The Cottage

On a hill overlooking downtown Washington is a cottage built for George W. Riggs around 1842. Architect John Skirving designed the house in the Gothic-Revival style popularized by A.J. Downing. In 1851, the estate was sold to the Federal Government, which purchased it in order to found a home for veteran soldiers.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln lived in that cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home from June into November to escape the heat and distractions of life at the White House. The tranquil surroundings at the Soldiers’ Home offered refreshing breezes and relative privacy during a period when the President confronted all-consuming decisions about military strategy, domestic policy, and foreign relations, and could not escape Washington or his responsibilities.

Two or three weeks [of vacation] would do me no good. I cannot fly from my thoughts — my solicitude for this great country follows me wherever I go.

Abraham Lincoln.[1]

The President, during the heated season, occupies a country house near the Soldiers’ Home, two or three miles from the city. He goes to and from that place on horseback, night and morning, unguarded. I go there, unattended, at all hours, by daylight and moonlight, by starlight and without any light.

William Seward to John Bigelow, July 15, 1862.[2]

At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln made some of the momentous decisions that defined his presidency. He met and consulted with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of State William Seward, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and many others. He also formulated his thoughts on freedom that became the Emancipation Proclamation and mourned the death of his son, 12-year-old Willie, from typhoid. At the Cottage, Lincoln read Shakespeare, the Bible, poetry, and treatises on war.  On one occasion, he and his family were evacuated from the grounds when nearby Fort Stevens came under Confederate attack in July 1864.

On his daily rides between the Cottage and the White House – a trip he often made alone – Lincoln watched as the war transformed the nation’s capital. Military camps, government offices, hospitals, contraband camps where escaped slaves sought refuge, and a ring of defensive forts supported the burgeoning wartime activity.

I used to see Mr. Lincoln almost every day riding out to the Soldiers’ Home that summer . . . Of course, we did not know what he was doing, but he was such a great man. And I can remember how we laughed and cried when he set the slaves free.

Anna Harrison, young slave fugitive from Caroline County, Virginia, quoted at age 92 in The Washington Post, Dec. 1936.

Today, the cottage where Lincoln spent one quarter of his presidency remains intact on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) in northwest DC. The AFRH is an active federal retirement community for retired and disabled veterans who have given at least 20 years of service to our country.

In July 2000, Lincoln’s cottage was designated the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument. The newly opened National Monument is the most significant site related to Lincoln’s presidency other than the White House.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Armed Forces Retirement Home have a cooperative agreement, whereby the National Trust stewards the preservation and maintenance of President Lincoln’s Cottage as the premier center for the public to learn about Lincoln and his presidency, in the context of where he lived and worked. Generous support from our our Capital Campaign donors made the restoration of the Cottage and the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center possible. Members of President Lincoln’s Cottage currently support the site’s maintenance and development. Visit our DONATE section for information about how to become a member.

[1] Quoted in A Lincoln’s Summer Home.  @ Lincoln Lore, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 19 August 1935.

[2] Pittman, Benn, Ed.  The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators.  Reprint of 1867 original.  New York: Funk & Wagnall, 1954.  p 134.  Cited in “Lincoln’s Wartime Retreat” (Draft).  Matt Pinsker.   National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2001.  p215.

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