Presidential Work at the Soldiers' Home

While life at the Soldiers’ Home offered some degree of privacy and relief from the pressure of running a country at war, President Lincoln bore the burden of his leadership constantly. The captain of the company assigned to guard the President at the Cottage reported that Lincoln carried work with him to and from the Soldiers’ Home.

I usually went down to the city at 4 o’clock and returned with the President at 5. . . He often carried a small portfolio, containing papers relating to the business of the day, and spent many hours on them in the evening . . . Frequently, on our way home, he discussed points that seemed to trouble him.

Captain David V. Derickson[1]

As the Civil War raged, Lincoln worked day and night to lead the country through the crisis. On a daily basis, he simultaneously was involved in planning military strategy, domestic policy, and foreign relations. The President’s determination to issue the Emancipation Proclamation remains the best known of his many decisions during this period, but other events that took place at the Cottage also reveal Lincoln’s leadership style during this turbulent time.

Discussions of Military Strategy and Emancipation

Early one June morning in 1862, President Lincoln arranged for a carriage to bring Senator Orville Browning of Illinois to the Cottage. Browning brought two guests with him, retail magnate Alexander T. Stewart, who was also a contractor supplying uniforms to the Union Army, and Judge Henry Hilton. With these men, Lincoln discussed what he saw as the failed strategy of General McClellan, then Commander of the Army of the Potomac.

The conversation at the President’s was chiefly on public affairs… Mr. Stewart is very earnest in his support of the Union cause, and urged that McClelland [sic] should be superceded and [General John] Pope given the command of the Army of the Potomac. He has no confidence in McClellan.

Senator Orville Browning, diary entry, June 18, 1862[2]

June 18, 1862 was a very busy day for the President and Vice President, according to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin’s biography, written by Hamlin’s son. The pair had dinner together at the Soldiers’ Home, where Lincoln shared a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation with Hamlin.[3] Whether or not the Vice President’s son, writing many years later, had accurate knowledge of the details of this meeting, the President was known to have had the issue heavily on his mind and logically would have conferred with his trusted advisors about it.

On other occasions, the President held evening meetings at the Cottage where he sometimes discussed urgent issues well into the night. When the President’s first stay at the Soldiers’ Home was nearly at an end, in early November 1862, he spent a long night in discussions over what to do about General McClellan. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair and his father, Frank Blair, Sr., met Lincoln at the Cottage that night to express their opposition to the President’s plan to remove McClellan from command. They were unsuccessful in their efforts to persuade the President, who declared at the end of their meeting, “I said I would remove him if he let Lee’s army get away from him, and I must do so. He has got the slows, Mr. Blair.”[4]

Military Emergencies

At the White House, Lincoln lived and worked in the same building and could be summoned to meetings whenever a crisis arose. Alerting the President when he lived three miles away required a bit more effort, but Lincoln remained available in emergencies. During the night of Sunday, September 20, 1863, a messenger awakened the President to deliver news about a disastrous Union defeat near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lincoln left the Soldiers’ Home and went to the War Department immediately, where he continued to monitor the situation from there.

Several nights later, on September 23, the situation near Chattanooga was still critical, with the Union general there desperately in need of reinforcements. Long after Lincoln had gone to the Soldiers’ Home for the evening, Secretary of War Stanton called an emergency meeting to address the situation. John Hay rode out to the Soldiers’ Home to bring the President back to the city.

I went out to the Soldiers’ Home, through the splendid moonlight & found the [President] abed… I delivered my message to him as he robed himself… assured him as far as I could that it meant nothing serious, but he thought otherwise, as it was the first time Stanton had ever sent for him.

John Hay, diary entry, September 27, 1863[5]

The President and his advisers discussed the emergency until well after midnight that night.

 The Benefits of a Secluded Retreat

The rural nature of the Soldiers’ Home was a bit of an inconvenience at times, but the President took advantage of the relative privacy. Journalist Noah Brooks claimed that Lincoln told him about a private meeting he held with Congressman Fernando Wood at the Cottage at 8 a.m. on September 11, 1864. Wood was a leader of the Democratic party which opposed the war and hoped to defeat Lincoln in the upcoming presidential electionr. According to Brooks, the two men discussed some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering taking place in advance of the election.[6]

Lincoln’s Daily Life

Lincoln Day by Day, originally organized by the Lincoln Sequicentennial Commission, chronicles President Lincoln’s daily activities, to the extent that these could be reconstructed from historic documentation, such as letters and diaries. The work has been continually updated and is now available as a searchable online database: Lincoln Day by Day Online

Included in chronology are a number of references to Lincoln’s activities at the Cottage.

6/18/1862 – The President and Vice President [Hamlin] ride horses to Soldiers’ Home for the evening meal. After dinner, they retire to the library and behind locked doors Lincoln reads a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.

6/25/1862 – Senator Browning [from Illinois] and friends visit Lincoln at Soldiers’ Home in the evening.

7/4/1862 – Lincoln meets a train of ambulances on the route to the Soldiers’ Home. At Soldiers’ Home, he reviews recent military action with Meigs and Sibley.

7/5/1862 – Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln are at the Soldiers’ Home. Lincoln too exhausted to keep appointments that evening.

7/24/1862 – At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln has a conversation with Browning on public affairs.

9/3/1862 – At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln confers from 9 to 12 p.m. with Secretary Seward.

9/17/1862 – The battle of Antietam was fought. At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln completes the second draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

9/25/1862 – In the evening, John Hay rides to the Soldiers’ Home with Lincoln.

10/13/1862 – Lincoln and Vice President Hamlin talk all night at the Soldiers’ Home about the military situation and General McClellan.

[1] David V. Derickson, The President’s Guard.  Typescript recollection courtesy of Jane Westenfeld.  Ida M. Tarbell Papers, Allegheny College, Meadville, Pennsylvania.  Cited in “Lincoln’s Wartime Retreat” (Draft). Matthew Pinsker.  National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001.  p34.

[2] Orville Browning, Diary entry, 18 June 1862.  In The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning. Eds. Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall.  2 Vols.  Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1925-33. p1:552.  Cited in Lincoln’s Santuary.  Matthew Pinsker.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p138.

[3] Pinsker, Matthew.  Lincoln’s Sanctuary.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p140-141.

[4] Montgomery Blair to George Ticknor Curtis, 21 January 1880.  Cited in Lincoln’s Santuary.  Matthew Pinsker.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p164.

[5] Burlingame, Michael and John R. Turner Ettlinger, eds.  Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay.  Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.  p85. Cited in Lincoln’s Santuary.  Matthew Pinsker.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p186.

[6] Pinsker, Matthew.  Lincoln’s Sanctuary.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.  p212-213.

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