soldiers’ Home.