My first memory of Abraham Lincoln is a huge face on Mt. Rushmore when I was a preschooler. You don’t forget that. And who can miss his face on the penny and the five-dollar bill. The guy is everywhere.
Everyone recognizes Lincoln and not just because he’s monumental and monetary. He truly is larger than life.
When Anita and I visited the home of the abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass (maybe more on him later), a little boy on our tour was silent until he saw the president’s framed photograph on the wall. “Abraham Lincoln,” he called out.
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned how important and rare this president was — and I’m still learning. I want to shout out “Abraham Lincoln,” too. So this is my shout out.
Abraham Lincoln was burdened with one of the gravest trials a leader can face — holding this nation together. The Civil War still casts a long shadow over our country. Three million Americans fought in that war, and more than 600,000 died from both the North and South. Two of my great great grandfathers fought in it — Peter Gergen, an immigrant from Luxembourg (Illinois military), and John Nelson, an immigrant from Ireland (Pennsylvania military). Arguments continue to this day about the war’s purpose, meaning and worth.
Thousands of books have been written about Lincoln and about the Civil War. And we haven’t seen the end to the words written about him, including my own.
In June, my friend Anita and I visited several places in Washington, D.C., that were important to that war or to the leaders in it.
One of our stops was Lincoln’s Cottage, an early day “Camp David,” which was restored to what it might have looked like in Lincoln’s day. It opened to the public in February of this year. Lincoln and his family spent nearly a quarter of his presidency there, beginning in June 1862. He’d spend the summer nights there, returning full-time to the White House in November each year. It’s about three miles north of the White House on the city’s third highest hill.
James Buchanan was the first president to use the cottage as a summer White House. Lincoln visited the cottage right after his inauguration and hoped to move his family there that summer, but it was not to be. Fort Sumter was surrendered to the Confederates in April 1861. Lincoln was overwhelmed with the duties of the war.
In February 1862, his son 12-year-old Willie became ill and died. Now, the hilltop cottage would be more than just a refuge from the capitol area’s heat and humidity and the siege of people wanting his help. Now, it also would be a balm for his and Mary’s grief.
Lincoln couldn’t escape reminders of the war. Daily, soldiers would be buried in the adjoining national cemetery, visible from his window. More than 5,000 soldiers would be buried there during the Civil War. Soldiers were camped on the grounds, and Lincoln would share their coffee, and meet them in camps along his route to and from the White House each day, which took about 30 minutes each way. He preferred to make the trip alone, and did so sometimes in the beginning, but 25 to 30 soldiers later were assigned to escort him, once thwarting a kidnapping attempt.
He’d often see the poet Walt Whitman along the way.
Among the many words Whitman wrote about Lincoln: “I see very plainly ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression…..”
Whitman dedicated the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” to Lincoln.
The cottage was only about a mile from Fort Stevens, which was attacked by Confederate soldiers coming in from Maryland. Lincoln stood on a parapet to take a look and someone shot at him.
“Get down, you fool,” someone shouted. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was later Supreme Court Justice, claimed to tbe the one who told the president to stand down. Others also tried to take credit for the warning.
Plagued by insomnia, Lincoln would often ride or walk on the grounds and through the cemetery. One time during one of these restless wanderings, someone took a shot at him. A sentry later found Lincoln’s hat with a bullet hole in the crown. Lincoln was unruffled by these attempts on his life. Even Mary suffered in an attempt on Lincoln’s life. Bolts had been loosened from the Lincoln carriage, which flipped over on one of her solo trips back to the White House. Her frequent
headaches became even worse, and her son Robert said that she never quite recovered from the accident.
The Lincolns were planning another summer at the cottage in 1865, but Lincoln was assassinated in April of that year. He had just visited the cottage the day before.
Mary wrote a friend: “How dearly I loved the ‘Soldiers’ Home’ & how little I supposed, one year since, that we would be so far removed from it, broken hearted, and praying for death, to remove me, from a life, so full of agony.”
Retired soldiers still live at the home. There’s a picnic area near a visitor’s center. The air is fragrant with the lemony scent of Magnolia grandifolia and the spicy odor of boxwood. It was pleasant in the shade of the towering trees, which our guide said were all post-Lincoln. For more information about visiting and the cottage’s history go to www.lincolncottage.org Reservations for the guided tours are recommended. You can also find a link to a Lincoln Cottage blog on that website.
Two books about Lincoln that I enjoyed are “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald. Both are Pulitzer Prize Winners. Presidents are always good topics to write a book about if you want to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Where Lincoln Sought Refuge in His Dark Hours, link to a New York Times article about Lincoln’s Cottage, his summer White House.
The Real Lincoln Bedroom: Love in a Time of Strife, link to a New York Times article about new book on the Lincolns’ marriage, which also includes a link to a list of books and other Lincoln topics. If you are interested in history, the Civil War or Lincoln, this is the site for you!