- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

LINCOLN’S SANCTUARY: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND THE SOLDIER’S HOME

By Matthew Pinsker

Oxford University Press

256 pages, $30

One opens “Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home” wondering how there can be anything new to say about the 16th president. Books on Lincoln threaten to deforest the Amazon and overstock Amazon.com. Still, when you put this small volume down, doubt is dead: Here is a Lincoln we hardly knew.

A crafty politician, Lincoln rode the image of rustic, log cabin origins to attain the presidency. Once in office, ironically, he spent much of his time, and many of his nights, outside the White House.

No scandal was involved, simply Lincoln’s love of the quiet afforded by a small cottage on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home for old or disabled veterans in northwest Washington, then woodland country. No matter what Bill Clinton told contributors, the Soldier’s Home had the real Lincoln bedroom — the one he liked.

The Army owned the cottage; once the Lincolns saw it, they wanted to stay. They moved in each spring and returned to the White House each fall from 1862 to 1864, spending 13 of Lincoln’s first 39 months as president in residence. At these times, Lincoln commuted daily three miles to his downtown office (a very early model of the modern Washingtonian). “Lincoln’s Sanctuary” explains why he became devoted to his retreat, how it helped him handle the pressures of war and how, ironically, it may have led to his death. His last visit to the cottage occurred April 13, 1865, the day before John Wilkes Booth struck at Ford’s Theatre.

Matthew Pinsker, a young historian at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, has done industrious spadework to re-create the texture of life at the Soldier’s Home. He also tells his story stylishly. His tone is informative but relaxed, similar to the atmosphere at the cottage — a place Lincoln used to find quiet and “re-creation” in the fullest sense. Mr. Pinsker’s book qualifies him as a new member of the corps of Civil War historians who know how to write lucidly for everyone.

Mr. Pinsker has industriously dug through the letters, memoirs, and other records of the varied Pennsylvania and New York units who protected the Soldier’s Home and shepherded Lincoln on his daily round trip. Many of the accounts by Lincoln’s guards, who were forced on the president by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, have been neglected or underused. The majority of sources cited were published in the late 19th and very early 20th century, as aging veterans of the mission wrote down their recollections or were interviewed about them. One treasure trove of recollections Mr. Pinsker uses comes from one Pennsylvania private, Willard Cutter, whose widowed mother so wanted him to write that he sent her 150 letters from late in 1862 to the end of the war. They have never before been cited by scholars.

Mr. Pinsker weighs his sources carefully and is skeptical about some of their anecdotes, but the reliable ones provide rich material, especially on Lincoln’s camaraderie with ordinary people. He stopped at “contraband” camps along his carriage route to talk to escaped slaves; he talked to most anyone who came to see him; he especially liked talking to his guards, sharing their coffee and beans over a campfire. He liked their easygoing company — except when they guarded him. At the cottage, Mr. Pinsker says, “What began as an attempt to find seclusion for his family became a rare opportunity for an overburdened president to experience moments of intimate camaraderie.”

As Mr. Pinsker shows, Lincoln faced issues like no other wartime president. All wars are hell, but civil wars — national suicides — define its lowest depths. Without the relief Lincoln got from the cottage, Mr. Pinsker argues, it would have been even harder for him to cope with the challenges he faced, much less the onslaught of office seekers and relatives seeking reprieves for court-martialed soldiers. Once in the White House, he wanted out.

Mr. Lincoln did come to do important work at the cottage, Mr. Pinsker shows, composing the Emancipation Proclamation there and firing the reluctant Achilles, Gen. George McClellan. There Lincoln held a nocturnal meeting with Fernando Wood, mayor of New York and a Copperhead, the peace-at-any price faction in the Democratic Party, Mr. Pinsker relates, and shows how he and Lincoln did some hard bargaining shortly before the 1864 election.

Mr. Pinsker also provides a fresh angle on Lincoln’s family life, showing greater sympathy for Mary Lincoln than most historians, who often dismiss her as an unstable nuisance. She did lose two sons — one (Willie) while Lincoln was in office — and was quite aware of the danger of losing him. Such a life, Mr. Pinsker says, was destabilizing. Mary saw the cottage as a haven. “How dearly I loved the old soldier’s home,” she wrote, after her spouse’s death forced her out.

Mr. Pinsker’s richest topic is how presidential security evolved — or didn’t. Stanton or not, Lincoln tried to get out of the cottage gates before the cavalry was ready to escort him. He stalked the grounds at night, at times startling his protectors and enjoying their surprise. As Mr. Pinsker stresses, Lincoln was embarrassed by security. When death threats surfaced before his first inaugural, Lincoln’s advisers had him enter Washington by train from Baltimore covered in a woman’s shawl. I am shocked to say the media had a field day mocking him. Afterward, Lincoln took a devil-may-care attitude to safety, saying, in so many words, “What will be will be.”

Mr. Pinsker shows that Lincoln was, indeed, in danger. One overt peril arose when Jubal Early led a Confederate force close to Washington in July 1864, and even fired volleys at Fort Stevens before backing off. Lincoln went from the Soldier’s Home to watch the show.

The second danger was more serious, Mr. Pinsker says. Lincoln’s commutes between the cottage and White House suggested to Confederate agents that they could kidnap him. Mr. Pinsker sorts through what is probable and fictional about such covert operations, concluding that a kidnapping, sometime, was probably planned. Howsoever it misfired, the notion was conveyed, Mr. Pinsker thinks, to John Wilkes Booth through agents such as his friend, John Surratt. Booth transformed the plot to assassination when he heard Lincoln planned to give civil rights to black veterans.

Lincoln’s love of literature provides a clue, perhaps, to his sense of danger. Mr. Pinsker notes how Lincoln liked to surprise guests at the cottage, often greeting them in his slippers. He warmed to their presence, engaging in what seems to have relieved his anxiety most, storytelling and oratory. Lincoln knew his Bible and literature and would often recite to guests Alexander Pope’s long poem, “Essay on Man.” Lincoln also loved Shakespeare, especially the history plays about civil war, above all “Richard II.” Among his favorite quotes for visitors was the deposed king’s lament, “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”

Lincoln dreamed about his death shortly before it occurred. By 1865, the war had chiseled lines into his face, Rushmore-like before its time. Mr. Pinsker cites Walt Whitman, who saw Lincoln daily travel past his hospital station. “There is something else there,” Whitman wrote of Lincoln’s face, which Mr. Pinsker calls “a latent sadness.” Mr. Pinsker stops there. But the focus on “Richard II,” Lincoln’s fatalism about security, and — despite denials — even his unconscious sense of peril suggest, on some level, that Abraham Lincoln yearned to be relieved from duty.

Designated a National Monument in 2000, the cottage and soldiers’ rest are owned by the Armed Forces Retirement Home. With the energetic aid of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the cottage is being restored for public visits, with special effort focused on building a learning center. In initiating our learning process, “Lincoln’s Sanctuary” does a splendid job.

Tom O’Brien is a Washington writer.

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