34-room original building on the Estate
Lincoln’s Cottage, Soldier’s Home
Founding and History of Soldiers’ Home
Founded by a Major General, General, and a Senator on March 3, 1851 after the suggestion of an Army Asylum in his Annual Message to the President in November of 1827 by Secretary of War James Barbour. Thus, it took almost 30 years before action was taken to form the “asylum”.
Brevet Major General Robert Anderson, the supportive Major General who was active in the founding of the home, was Fort Sumter’s commanding officer during the very beginning of the Civil War. Senator Jefferson Davis, the second part of the triumvirate who enacted Barbour’s suggestion, repeatedly introduced legislation to Congress to found a home for retired and disabled American veterans. Thirdly, General Winfield Scott contributed $100,000 of tribute money (a total of $150,000) gained from pillaging Mexico City.
The selling point was “to provide an honorable and secure retirement for American war veterans.” When Congress passed legislation it was considered “a military asylum for the relief and support of invalid and disabled soldiers of the army of the United States.”
Many sites had been considered for Soldiers’ Home, finally George Riggs’ 256-acre family estate was purchased for $57,000 and a Mr. Charles Scrivner gave about 58 acres. More land was added over the next 20 years. Soldiers’ Home was just three miles north of downtown DC (at the time, of course).
Riggs, an affluent DC banker, finished building the “’Corn Rigs’ cottage”, his summer retreat, in 1842. The unusual architecture of the house, including its several gables, latticed windows, and the intricate gingerbread trimming stamp it as being part of the Gothic Revival-style. Gothic Revival was a style then popular country and summer homes.
In 1857, the house’s intended inhabitants, retired soldiers, moved into a new, large stone building. It was near the original cottage and was modeled after the same Gothic style. There were four buildings, including the one aforementioned, by 1861.
Soldiers’ Home in the Civil War
The home was very close in proximity to Fort Slemmer and Fort Stevens. Fort Slemmer was actually one of the forts that skirted DC. Fort Stevens played a key role in defending the District against the Confederates, led by General Jubal Early, in a July 1864 attack. Fort Stevens was visited several times by Lincoln during the Civil War, even when it was under attack; according to some, Lincoln was almost shot while visiting during the attack.
If the walls could talk at Soldiers’ Home, they would be a history book within themselves. In the September of 1862, President Lincoln was residing at the house when he was revising and writing the final draft of his Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his family lived at Soldiers’ Home seasonally, from June to November in the years from 1862-1864. It is reported that each summer season the Lincoln family lived at Soldiers’ Home, the staff had to transport about 19 cartloads of the family’s belongings from the city. The estate was situated on one of the highest hills in the district. The grounds offered respite from the mugginess and congestion of the capital. There is evidence from the first lady that the family “delighted” in their romps at the home.
Lincoln enjoyed the cool, airy atmosphere of Soldiers’ Home and getting away from the city. Yet, he did bring his work with him. Even when he didn’t bring the work home, every morning he rode to the White House to fulfill his duties as president. He would return each evening to Soldiers’ Home. Lincoln, and the cavalry that accompanied him to and fro, had to pass hospitals, cemeteries and camps for former slaves. Even on his way back to his hide-away from the war, he had to be reminded of the war. Lincoln met with political foes and friends there and discussed military strategy with his advisors. Lincoln visited the “old”, or original building, Soldiers’ Home within three days of his first inauguration.
In the battle at Fort Stevens, like mentioned before, Lincoln went to observe. Considering that the battle of Fort Stevens was only a mile from Soldiers’ Home, the first family had been evacuated to the White House. In that same summer, not only was he the first president to be under enemy fire, but also his commutes to the city and the cottage were the target times for an attempted assassination by a sniper and abduction by John Wilkes Booth.
Soldiers’ Home and Beyond
Before Lincoln, President Buchanan used the estate to escape the city and duties of being head of the nation. After Lincoln, Presidents Hayes and Arthur also stayed at Soldiers’ Home. Hayes stayed at the estate during the summer from 1877 to 1880. Arthur and his family resided there during the White House’s renovations in the winter of 1882 and spent summers there also. Presidents beyond Hayes and Arthur did not use Soldiers’ Home as a retreat.
The home was adapted for new and different uses. In the 1900’s, the home faded into oblivion. Finally in 2001, the Soldiers’ Home was officially named the Washington Unit of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. It is, in fact, the only retirement home for enlisted Army and Air Force personnel, warrant officers, and disabled soldiers in the nation. In 1973, the Secretary of the Interior determined the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s home a National historic landmark. This included the original cottage and the three other buildings that were build pre-Civil War.
More recently, in 2000, President Clinton declared “the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home” a National monument. The new monument consisted of the cottage and 2.3 acres surrounding it. The Nation Trust for Historic Preservation started a detailed and comprehensive restoration of the cottage in 2001. In 2008, for the first time ever, the organization opened President Lincoln’s Cottage to the general public on President’s Day.