Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Random Shots from the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Lincoln's Tomb

After leaving the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, I drove a few blocks to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in downtown Springfield. I can't speak for the library part of the site, as I didn't have time to visit it, but the museum was pretty impressive. It is the largest Presidential Museum in the nation, taking up a whole city block and opened in 2005. The museum is basically divided into two sections. One is of Lincoln's life before becoming president and the other covers the turbulent White House years. Throughout the museum are a number of wax figure mannequins of Lincoln and others he was associated with, as well as scenes that he "may have" experienced. One of these scenes that Lincoln "may have experienced" when he went to New Orleans as a young man is of a slave family being torn apart at an auction. To begin the journey of Lincoln's life you enter a log cabin, designed to look much like one Lincoln could have grown up with in Kentucky and Indiana.

At the entrance to the White House, there are a number of mannequins of people that Lincoln met during his presidency. There are figures of generals McClellan, Grant, as well as Sojourner Truth, John Wilkes Booth and Frederick Douglass (pictured above). I thought the Douglass figure didn't capture his image very well.

Booth on the other hand, (pictured above) looked very convincing. He looks like the villain in those old movies that ties the damsel in distress to the railroad tracks. In a room beside this exhibit is a display of Mary Todd Lincoln and her dress maker Elizabeth Keckley. Ms. Keckley, a former slave, is fitting Ms. Lincoln while she is flanked by reproduction dresses of her social rivals. Inside the White House exhibit is an very interesting gallery of numerous political cartoons that both praise and denigrate Lincoln. There is an excellent Civil War exhibit that tells the stories of four soldiers on each side, and an exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation featuring a "Team of Rivals" display. There are also displays of his assassination at Ford's Theater and his funeral and laying in state.
The museum has two theaters. One shows an excellent theatrical special called "Lincoln's Eyes." This is a fascinating look at Lincoln through the lens of a modern artist. The production is quite well done and is very hi-tech in its display. There is a part in it where cannons shake you by booming through sub-woofers and actual smoke rings come from the cannon ports in the walls.
The other theatre shows "Ghosts of the Library," which features something called Holavison. I didn't get to see this one, but I kind of wish I had taken the time to do so. Another neat video display was a side item called "Ask Mr. Lincoln." Here the video has individuals asking questions and then a historian uses primary source quotes to answer them. A very neat concept that kept me rapt for almost a half hour.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more about some of Lincoln's critics and his unpopular measures. Other than the political cartoon gallery and the Emancipation Proclamation section, I didn't see much that discussed his faults and his naysayers. All-in-all though it was great experience and I learned a few new things about Lincoln that I didn't know before, which is always my goal for visiting museums.

This is a statue of Lincoln just outside and across the street from the Presidential Library and Museum.

Here is another statue on the old Illinois state capital square, and just outside his old law office, that he shared with another Kentucky native, William Herndon. You can see their sign in the background.

The Old Illinois State Capital building.

I almost left Springfield without going to Lincoln's tomb, but I thought better of it since I don't know if I will ever get back. After making many wrong turns and asking a few times for directions, (you would think they would have this site better marked on the roads) I finally found my way to Oak Ridge Cemetery. As you can see from the above picture, the monument/tomb is huge! It is almost 120 feet tall! This is the final resting place of Mary, Abraham, and their sons Edward, William, and Thomas. Their other son Robert is buried in Arlington. There is a very interesting story about how Lincoln's body finally got to Oak Ridge Cemetery, but for that you should seek out the book and/or documentary "Stealing Lincoln's Body."

This sad looking sculpture is right outside the tomb. People have rubbed his nose shiny for good luck. I don't know why you rub the nose of a man who was assassinated for good luck....but whatever.

Around the sides of the monument are awesome sculptures of Civil War scenes.

Inside the monument is the burial room. There are seven state flags that represent the home states of Lincoln and his ancestors, and there is a presidential flag and at U.S. flag as well. Inscribed on the marble behind the vault is the quote, "NOW HE BELONGS TO THE AGES," reportedly said by Sect. of War Stanton when Lincoln passed.

If your are Lincoln enthusiast, and even if you aren't a big Lincoln fan, I would encourage you to come visit Springfield and learn more about the man. It is difficult to understand the Civil War without knowing Lincoln, and there are few better places to do that than Springfield.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Visit to Lincoln Home National Historic Site

On my way to Kansas for the National Underground Railroad Conference I took a side trip to Springfield, Illinois to visit some Lincoln sites that I had been interested in seeing for some time now. I arrived in Springfield late last evening after about a six hour drive from Kentucky and tried to plan out the following day to make the most of it. I got an early start this morning, arriving at the Visitor Center at about 8 am, which was a half-hour before they opened. That ended up being a good thing because it allowed me to spend some time looking around the recreated neighborhood that the National Park Service has fashioned before my tour of the house began.

Both Eighth and Jackson streets are blocked off to automobile traffic now and many of the buildings that housed Lincoln's neighbors have been restored to make the area look like it did in 1861 when Lincoln left Springfield to become president. The Lincoln's purchased the home in 1844 for $1500.00 from Rev. Charles Dresser, who had married Abraham and Mary two years earlier. Originally the house was a single level home, but as their family grew so did the house. The Lincolns added a downstairs bedroom in 1846 and a whole second story in 1855-56

As you can see from the historic picture above of the house draped in mourning for Lincoln's burial, the restoration of the house has been a marked success. Our ranger guide, Gabrielle gave great tour of the house interior. She pointed out all of the furnishings that were original to the Lincolns when they lived there and explained that many of these items have survived because the Lincoln's didn't need to move their belongings to Washington when he became president as the White House already was furnished. Plus, she explained, the Lincolns fully intended to return to Springfield when Abraham's presidency was over.

One of the neat items in the restored neighborhood was a reproduction campaign wagon that was made to look like a miniature log cabin. Lincoln's campaign advisers wanted to cash in on his humble beginnings and his connection to the "common man" and this, along with the "Railsplitter" identity were two of their campaign ploys.
There are also a number of interpretive signs throughout the restored neighborhood that provide a wealth of information on Lincoln's Springfield. Each restored house has a descriptive label and there are also signs on the ethic diversity of Springfield (Germans, Irish, African American, Portuguese, Italian, etc.) and about Underground Railroad activities by a couple of Lincoln's neighbors.

In the visitor center there were a number of artifacts related to Lincoln, including this "Wide Awake" lantern. On one side it is labeled "FREE MEN," and on the other "FREE SOIL." The Wide-Awakes were a campaign organization that was closely affiliated with the Republican Party in the 1860 election. The Wide Awakes had a type of military uniform that consisted of a cape-style robe and helmet-type hats. They often carried these lit lanterns and big signs that had a large open eye. They, of course, like all Republicans of the day, wanted to ensure that slavery did not spread to the Western Territories, thus the free soil and free men mottoes.

The visitor center also features a short film on Lincoln titled "Abraham Lincoln: A Journey to Greatness." This is one of the best National Park Service films that I have seen. It follows Lincoln from his arrival in Springfield in 1837 to his departure for the White House in 1861. I don't know who the actor was that played Lincoln, but he is a dead ringer (ears and all).

I thought one of the neatest original furnishings in the house was Lincoln's pigeon-hole writing desk. One can image the hours he probably spent at this desk pouring over law suits and writing letters to friends and family. Being as tall as he was I bet he bumped his knees on it all the time.

The Lincoln House does a great job of highlighting and displaying items like his writing desk, his top hat and a plethora of other common things to help let us see Lincoln the man instead of the President-politician, or the American legend that he has grown to become.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Random Thoughts of Soldiers, Then and Now

Yesterday while I was online I saw that five U.S. soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan and two others captured. I couldn't help but think about the anguish their families must be going through right now. I also thought about the loss that their comrades must feel. Are they thinking, "their suffering is over, but ours must continue?" Or, are they thinking, "they died or were captured doing their duty-the highest honor a soldier can receive?"

I suppose I came upon these thoughts because I am about to finish reading Kenneth W. Noe's latest book, Reluctant Rebels: The Confederates Who Joined the Army after 1861. In the book Noe reprints a poem that was written by Private Hiram Smith Williams. Williams was born in New Jersey but had moved to Alabama and had held a diverse lot of occupations. He had delayed enlisting until the spring of 1862 and received an assignment to the defense of Mobile, Alabama. He hoped to get a transfer to the Confederate Navy, but in the spring of 1864 he found himself in the Army of Tennessee just south of Chattanooga. The poem in part reads:

Weary indeed of a poor soldier's life
Weary of all this mad turmoil and strife
Wear of roll-call, weary of drilling
Weary of marching and weary of killing
Weary of labor in sunshine and rain
On breastworks and baricades oft done in vain
Weary of battle, though glory be there
Of winning green laurels for others to wear
Oh, where are our statesmen and have we got one?
To end what our demagogues madly begun
Not one in our land to start into life
With brain and with nerve to stop this sad strife
Alas for our country! Alas for our day!
If we wait for battle to stop this mad fray
Too much blood has already flowed like a river
Too many fond hearts have been parted forever
Too many farewells with tears have been spoken
Too many fond circles already been broken
Footsore and weary over paths steep and rough
We have fought, we have bled, we have suffered enough
Williams added as a postscript: "I honestly believe that the above lines contain the real and true sentiments of ninety-nine hundredths of the soldiers composing our armies and at least four-fifths of those out of the army. Yet what newspaper would dare publish them at the present time? What a sad commentary on Liberty, on freedom."
Another interesting soldier's story that I found fascinating was that of William Pinkney Cline of North Carolina. Before the war Cline was a blacksmith. He enlisted in early 1862 and saw fighting at Antietam and Fredericksburg. Trouble at home caused Cline to think about his commitment to the Confederacy and wrote that, "the men is all out of heart the most of them thinks that we are whipt." Later he wrote "i don't think that it is worth our while to be fiten hire eny longer for we cant never whip the yankes i have a noshen to quit and come home." And, so he deserted. For whatever reason - duty, honor, comrades, religion, pay, hatred of the enemy, (all identified by Noe as soldier motivators) Cline returned shortly after he left. He was imprisoned by the Confederate authorities at Castle Thunder in Richmond until February 1864. Three months later was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness.
Cline's story is similar to that of one of my ancestors. Although Joel Harmon Tedder was not a late enlistee - he joined the 26th North Carolina in August of 1861 - he too must have become war weary, because, like Cline, is listed a deserter in his service records. But, Tedder, also like Cline, for whatever reason, returned to the ranks and was sentenced to hard labor, although his record does not indicate where. Tedder was finally released in time to be captured by Union troops at the Battle of Bristoe Station, Virginia and was sent to Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C. He was later transferred to Fort Delaware, where he remained until he was released in July of 1865.
What made these soldiers continue to fight even if they did have temporary lapses in their commitment? What keeps our current soldiers in the field? Are the motivations of today's soldiers and those of the past similar? Certainly, all are questions to think about.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Random Shots From Berea, Kentucky

In all the hustle and bustle of attempting to get prepared for an upcoming presentation at the National Underground Railroad Conference, and many other work-related duties, it was nice to be able to gather some inspiration from the beautiful hills of Berea, Kentucky.

The December 1859 exile of John G. Fee and his fellow missionaries from Madison County and the state of Kentucky makes up one of the two talking points that I will be presenting in my paper. So, it was especially excited to get to see some of the places that figure prominently into this story while I was in Berea this past week for a digital stories seminar with a cohort of our Teaching American History grant teachers.

During some of my free moments I did some exploring around this small town and was not real surprised to see many evidences of John G. Fee and his legacy. Berea College makes up a significant part of the town, and although the oldest building on campus, Union Church, dates back to only 1865, there are other reminders of this institution's birth in anti-slavery work and the Civil War era. College buildings such as Fairchild Hall and Lincoln Hall quickly come to mind. Fairchild was the first president of Berea College and was an Oberlin College alum. Many of Fee's fellow missionaries had roots at Oberlin.

In the town is a small park that has a statue set produced by artist Stan Watts in 2005-06 that features John Fee and Elizabeth Rodgers, whose husband John A.R. Rogers, was the first principal of Berea School. The Rogers were, of course, exiled from Kentucky along with the Fees and several other families in the wake of John Brown's raid. The statues depict Fee's ideal learning environment of an integrated and co-educational school that was anti-cast and temperance-minded. Fee's dream was realized in 1866 when Berea College opened and became the first interracial and coeducational school in the South.

A closer look at Fee and two of the students.

Fee spoke at the Glade Christian Church in Madison County before moving to Berea from northeastern Kentucky in 1854. The Berea settlement was started on land that local emancipationist Cassius M. Clay donated to Fee and his American Missionary Associate friends. Fee had a number of colporteurs who scattered throughout the neighboring counties preaching abolitionist ideas. He and a number of his missionary associates were mobbed and tarred and feathered for expressing their egalitarian sentiments, before they were finally told to leave the county and state. Appeals to Governor Magoffin to stay in Madison County were denied and Fee had to wait until the end of the Civil War to return to Berea to finish the institution he had started.

Fee and his wife Matilda are buried in Berea Cemetery just outside of town. Their monument is a tribute to their perseverance and equal opportunity ideals.

If you get a chance to stop in Berea when you are on I-75 please do. There are craft stores and fantastic places to eat, and an inspiring and special history that makes for a great atmosphere.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

2010 CWPT Teacher Institute

As the saying goes...time flies when you're having fun. The past week has been history heaven for me. After hosting what proved to be a great teacher conference at the Kentucky Historical Society last Thursday, I found my way to Hagerstown, Maryland for the 2o10 Civil War Preservation Trust's Teacher Institute. As always, the CWPT put on a great show.

The Institute kicked off with lunch on Friday, which included a wonderful talk by the always inspiring Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson. Friday afternoon offered participants three sessions. The sessions I attended were: "The Power of Objects...Making Connections to the Past," presented by Dr. Sharon Shaffer from the Smithsonian Institute; "Teaching the Civil War Using Local Experience," by Timothy H. Smith; and "Exploding the Myths and Facts about Gettysburg" by George Khoury. The sessions offered good information and also some new ideas to share with our teachers here in Kentucky.

Friday evening's dinner featured a talk by Dr. Peter Carmichael, who is the new Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Dr. Carmichael brought up some interesting points to think about and offered some suggestions on how to help students make connections to history. I was happy to get the opportunity to meet Dr. Carmichael after his talk and had him sign my copy of his book The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War and Reunion.

Saturday was the field trip day of the institute and it came bright and early with breakfast and a 7:15 a.m. boarding of the bus for a ride to Gettysburg. My group's first stop was to the new visitor center and museum. Although I had visited the new center back in October, I saw a number of things this time that I had previously missed. Of special interest was a temporary exhibit on Lincoln statues. The film that they show at the center is simply amazing. I was hoping to find a copy of it in the museum store, but unfortunately didn't. Not only is it narrated by the incomparable Morgan Freeman, it does a superb job of summing up the war and the Battle of Gettysburg in just a few minutes, and so with such vivid images that one can't help but be impressed...and emotionally moved.

After a nice box lunch we headed to the tour portion of the trip. Depending on what bus you were assigned, you received a different tour of the battlefield. Some toured Little Round Top or Pickett's Charge, but my group toured Devil's Den. We were fortunate to have licensed battlefield guide and CWPT's new Director of Eduction and History Gary Adelman as our guide. When it comes to Devil's Den, Gary has literally "written the book."

During our tour we explored those rocks from top to bottom and inside and out. I especially enjoyed seeing the famous historic photographs taken on this part of the field and then comparing those images to what we saw right before us. Some of the images were especially gruesome. One soldier killed beside the large rock below, which was near Plum Run, had a huge hole in the side of his head where he had been shot and fell dead.

We also learned about the famous "Sharpshooter" photograph (pictured below) and how the soldier and rifle in that image had been moved from another part of the battlefield. We heard that the myth that photographers often staged or moved dead soldiers to make their photographs more interesting is not true; apparently this image was a rare incident.

Table rock, (pictured below) was to me, the most impressive rock formation in the Devil's Den
area. This huge hunk of stone looks like it could slide right off at any time, but apparently has not moved in years. One can only wonder what the soldiers thought when they first saw it that day in the fighting.

After a short visit to the Gettysburg Soldier's Cemetery it was back on the bus and back to Hagerstown. Saturday evening's dinner featured a panel discussion with teachers Eric Miller and Kevin Levin, professor Dr. James Beeghley and CWPT's Director of Internet Strategy and Development, Rob Shenk on using Web 2.0 technology in the classroom to help create student interest in learning about the Civil War.
Sunday offered three great sessions before lunch. The first was a very informative question and answer session with CWPT staff members Gary Adelman and Nick Redding. The second session was an interesting "deconstruction" talk by Ranger Charles Teague on Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and the third was a "Crash Course on Creating Videos, by CWPT's Rob Shenk. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay for lunch and Jeff Sharrah's talk, as I had to catch a flight back home.
After just hosting an event that had only about a quarter of the participants that this teacher institute had, I understand all too well the hard work and planning that goes into an event such as this. The staff at CWPT deserves high praise for this hugely successful event. I encourage all history teachers and educators to look into attending what will certainly be another wonderful institute in 2011 in Franklin, Tennessee.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Summer Conferences: So Much Going On

Wow, just thinking about my next couple of weeks makes me tired. Tomorrow, we at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) host the Kentucky History Education Conference. We have about 50 5th grade through college undergraduate educators coming for a series of concurrent sessions that focus on our theme, "Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures and Consequences," which is also this year's upcoming National History Day theme. We have lined up five of Kentucky's premier historians for the historical content sessions and there are other sessions on using primary sources and practical teaching strategies.

After our conference is over I will drive to Cincinnati to catch a direct flight to D.C. and then tomorrow morning drive up to Hagerstown, Maryland for the Civil War Preservation Trust's Teacher Institute. This will make my third CWPT institute in a row and I have always come away with some great ideas to share with our teachers in Kentucky. Then, I fly back to Cincinnati on Sunday. Monday morning I head to Berea College for a five day summer seminar for the Teaching American History grant we administer at KHS.

I have the following weekend free to tighten up the paper I have been researching, then I work on Monday, and then drive out to Kansas that evening (I will probably only make it Illinois) to attend the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Conference. This year's theme is "Battleground for Freedom - The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier." I will be presenting my paper, "Principles Opposed to the Public Peace: Kentuckians' Reactions to John Brown's Raid on Friday. As I understand it I will be on a panel with two other presenters for the session, "Remembering John Brown: The Man, the Myth, the Legend."

While on my way out to the Midwest I am hoping to get to get to see visit some historic sights I have been wanting to see for a while. I would like to go to both the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield. And then, when I go through Kansas City, I would like to see the Steamboat Arabia Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. When in Kansas I hope to go to the Kansas State Historical Society Museum and visit the Black Jack Battlefield, where John Brown's and Henry Clay Pate's forces clashed in 1856.

So, as you can see I have many miles before me and so much to learn and experience. I guess, that's one of the many reasons I love history. Plus, it should supply me with any number of blog posts.

If you are interested in learning more about the National Underground Railroad Conference you can check out the following link:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Half Price Books: The History Nut's Friend

Most students of history that I know love books, and personally I am no exception to that rule. I am a book junkie extraordinaire. I guess part of that is because books have the unique ability to transport me back to the events that are described. To me, good history puts you there, and then interprets those events to help you make sense of them.

Like most history enthusiasts I am always looking for good deals on quality books, especially used books, because most of us that work in some field of history don't pull in big money. When I moved to Kentucky I asked a friend where I could find a good local bookstore and he referred me to Half Price Books. Although they have CDs, LPs, DVDs and just about every category of book that one could want, I was ecstatic to find that they have a real good history selection. Luckily for me I found that I live between two stores; one in Lexington and one in Louisville.

Not only do they have a good selection of books, but their prices are very reasonable too. In addition, they buy your used books! Yep, bring them in any old books you don't want anymore and they will give you cash money. Now, be assured they don't give you excellent money for your used books, but I haven't had them reject one book that I have brought in to, I guess I should say trade, because that is what I end up doing. Today, for instance, I brought in several books that I had kept in storage and that I had already read and didn't especially want to keep, so I took them in and received a nice little credit that I then applied to six books that I had been looking forward to reading. I picked up David Blight's Frederick Douglass' Civil War, Fitzhugh Brundage's, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory; Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human Story; Noah Andre Trudeau's, Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea; James M. McPherson's This Mighty Scourge of War: Perspectives on the Civil War; and Gerald J. Prokopowicz's, Did Lincoln Own Slaves: And Other Frequently Asked Questions about Abraham Lincoln. A nice haul if I say so myself.

So, if you are a big history fan too, check online to see if you have a Half Price Books in your area. You will probably be happy you did.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Take a Lesson From History - Don't Gamble with Gettysburg

When Gen. Robert E. Lee invaded Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 he did so largely out of confidence gained in the stunning victory his army had achieved at Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), but he certainly knew there was some risk involved. Then, after two days of battle on the rolling hills surrounding the small town on Gettysburg, Lee gambled that an attack on the center of the Union line would provide a stunning victory. Cautioned against this risk he ordered Gen. James Longstreet to send those brave men forward. As any student of the Civil War knows the attack on July 3, 1863 failed. For Lee the gamble did not pay off.

147 years later there is an effort to bring a gambling casino to this historic community. A recent online article from the National Coalition for History explains that historians are speaking out against this proposal.

Nation's Historians Speak Out Against Proposed Gettysburg Casino
On July 1, 276 American historians sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in opposition to a proposal to license a casino located on-half mile from the Gettysburg National Military Park. Beyond the individual signatories, the American Historical Association, National Coalition for History, National Council on Public History, Organization of American Historians, Society for Military History and Southern Historical Association send a separate letter of opposition to the Gaming Board.

Although many individual historians have previously voiced opposition to the casino proposal, such a large and diverse group uniting in this cause demonstrates Gettysburg's unique place in our nation's heritage. Among the signers are some of the most prominent historians in America, including James McPherson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom and Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus of the National Park Service.

In part, their message states that as professional historians, they "feel strongly that Gettysburg is a unique historic and cultural treasure deserving protection. Gettysburg belongs to all Americans equally-future generations no less than those of us alive today," before concluding that "there are many places in Pennsylvania to build a casino, but there's only one Gettysburg."

Although the proposed casino site along the Emmitsburg Road lies outside the current administrative boundaries of Gettysburg National Military Park, it would be on land identified as historically sensitive by the American Battlefield Protection Program, an arm of the National Park Service. The application before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board would retrofit an existing family-friendly hotel complex into a gambling resort with an initial 600 slot machines in addition to table games.

According to Princeton University professor emeritus D. James McPherson, "The proposed site of the casino lies athwart the advance of Union cavalry toward what became known as South Cavalry Field, which saw substantial fighting on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. This ground is as hallowed as any other part of the Gettysburg battlefield, and the idea of a casino near the fields and woods where men of both North and South gave the last full measure of devotion is simply outrageous."

The letter was circulated among the historian community by a coalition of preservation groups which have opposed both efforts to bring gambling to Gettysburg. The Civil War Preservation Trust, National Parks Conservation Association, National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Pennsylvania have consistently emphasised that their opposition stems from the direct threat posed to the battlefield by the site's proximity and potential for increasing traffic and development pressures on the park, as opposed to any objection to gaming.

To view the historians' letter referenced above please click this link:

If you would like to help in this effort please see the CWPT's Gettysburg Casino page at:

Have a great Fourth of July!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Visit to President Lincoln's Cottage

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Washington D.C., Michele and I finally made it over for a visit to the Lincoln Cottage at the Soldiers' Home. I say finally because I had first heard about the $15 million restoration effort that National Trust for Historic Preservation had completed there when I attended the Lincoln and the South Conference in Richmond back in March of 2009. At that occasion director Frank Milligan enthusiastically explained the importance of not only preserving, but also interpreting this historic landmark. Since that time, I had wanted to see the site.

After a morning of downtown D.C. sightseeing and book browsing we took the Metro to the Georgia Avenue/Petworth station and walked a mile (it seemed much longer in the D.C. heat) up Rock Creek Church Road (part of the same route Lincoln would have taken to the White House each day) to the entrance gate of the Soldiers' Home. Luckily, the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center was right at the gate. We didn't have much time to look around at the exhibits there when we arrived as a tour had just started. We missed most of the short orientation video, but our kind tour guide, Kevin Bowman, allowed us to see it our Cottage tour concluded.

The Cottage (really too huge to be called a cottage) sets on the site of what was and still is a soldiers' retirement home. The Armed Forces Retirement Home was established on March 3, 1851 by an act of Congress that founded "a military asylum for the relief and support of invalid and disabled soldiers of the army of the United States." The home was the result of the efforts of primarily three men, two of them native Kentuckians. Brevet Major Robert Anderson, who would later be the Union hero of Fort Sumter, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, of course, later president of the Confederacy, and General Winfield Scott, who contributed significant personal funds to help get the home started. The site was purchased from George Riggs, a noted Washington banker, for $57,000. Before Lincoln took advantage of the then remote location for rest, recreation and, of course work, the soldiers home was also the retreat of his predecessor James Buchanan, and was used by presidents Hayes and Arthur after Lincoln.

During the periods that Lincoln stayed the Soldiers' Home Cottage (primarily from June to November of 1862-64) he commuted each morning to the White House; three miles distant, then back to his family at the cottage in the evening. He often preferred not to travel with a military escort, but the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers were stationed at the Soldiers' Home as a guard. One can only imagine the impression that the soldiers must have had Lincoln's young son Tad.

It is believed that Lincoln wrote and revised much of the Emancipation Proclamation while at the Cottage. It was certainly central to his thoughts while he stayed there. The tour of the Cottage makes it a point to emphasise that the Emancipation Proclamation was largely a wartime measure that Lincoln saw as necessary to win the conflict. Through its guided interpretation and media sound clips that point is made clear. I found the tour of the Cottage was quite different than most historic house tours that I have taken. In almost each room that we visited, the tour guide would provide some basic information and then play a sound bite from a contemporary visitor's experience there with Lincoln. Then the guide would ask questions that helped engage us as visitors. Most historic house tours provide tons of information and will answer questions posed by the guests, but here the guide made us actually use some critical thinking. He also made sure to involve the younger members of the tour group.

After the tour we had our picture taken with Honest Abe and his horse and returned to the visitors center to view the exhibits. Several rooms had traditional as well as high-tech and interactive displays that were all well done. It seems that the time and effort spent in restoring, preserving and interpreting the Lincoln Cottage has been well spent. A visit to the site will give you a better understanding and appreciation of Lincoln the man, the stresses that he endured and the difficult decisions he had to make to preserve the Union.