On this lunchtime bike ride I visited what’s now known as President Lincoln’s “cottage”, which is a national monument located on the grounds of the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” known today as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home. Located in northwest D.C. near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), the Gothic Revival-style residence, a style considered particularly appropriate at that time for country cottages, has a very interesting history.
Originally known as the “Corn Rigs” cottage, it was built in 1842 by wealthy D.C. banker George Washington Riggs, at his 250-acre summer retreat. The word “cottage”, however, is somewhat of a misnomer inasmuch as it is actually a 34-room country home. Almost a decade later, Riggs offered to sell his property to the Federal government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled Army veterans. An army committee purchased the estate in 1851 and utilized the house to create the Old Soldiers’ Home later the same year. Six years later, in 1857, the retired soldier residents moved into a newly-built large stone Gothic building near the cottage.
With the cottage now vacant, the Old Soldiers’ Home invited President James Buchanan to make his summer residence there. Accepting the offer, President Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers at the cottage during the remainder of his presidency.
Presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan, the next president, Abraham Lincoln, first visited the Old Soldiers’ Home just three days after his first inauguration. Later, President Lincoln and his family would escape to the cottage between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864. The family would almost certainly have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year. In all, President Lincoln and his family spent over a quarter of his Presidency there. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family’s belongings to the cottage. Unfortunately, there is no record of exactly what they brought.
With the Civil War officially commencing just a month after he was inaugurated, Lincoln could not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership, even at the cottage. Every morning the President rode by horseback to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the cottage every evening. Today, the drive down Georgia Avenue takes just a few minutes, but in the 1860s the commute through what was then a mostly wilderness area was a little slower and more dangerous. The cavalry units that were to eventually accompanied him on his commute, as well as the encampments, hospitals, and cemeteries he passed on his was to work served, as constant reminders of the war.
It was while staying at the cottage, in fact, that President Lincoln came his closest to the war. On July 12, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, the President brashly went to observe the nearby battle, even though his family had been evacuated to the White House for the four days of the battle. It was during this time that President Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office. During the second day of the battle, as he stood on atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, the President came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters. Perhaps saving his life, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would eventually go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shouted to the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”
Other interesting events for which President Lincoln’s cottage served as the backdrop include the fact that the President was staying at the cottage when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. And in August of 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled back to the cottage alone late at night. The lone rifle shot missed Lincoln’s head by inches, but during the attempt the President lost the hat he was wearing. The following day, two soldiers went looking for the hat. They discovered it on the path, with a bullet hole through the side. Also, in the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, who would later in April of 1865 successfully assassinate President Lincoln, formulated his original plot, which was to kidnap the President during his commute from the cottage to the White House.
President Lincoln reportedly made his last visit to the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination. But he was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage. Rutherford B. Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 there. And Chester A. Arthur stayed at the cottage during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882, and spent summers there as well.
In more recent years, the cottage has been recognized for its historical significance. The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, which includes the pre-Civil War cottage, as a National Historic Landmark in November of 1973. President Bill Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Monument in July of 2000. To this day it holds the distinction of being the only national monument in the country that operates with no Federal funding. The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage, restoring it to the period of Lincoln’s occupancy according to standards established by the National Park Service. The restoration was completed in 2007. President Lincoln’s Cottage was then opened to the public for the first time in history on President’s Day in 2008. It remains open today, and is managed through a cooperative agreement between the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.