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.
THE SUMMER MOVES
Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their youngest son, Tad (born in 1853), lived in the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home during the warm weather seasons of 1862, 1863, and 1864, and the family probably would have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year. The President and his family moved from the White House to the cottage between mid-June and early July each year, and stayed until the cooler weather of early November. They brought a substantial number of personal items from the White House to the cottage each summer. By one account, White House servants transported some 19 wagonloads of the family’s belongings, including toys, furniture, and clothing.1
Glimpses of the seasonal moves are found in several of President Lincoln’s telegraph dispatches to his wife:
Mrs. Cuthbert [a seamstress] & Aunt Mary [a nurse] want to move to the White House, because it has grown so cold at Soldiers Home. Shall they? — President Lincoln, Washington, to Mary Todd Lincoln, Boston, Mass. Nov 9, 1862. 2
All well. Tom [a White House servant] is moving things out. — President Lincoln, Washington, to Mary Todd Lincoln, New York. June 29, 1864.3
VISITORS AND GUESTS
While living at the Cottage, the Lincolns were remarkably accessible to the public and entertained both invited guests and unexpected visitors at nearly any time of the day or night. The degree to which the Lincolns lived an ordinary life, free of the formality and security that is now associated with the life of a United States President, seems surprising today.
Those who visited the Lincolns, whether at the White House or at the Cottage, commented on President Lincoln’s willingness to sit and chat casually with anyone who dropped by, and the President paid little heed to formality. He received visitors in his slippers if unexpected guests arrived after he had retired for the evening. George Borrett, a visitor from England, noted such an occasion when unannounced he visited the President at the Soldiers’ Home one summer evening in 1864.
We were ushered into a moderate-sized, neatly furnished drawing-room, where we were told the President would see us immediately. We had sat there but a few minutes, when there entered through the folding doors the long, lanky, lath-like figure that we had seen descending from the “one horse-shay,” with hair ruffled, and eyes very sleepy, and – hear it, ye votaries of court etiquette! “feet enveloped in carpet slippers . . . 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…”
— George Borrett, English visitor to Washington, DC4
George Borrett, like others who spent time with Lincoln, noted that the President enjoyed reading, reciting, and discussing poetry, particularly when the subject seemed pertinent to current events. Lincoln often spent his evenings with his favorite works of literature, whether reading alone or reciting passages to his friends.
Where only one or two [friends] were present [Lincoln] was fond of reading aloud . . . He passed many of the summer evenings in this way when occupying his cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.
— John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary.5
I went with [Lincoln] to the Soldier’s Home & he read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry VI and the beginning of Richard III till my heavy eyelids caught his considerate notice & he sent me to bed.
— John Hay, diary entry, August 23, 1863.6
On some summer evenings, rather than reading, President Lincoln sought to ease his wartime anxiety by indulging his curiosity about machines, gadgets, and scientific discoveries. In August 1863, President Lincoln and John Hay rode from the Soldiers’ Home one night to visit the U. S. Naval Observatory in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, where astronomer Asaph Hall showed them the moon and the star Arcturus through the Observatory’s largest telescope. Several nights later, according to the astronomer’s son, the President rode back to the Observatory alone to ask Hall a question about what he had seen7. On August 24, 1864, Lincoln and a group of government officials witnessed a demonstration in which Morse Code was transmitted via signaling from a tower at the Soldiers’ Home to the roof of the Smithsonian Institution, several miles to the south.8
PERSONAL DANGER AT THE COTTAGE
Friends and well-wishers appreciated being able to visit the Lincolns so easily, but others worried that the President was in constant danger. As the Civil War raged in nearby Virginia and Maryland, the President’s friends feared that Lincoln was insufficiently protected from would-be assassins or kidnappers when he stayed at the Cottage, three miles north of the city.
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 residence would have afforded a tempting chance 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 right now.
— Noah Brooks, journalist and friend of the Lincolns, July 12, 1864.9
In spite of the danger he faced while living in the isolated area, Lincoln was uncomfortable with the idea of being assigned personal escorts and guards. He declared that “it would never do for a president to have guards with drawn sabers at his door, as if he fancied he were, or were trying to be, or were assuming to be, an emperor.”10
Nevertheless, military guards from Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers were stationed at the Soldiers’ Home in 1862 to guard the President. Despite his initial reluctance, Lincoln soon developed a friendly relationship with the soldiers assigned to guard him, particularly with their captain, Charles Derickson. Lincoln went out of his way to ensure that the same company remained as his guards.
Whom it may concern:
Capt. Derickson, with his company, has been, for some time keeping guard at my residence, now at the Soldiers’ Retreat. He, and his Company are very agreeable to me; and while it is deemed proper for any guard to remain, none would be more satisfactory to me than Capt. D. and his company. — A. Lincoln, Executive Mansion, Washington. Nov. 1, 1862.11
THE DAILY COMMUTE AND THE PRESIDENT’S SECURITY
During the months President Lincoln lived in the cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, he commuted every day to and from the White House. The President woke early in the morning, according to his personal secretary John Hay, ate a frugal breakfast of toast and an egg, and rode into Washington by 8 a.m. 12
Early in his presidency, Lincoln opposed his advisors’ attempts to surround him with better security and resisted being escorted. He often rode through the streets of Washington at night without any guards whatsoever.
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.
— Noah Brooks, journalist and friend of the Lincoln family, 1864.13
By the end of the summer of 1862, Secretary of War Stanton compelled Lincoln to accept a military escort of a cavalry officer and about 25 to 30 additional men. The 11th New York Cavalry served as his escort in 1863. Later in the war, the Union Light Guard from Ohio, also known as the Black Horse Cavalry, guarded Lincoln on his commute, and the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers were stationed at the Soldiers’ Home. The President complained about his escorts, particularly because he thought they were noisy and possibly too inexperienced for their new duties.
[President Lincoln protested to Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck] against a small detachment of cavalry which had been detailed without his request, and partly against his will, by the lamented General Wadsworth, as a guard for his carriage in going to and returning from the Soldiers’ Home. The burden of his complaint was that he and Mrs. Lincoln couldn’t hear themselves talk? for the clatter of their sabres and spurs; and that, as many of them appeared new hands and very awkward, he was more afraid of being shot by the accidental discharge of one of their carbines or revolvers, than of any attempt on his life or for his capture by the roving squads of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, then hovering all round the exterior works of the city.
— Colonel Halpine, aide to Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck.14
On one occasion, in August 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled by horseback to the Cottage alone late at night. The would-be assassin did not injure him. Concerned by this and other threats to the President’s life in 1864, the War Department stepped up the President’s security force and required him to be escorted by a personal bodyguard at all times.15
3“Tom” refers to one of the three White House servants: Thomas H. Cross, furnace man; Thomas Cross, doorkeeper; or Thomas Stackpole, watchman.
Basler, Roy P. ed. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Vol. VII. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955. p417.
4Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography(W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1987), 227.
6Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, cited in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. VII, 417. “Tom” refers to one of the three White House servants: Thomas H. Cross, furnace man; Thomas Cross, doorkeeper; or Thomas Stackpole, watchman.
7Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, cited in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. VII, 417. “Tom” refers to one of the three White House servants: Thomas H. Cross, furnace man; Thomas Cross, doorkeeper; or Thomas Stackpole, watchman.
9Burlingame, Michael, Ed. Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p126.
12John Hay to William H. Herndon, Paris, 5 September 1866. In Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. Eds. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. p331. Cited in “Lincoln’s Wartime Retreat” (Draft). Matthew Pinsker. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001. p10.
14Carpenter, F. B. The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House. 1866. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. p67. Cited in Lincoln’s Santuary. Matthew Pinsker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. p124-25.