What I’m Reading: Lincoln’s Sanctuary, Matthew Pinsker

Author: George Spencer

Rest in peace, Abraham Lincoln. He got little of it as president. What relief he found often came at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., his 19th-century answer to the modern presidential retreat at Camp David. Today, this little-known national monument, a 34-room Gothic Revival home three miles north of the White House, is called President Lincoln’s Cottage.

Lincoln, his wife Mary and their son Tad stayed there for 13 months — a quarter of his presidency — in the summers of 1862-64, crucial periods when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, when the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and when he was struggling in the midst of war to win reelection.

In search of relief from the heat and pressures of the White House, the Lincolns escaped to this nearly 300-acre hideaway, the former home of a banker situated atop a woodsy, breezy plateau. No wonder. Their son Willie, 11, had died of typhoid four months before the family’s first stay.


“The story of the Soldier’s Home frames Lincoln’s entire presidential experience,” writes Dickinson College historian Matthew Pinsker, author of Lincoln’s Sanctuary. “He first rode out to the retreat a few days after his inauguration. He last returned on the day before he was killed.”

Perhaps to seek my own solace, I went to the cottage the day after Russia invaded Ukraine. Open to the public only since 2008, it gets few visitors — just 35,000 a year, a smidgen compared to the 8 million who flock annually to the Lincoln Memorial a few miles away.

While there, I imagined Old Abe watching war veterans on peg legs as they thumped along the paths near the home. The convalescing men lived next door at the Military Asylum, the nation’s first home for disabled soldiers. Across the way was the ultimate reminder of the war, America’s first national cemetery. Some evenings Lincoln ambled through the headstones reciting poetry.

Other nights, the melancholy president regaled friends often for hourswith recitations, especially from Shakespeare. He was fond of this dire soliloquy from Richard II: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings; / How some have been deposed; some slain in war / . . . All murder’d.” Writes Pinsker: “The tragedies he preferred, like Macbeth or Hamlet, concerned the nature of evil and civil disorder created by disruptions in the succession of kings.”

Lincoln heard cannons and rifles from skirmishes far and near. When rebels attacked Fort Stevens in D.C.’s northern tip, Lincoln went there twice. Both times he stood on the fort’s parapet. Both times he had to be told to get down, especially when a sniper shot a doctor beside him. Future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., an officer at the fort, claimed he shouted at the president, “Get down, you fool!”

Late one night in August 1864, the private on duty at the cottage heard a rifle shot. Soon Lincoln, sans top hat, came up the hill on horseback. Later, the guard found Lincoln’s hat. It had a bullet hole in it. When he gave it to the president, Lincoln said he wanted the incident “kept quiet.” Pinsker believes this story is apocryphal, but given its eerieness one wishes it were true, if only because Lincoln escapes the fate that befell him on Good Friday the following year.

He had a love-hate relationship with the soldiers who guarded him. He and Tad took coffee with them. One remembered the first lady accompanying her husband one evening when Lincoln “turned to her and said, ‘Mother, this [is] better coffee than we get at home,’ for which remark she did not seem well pleased.”

That time, Lincoln got off easy. Mary, who scholars believe was bipolar, often publicly berated the president. Worse, she threw hot coffee in his face, hit him with broomsticks and once chased him with a knife. During the cottage summers she spent weeks away in New England’s cool mountains. Their correspondence? Terse. Loveless.

“I cannot be shut up in an iron cage and guarded,” Lincoln griped. Some mornings he rose early and rode alone to work, leaving the troops to chase him. Only when threats to his life multiplied did guards regularly join him on his 30-minute commute. Poet Walt Whitman saw the president “almost every day” riding his “good-sized, easy-going gray horse” with as many as 30 cavalrymen in tow, sabers held to their shoulders.

“None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect, expression of this man’s face. There is something else there,” the poet mused. “One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

Back home, visitors barged in at all hours, begging favors, sometimes waking Lincoln. In October 1864 a British tourist did just that. There entered through the folding doors the long, lanky, lathe-like figure . . . with hair ruffled, and eyes very sleepy, and — hear it, ye votaries of court etiquette! — feet enveloped in carpet slippers,” the man recalled. “It was a treat to hear him talk of his early life, with a certain quiet pride in his rise from the bottom of the ladder.”

I took the guided tour of the cottage. Its rooms are bare, so visitors’ imaginations stew and bubble. Left with only pink walls to contemplate, I could see 10-year-old Tad, who had a cleft palate. He lisps “Papa Day” instead of “Dear” to his long-suffering father.

I heard Mary spitting nails at Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. As a joke, Stanton suggested a painting be commissioned of her on Fort Stevens’ ramparts. “I can assure you of one thing, Mr. Secretary,” snapped the first lady. “If I had had a few ladies with me, the Rebels would not have been permitted to get away as they did!”   

I also saw Abraham and Mary holding hands at one the many séances she arranged so she could reach dead Willie.

Outside, the February chill ended my fantasies. Walking the grounds, I saw the Capitol dome some four miles to the south, mist swirling around it. A carillon in the Military Asylum’s tower rang out “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.” The bright bells gave the Air Force anthem an odd, cheery feel.

Today, 300 former enlisted men live on these grounds in an Armed Forces Retirement Home. A few years ago, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla visited the facility. Charles knocked down two pins at its small bowling alley.

Lincoln, Pinsker records, had a quieter Cottage pastime. He played checkers with Tad on the back porch.

George Spencer, the former executive editor of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.