"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." ~ Abraham Lincoln
The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and there was a little chill in the air as Fall began to slowly creep into the day. As we parked our car, and made our way to the cottage on Columbus Day, I could not help but wonder what it would have been like to live here during President Lincoln's time.
I was thrilled to have this opportunity to step back in time and have a tiny brush with greatness by visiting President Lincoln's cottage. As I walked up with the tour group to the entrance of the cottage, my mind transported itself to the time when Lincoln lived there, and I, ignoring the tour guide, imagined what it must have been like to see this tall, lanky man alight from his horse every evening, after a hard day's work and survey the land around him, lost in thought, and the weight of a nation on his shoulders.
Although this cottage was meant to be a refuge from the White House, Lincoln could not escape the reality of war that was all around him—camps and cemeteries popping up at the same rapid rate—nor the decisions he had to make. His first visit to this cottage was three days after his inauguration and his last visit was the day before his assassination.
Located only three miles away from the White House, this was first created as the Soldiers' Home in 1851. The summer cottage that Lincoln occupied was built for George Riggs, a prominent banker, who later sold it to the government when they pronounced Soldiers' Home as a place for disabled and retired soldiers. Today, the land is covered with buildings, and offices, and although still green, obstruct the clear view the President Lincoln must have had. When he lived there, it was still considered rural and had wide open, green spaces. He shared the land along with 200 resident soldiers who lived in the dormitory near the cottage, the presidential guard, and officers who managed the grounds.
From his front door, he could see the graves of the Soldiers' Home National Cemetery multiply, and the unfinished construction of the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome. Mary Todd Lincoln accompanied her husband here during the summer and lived with him and their two sons, Robert and Tad. Their son, Willie, had died after drinking some bad water and contracting typhoid. Mary loved the cottage and wrote to her friend about it saying, "We are truly delighted with this retreat, the drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day, brings its visitors. Then too, our boy Robert is with us, whom you may remember. We consider it a ‘pleasant time’ for us, when his vacations, roll around, he is very companionable, and I shall dread when he has to return to Cambridge. I presume you will not return to W.[ashington] before cool weather, thus far we have found the country very delightful."
We were not allowed to take photographs inside. The rooms were sparsely decorated and some of them had no furniture in them at all. But they were large and would have been sufficient to entertain the stream of political and social visitors the president must have had. One of my favorite rooms was, of course, the library. Although it had no bookshelves, and only had a table and chairs, the tour guide told us (yes, I finally did pay attention to the guide) that when the restoration began, they had stripped 27 layers of paint and wallpaper off the walls, and exposed the wood-paneled walls of the room. They surmised that room to be the library because of the ghosting of bookcases from wall to ceiling that went the whole length of the room. It had an enormous fireplace and a very large window. The president loved to play checkers, and would invite the guards to play with him from time to time. It was also in that room that he reflected on the war, and formulated and made one of the greatest decisions of his presidency: To issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
On his daily commute, he passed soldiers, hospitals and contraband camps. It gave him a sense of being with the people and knowing firsthand what they went through as they fought the war. His last visit to the cottage the day before he was assassinated.
I loved the time I spent in the place that Abraham Lincoln lived, walked and talked. I learned a lot about him and his love for this country. It increased my love for America and I appreciated the time to ponder on the lives of many who had served this country, and was grateful for their sacrifice, so that someday I could enjoy the freedoms for which they sacrificed their lives.