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.

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