Friday, September 12, 2003

“Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home.”

Oxford University Press

by Matthew Pinsker

320 pages $30

Interest in Abraham Lincoln seems to know no bounds. Subject matter ranges from his virtues (“Lincoln’s Virtues” by William Lee Miller) to stories of his love life (“The Women Lincoln Loved” by William E. Barton) to claims of his illegitimate birth (“The Genesis of Lincoln” by James H. Cathey) to accounts of his personal finances (“The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln” by Harry E. Pratt).

While writers of Lincolnia continue to repolish old nuggets, one wonders what can possibly be left to write about.Matthew Pinsker, who teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., has an answer in his book “Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home.” The Soldiers’ Home was the Camp David of Lincoln’s day, and while historians know that the president spent three of his four summers there, they know little else about this important part of his life.

In 1851, the U.S. government purchased the country estate of Washington banker George Washington Riggs as a retirement home for enlisted soldiers. Originally known as “Corn Rigs,” the property consisted of just over 250 acres, and the Riggs summer home sat three miles north of the Capitol in what was the rural outback of Washington during the Civil War.

The Riggs’ “country cottage” was a 21/2-story gabled house containing 10 rooms and a large porch that spanned the entire front. The funds to purchase the property and construct additional buildings that would make up the retirement complex came from the $150,000 that Gen. Winfield Scott had extracted from Mexico City as a tribute during the Mexican War. Scott demanded and received the money from political leaders there in lieu of pillage — an acceptable practice during the period. Additional funds for maintenance were received by deducting 2 cents from every dollar of the salary of the Army’s enlisted men.

In 1857, the government added two other cottages (Quarters 1 and 2) and a large building, which they named Scott Hall in honor of Gen. Scott. President James Buchanan (1857-1861) was the first president to stay at the Soldiers’ Home. Although Mary and Abraham Lincoln were invited to spend their first summer there, it wasn’t until the following June, in 1862, that they took up residence in the Riggs cottage. In 1889, the house was named “Anderson Cottage” after Brevet Maj. Gen. Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame who, along with Scott, was a co-founder of the home.

For the next three years, the president and his family spent their summers at the home. The rural setting with its elevated location away from the city provided a cooler, more peaceful retreat for the harried Lincoln. Each morning he would rise, dress and eat breakfast before 8. Then he would take the half-hour ride to the White House and begin his official day. In the evening he would make the return trip — alone, occasionally, on horseback.

In telling the story of “Lincoln’s Sanctuary,” Mr. Pinsker describes events associated with the president’s stay at the Soldiers’ Home. It was there that he first drafted his thoughts on emancipation and discussed the proclamation with Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Several nights were spent pondering the wording, legality and timing of its issuance, and the author draws on the recollections of those who were around Lincoln at the time.

While the sanctuary provided relief from Washington summers, it failed to shield the Lincoln family from trouble. On July 2, 1863, Mary Lincoln suffered a serious spill in a carriage accident near the home. The first lady recovered, but not before developing an infection and causing concern for her condition. The accident occurred on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and Mr. Pinsker explains how Lincoln had to deal with both traumas.

A year later, a Confederate army under Gen. Jubal A. Early made its way toward Washington with the clear intention of sacking the capital. The main force moved through Rockville and proceeded down the Seventh Street Pike toward the heart of the city. Standing in Early’s way was Fort Stevens, a stone’s throw from the Soldiers’ Home. The author relates how the Lincolns beat a path to the fort in time to witness Early’s skirmishers probing the defenses.

There are numerous stories about Lincoln mounting the parapet and coming under enemy fire. One of the more intriguing tells of a young captain nearby who reportedly shouted, “Get down, you fool.” That captain was future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Mr. Pinsker works his way through this and other accounts, separating fact from myth. He does it well, with one exception: He continues the claim that Lincoln was the only president to come under enemy fire during combat. He was not. President James Madison beat him to it. Madison, along with his Cabinet (including future President James Monroe), stood in the American lines at Bladensburg as the British army advanced toward Washington in 1814. British marines fired a salvo of Congreve rockets that arced over the president’s head, causing him and his Cabinet to beat a rapid retreat to safer ground.

Among the more interesting and little-known aspects of Lincoln’s life at the home was his relationship with Capt. David Derickson. Described as “the president’s favorite new companion,” Derickson was captain of Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Infantry. In September 1862, Companies K and D were detached from the defenses of Washington and sent to guard the president’s cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. According to Mr. Pinsker, Lincoln often shared his dinner table with Derickson and Capt. Henry Crotzer (of Company D) when Mary Lincoln was away.

In addition, Derickson shared a bed with the president, at Lincoln’s invitation. The bed-sharing eventually made its way into the regimental history that received little attention until recently. Contemporary views thought little of men sleeping together in the same bed, a common practice of the period.

That an Army captain would share the bed of president of the United States on multiple occasions might seem unusual and hard for some to understand. Mr. Pinsker, however, describes the situation more fully than has been the case, and places it in is proper historical context. Even so, the story will undoubtedly gain prominence now.

As the country residence of the president, the Soldiers’ Home assumed considerable importance to the Confederacy. Because it was lightly guarded and Lincoln had a habit of traveling back and forth alone, the Confederates saw an opportunity to strike. At least two plots designed to capture Lincoln at the home and carry him to Richmond were initiated before eventually being abandoned.

One night while Lincoln was riding to the Home from the White House, he had his “$8 plug-hat” shot off his head as he approached the main gate. As was his nature, Lincoln made light of the event, ascribing it to an errant shot.

Mr. Pinsker uses the setting of the Soldiers’ Home as a backdrop for telling these and other stories that form an interesting part of Lincoln’s presidency. “Lincoln’s Sanctuary” is a new look at what has been an obscure part of the 16th president’s life and a welcome addition to the ever-growing bibliography of Lincoln studies.

On July 7, 2000, the home was designated “President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument.”

• Edward Steers Jr. is the author most recently of “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.” He lives in Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide