The Armed Forces Retirement Home was established on March 3, 1851, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation to found “a military asylum for the relief and support of invalid and disabled soldiers of the army of the United States.” Events leading to the establishment of a military asylum had been building for a number of years, beginning with the first recommendation for a soldiers’ home in November 1827, when Secretary of War James Barbour suggested the founding of an Army Asylum in his Annual Message to the President.
…The institution bearing the above name is a large, fine building, built of stone, in castelated style, about two miles and a half from Washington, due north. The grounds are extensive and beautiful, and belong to the Government, which erected the large central building for disabled, homeless soldiers of the regular service, of whom a large number here rest from the services in the field. Near the central building are several two-story cottages… in the Gothic style, and occupied by the Surgeon in charge, the Adjutant General and other functionaries, and one is occupied during the Summer by the President and his family.
– Noah Brooks, journalist, July 4, 1863.
The Home was eventually the product of the combined efforts of three men to provide an honorable and secure retirement for American war veterans. These men were Brevet Major General Robert Anderson, Fort Sumter’s commanding officer at the outbreak of the Civil War; Senator Jefferson Davis, who repeatedly introduced legislation to found the Home; and General Winfield Scott, who contributed significant funds. In 1848, in lieu of ransacking Mexico City, Gen. Scott received $150,000. Scott earmarked $100,000 of this tribute money for the establishment of the Home.
Several sites for the “military asylum” were considered, and finally, the estate of George Riggs, together with an adjoining tract, was selected.
Several days were spent looking at sites and the choice finally came down to Mr. Smith’s place and a farm offered by Mr. George W. Riggs, who not only offered his land of somewhat under two hundred acres but also offered to guarantee the title of the adjoining land of Mr. Charles Scrivner, the Mount Juliet tract of about 58 acres. After a series of meetings, the Board voted to buy the Riggs farm together with the Scrivner tract. On this land the Home now stands.
– Colonel Goode.
The U.S. government paid Riggs, a notable Washington banker, about $57,000 for the 256-acre parcel. The U.S. government purchased additional land, totaling about 207 acres, from the 1850s to the 1870s.
The prestige of the Soldiers’ Home was enhanced when it became a presidential retreat. In 1857, President James Buchanan became the first president to stay at the Soldiers’ Home, although he stayed in a different cottage than the one occupied by President Lincoln. President Lincoln lived at the Soldiers’ Home in 1862, 1863, and 1864 and spent more time there than any other president. President Rutherford B. Hayes also enjoyed the Soldiers’ Home setting and stayed in the Cottage during the summers of 1877-80. President Chester A. Arthur was the last president to use the former Riggs cottage as a residence, which he did during the winter of 1882 while the White House was being repaired.
President Hayes… was accustomed to reside at the cottage adjoining the main building, and in it President Arthur passed a greater part of the heated term last year. This was the Riggs dwelling-house, which was purchased with the first site selected for the Home. President Arthur was greatly pleased with his stay there last year, the rest and comfort afforded him after the continual pressure brought to bear upon him by politicians and office-seekers at the White House [sic.]. He is anxious to return this year, and the cottage has been thoroughly renovated and is now ready for his occupancy. He will take up his summer residence there immediately after his return from New York, which will be about the first of June. The large, cool rooms of this cottage, fitted up according to the good taste of the President are very attractive. He was unwilling that any expenditure should be made by the officers of the Home for his comfort or convenience, and all of the handsome ornaments, which were particularly pleasing to the eye of the visitor last year, were brought out from the White House.
— “All About the Soldiers’ Home,” Washington Star, 26 May 1883.
During the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, the Soldiers’ Home served not only as a comfortable home for veterans and a secluded retreat for presidents, but as a park enjoyed by many Washington residents. The beautiful grounds were a delightful carriage destination for those seeking a bucolic atmosphere within a short drive of the city.
To a citizen of Washington nothing can be a source of greater pride and pleasure than our beautiful Soldiers’ Home. It is much more than a home for veteran soldiers; it is a beautiful pleasure ground for the city, and one which can be enjoyed by everybody. It will compare favorably with the parks of our larger sister cities.
— “All About the Soldiers’ Home,” Washington Star, March 26, 1883.
Since 1884, the Cottage has served many functions for the Soldiers’ Home, including periods as a dormitory for the Soldiers’ Home band, an infirmary, a guest house, the first dormitory for women, a bar and lounge, and most recently, the Armed Forces Retirement Home public affairs office.
In 1889, the Cottage was named for Brevet Major General Robert Anderson, the Union commander at Fort Sumter at the outset of the Civil War. Anderson was one of the founders of the Soldiers’ Home in 1851.
The Soldiers’ Home has remained in continual service since 1851, offering veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces an opportunity to enjoy an active retirement in tranquil surroundings.