- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

Like a lighthouse in the Sea of Turmoil, the Soldiers’ Home, a heavily wooded hilltop retreat three

miles from the White House, brought the presidential ship of state safely home to tranquillity for three consecutive summers during the Civil War.

“How dearly I loved the Soldiers’ Home,” Mary Todd Lincoln wrote of the grounds and 10,000-square-foot stucco “cottage,” currently undergoing a $12 million restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and expected to open to the public in 2007.

Lincoln initially saw the Soldiers’ Home — the 19th-century equivalent of Camp David — a few days after his first inauguration; his final visit was the day before the assassination. In between, the Lincolns summered at the “place where kings might dwell” for about 13 of the 49 months of his presidency.

The origins of the home go back to 1827, when the secretary of war recommended the establishment of an “Army asylum.” Six years later, the need for “care of the superannuated soldier” came up again. Both proposals became as forgotten and neglected as the veterans the home was intended to serve.

Eventually, Congress established a Military Asylum in 1851 to provide “for the aged and crippled soldiers who have fought their country’s battles, and have settled down quietly till the Great Captain calls them up higher.”

The details of the Soldiers’ Home were established by a banker, politicians and a poet. A country estate built by George Riggs provided the site, an 1859 congressional act bestowed the name, and Walt Whitman painted a first-hand image:

“Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c.;, as the commonest man. … [T]he entirely unornamental cortege as it trots towards Lafayette square arouses no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes. … Sometimes one of his sons, a boy of ten or twelve, accompanies him, riding at his right on a pony.”

Today’s route to the Soldiers’ Home passes a nationally renowned Children’s Hospital and the African American Civil War Memorial Museum over a paved road with numerous traffic lights to regulate the thousands of vehicles that traverse it daily.

Lincoln’s path would likely have taken him by taverns, brothels and a contraband camp where runaway slaves enjoyed their freedom. Indeed, it was a much simpler time when an individual toll-booth operator could decide whether he would charge the president of the United States:

“Mr. President … [I] am please to see that your family pass over our Seventh St. Turnpike and I have given direction to our toll gather[er] not to detain your carriage or to receive any compensation for its passage.”

Lincoln’s own words from 1846 presciently captured his somber mood during peaceful walks winding past a burial ground, established as a national cemetery after the First Battle of Bull Run:

“Air held his breath; trees all still/Seemed sorrowing angels round,

Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell/Upon the listening ground.

I range the fields with pensive tread/And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)/I’m living in the tombs.”

Lincoln rested at the Soldiers’ Home, but each soldier’s death carved anguish on a countenance a portrait painter called “the saddest face I ever painted.” But there were productive times, too. Lincoln completed the Emancipation Proclamation at the summer residence.

An adviser wrote: “The Tycoon is in fine whack. … I have rarely seen him more serene and busy. … The most important things he decides & there is no cavil. … There is no man in the country, so wise, so gentle and so firm. I believe the hand of God placed him where he is.”

But danger and threats lurked all around. A reporter remarked that Rebels might kidnap the president, who “we could ill afford to spare just now.”

A Confederate from Virginia signed a threat, “The worst rebel you ever saw.” Lincoln dismissed the threats, as did Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who opined, “Assassination is not an American practice.”

Pennsylvania soldiers were eventually assigned as guards, but Lincoln felt he was more likely to get shot by an accidental discharge by one of his own military guards than by a Confederate. He did, however, like having the guards around because they provided companionship and could tell him the soldiers’ mood and sentiments.

Ninety-nine veterans lived at the home in 1864. Today, about 1,100 military veterans reside at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home on the same grounds. Military personnel with at least 20 years of service are eligible to live at the home. The Soldiers’ Home is financed through deductions, fines and forfeitures from military personnel, not tax dollars.

Paul N. Herbert lives in Fairfax and can be reached at pherbert@cox.net.

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