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Lincoln's Sanctuary Under Siege

By Richard Moe

September 2004

On a breeze-swept hill overlooking Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln found a much-needed respite from the rigors of wartime leadership. Today, the beautiful place that Lincoln knew as the Soldiers' Home is a hidden treasure just three miles north of the White House and is now known as the President Lincoln and Soldiers' Home National Monument.

From midsummer to November of 1862, 1863 and 1864 "" a period representing nearly one quarter of his presidency "" Lincoln and his family lived at the Soldiers' Home as part of a community of about 150 retired veterans and a company of active-duty soldiers. During this crucial period, Lincoln commuted daily by horseback between the Soldiers' Home and the White House.

While conceiving and refining his theories of emancipation and struggling to gain the upper hand in the war, Lincoln used his seasonal retreat as a place to conduct presidential business and restore his inner peace.

The historic Soldiers' Home is now known as the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH). Today, the spirit of Lincoln is enjoying a renaissance on this 276-acre campus that houses more than 1,000 retired veterans. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, in cooperation with AFRH, is leading an effort to make the Lincolns' "home away from home" a publicly-accessible historic site and premier educational center.

Designated a National Monument in July 2000, the Gothic Revival-style cottage where the Lincolns lived is currently undergoing exterior restoration to the Lincoln period of residency. The cottage and several other structures are part of the National Historic Landmark established in 1974, so diverse and exciting opportunities exist for an expansive interpretation of the Lincolns' seasonal residence here.

The President Lincoln and Soldiers' Home National Monument is a uniquely engaging venue for an exploration of the Lincoln presidency by scholars and the general public alike. The site's continuity of purpose for more than 153 years creates an ambience of compelling authenticity, allowing visitors to see buildings and vistas that Lincoln saw.

The first National Cemetery "" located only a few hundred yards from where Lincoln lived "" vividly evokes the sacrifice of the 5,000 Civil War dead interred there. Lincoln's residence itself also retains a great deal of authentic historic material "" a fact which both complicates and simplifies the National Trust's preservation work. On one hand, surviving historic fabric clearly defines a standard for authentic restoration; on the other hand, the limited and precious resource means that the Trust must grapple with how to conserve the existing historic fabric without compromising public access.

Numerous first-hand accounts of life at the Soldiers' Home provide intimate views of Lincoln as both private man and public leader. Matthew Pinsker presented many of these primary accounts for the first time in his recent book Lincoln's Sanctuary. These accounts "" in combination with the better-known events of Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War "" will form the framework for the visitor experience at the National Monument.

In one account, for instance, we see Lincoln in a light-hearted moment through the eyes of a soldier observing the President playing checkers with his son Tad on the cottage porch. Another soldier recounts how he accosted Lincoln during one of the President's solitary late-night rambles near the cemetery. "Mr. President, isn't it rather risky to be out here at this hour?" asks the soldier.

While Lincoln apparently thought little of his own safety at the Soldiers' Home (he intentionally eluded his morning bodyguard, a company of the New York 11th Cavalry), he thought deeply about the important policy decisions and political actions that he undertook here.

The Soldiers' Home, perhaps more than any other Lincoln site in America, offers vivid connections among Lincoln's thoughts, the stimuli provoking him, and his actions that triggered fresh directions for our nation. Numerous accounts from the summer of 1862 identify the Soldiers' Home as the site of discussions about emancipation involving Lincoln, Cabinet members, friends and other advisors. In 1863, the mounting number of burials at the Soldiers' Home cemetery may have helped inspire the eloquence of the Gettysburg Address.

The National Trust faces many challenges in completing the capital improvements necessary to make the National Monument a welcoming and meaningful destination for the public. Preserving the palpable tranquility of the Soldiers' Home is one big challenge, especially given the great number of people who likely will wish to visit the site.

Another challenge is raising the remaining $6.5 million needed to complete the restoration and preservation of the cottage, the renovation of a nearby building to serve as a visitors' center, the design and construction of exhibits, and the development of educational programs.

Private and federal sources are providing generous support, but more is needed. The National Trust encourages everyone to help us make this exciting "new" National Monument ready for the public well in advance of the Lincoln Bicentennial in 2009.

Richard Moe has been the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation since January 1993. He is co-author of "Changing Places:Rebuilding Community in the Age of Sprawl," a study of the causes of urban decline and the use of historic preservation as a tool for revitalization, and author of "The Last Full Measure:The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers." For information about the Trust visit

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