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Lincoln's Home Away From The White House

For nearly a quarter of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln lived not in the White House, but rather three miles away — in a large, airy summer home on the 250-acre grounds of the Soldiers' Home in Northwest Washington, D.C.

The Lincoln Cottage, as it's now called, was the 16th president's version of Camp David, and he used it well. Beginning in 1862, he stayed at the cottage from June until November, escaping the heat and dust of the city and enjoying some respite from the stresses of White House life. One of Lincoln's secretaries wrote in a letter that when the president was staying there, "he tended to leave the White House a little earlier and get back in the morning a little later."

Lincoln commuted downtown on horseback or carriage, a trip that became an opportunity for him to see and be seen; poet Walt Whitman watched him ride by almost every day, writing in 1863:

Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire as the commonest man.

Unlike Camp David, where no one gets past the gates without an appointment, the cottage allowed Lincoln to interact with people who weren't part of the normal Washington crowd. He got to know his cavalry guard well and would occasionally visit the military hospitals and the camps of escaped slaves that ringed the city. He also sometimes encountered ordinary citizens, who liked to take carriage rides around the Soldiers' Home grounds.

Historian Matthew Pinsker, author of Lincoln's Sanctuary, tells the story of a British visitor who dropped by the cottage late one evening, uninvited, after the president and his wife had gone to bed. Rather than turning the visitor away, the butler roused Lincoln, who arrived wearing carpet slippers and proceeded to chat about his early life and the British form of government. He even read some poetry aloud.

Pinsker says the cottage served as a refuge that allowed Lincoln to grow into his job.

"He was struggling in the first year of the war," says Pinsker. "By 1862, through that summer, he starts to rediscover himself, and I believe the Soldier's Home plays a role in that ... It gave him enough space to calm down and see the war in a different perspective."

Lincoln couldn't help but see the war in a different perspective. Just a few hundred yards from the cottage is the Soldier's Home National Cemetery, which had been started in 1861, shortly after the battle of Bull Run. Day by day, as the war dragged on, Lincoln could see men digging fresh graves; Pinsker says it affected his view of the war.

"It made him realize that the stakes of the war were too high for the nation to be reunified without freedom being a central part of that reunification," says Pinsker. "It helps explain why Lincoln and others in the North eventually saw that the war had to be about something bigger than just restoring things the way they were. They had to end slavery, too."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Malesky