Lincoln's Other White House by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein - Read Online
Lincoln's Other White House
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The Lincolns spent the summer of 1862 north of the White House at the Soldiers’ Home. The lush, cool hill overlooking the squalid capital promised the Lincolns an escape from the "city of stink." Despite fears about Lincoln’s vulnerability in the secluded place, Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency at the Soldiers’ Home. But until the National Trust for Historic Preservation began restoring the cottage, little had been done to explore this missing link in Lincoln’s life. Elizabeth Smith Brownstein fills in a critical gap. Using diaries, letters, and eyewitness accounts, she provides unusual perspectives on Lincoln’s relationships, traces the evolution of Lincoln’s image, examines the Lincoln marriage, and more. Lincoln’s Other White House is a vivid evocation of a turbulent era, and an intimate portrait of the still elusive president.
Published: Wiley on
ISBN: 9781620459478
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The poet Walt Whitman attracted a glittering crowd of celebrities to the last of his famous lectures on the man he most loved—Abraham Lincoln. It was April 14, 1887, the twenty-second anniversary of the president’s murder, and the poet himself had just a few more years to live. The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was in the audience at the gorgeous little Madison Square Theater in midtown Manhattan. So were Mark Twain, the Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman, the by then distinguished diplomat John Hay, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and many other cultural powerhouses of the day. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, Whitman’s powerful lament for Lincoln, the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands ... the mighty Westerner, was well on its way to fame as the most moving elegy in the American anthology.

There were several ironies about Whitman’s greatest poem. From the very first line, written only weeks after the assassination on April 14, 1865, Whitman returned again and again to the image of home. Yet, like Lincoln, Whitman would own only one home in his lifetime, and that one only as his own life drew to its end. Lincoln had detested the homes in which he’d lived more than half his life. Even sadder, as the poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg pointed out many years later, There were thirty-one rooms in the White House and Lincoln was not at home in any of them. This was the house for which he had suffered so much.

But Whitman had spent over two years of the Civil War in and near Washington, moving from battlefront to camp, from hospital to hospital, caring tenderly, generously, in any way he could, for the war wounded and dying. He had come to understand, as had Louisa May Alcott and many other Civil War nurses, that the idea of home was a mighty refuge, both physical and emotional, an anchor that kept those soldiers clinging to life, and the folks back home moored through four years of terrible civil war. It would take another war, in another century, for the patriotic concept of the home front to evolve, but at times during the Civil War, the longing for home was so acute that the nostalgic tune, Home Sweet Home, was barred from Union camps. After one fierce battle, bands of both armies played the song together across the lines for the battered, homesick troops. Sentimental though Lincoln’s taste in music was, perhaps understandably Home Sweet Home was never one of his favorites.

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln had hoped from the very beginning of his presidency that a cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, then an asylum for disabled and homeless veterans three miles into the countryside north of the White House, established after years of political wrangling, would be just such a refuge for them. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, may have told them he slept better there during the summer. Two days after the inauguration on March 4, 1861, Mary Todd Lincoln went out to look it over. Lincoln hurried out before breakfast the very next day, probably alone, to see it for himself. Right away, the idea of the Soldiers’ Home as a retreat pleased them both. It was, Mary wrote an old friend in early July 1861, a very beautiful place.... We will ride into the city every day & can be as secluded, as we please.

But that was not to be. Military and political crises in 1861 were so constant and calamitous, it would be another year—1862—before the Lincoln family could get away from Washington’s dreaded, unhealthy heated season, hoping to find at the Soldiers’ Home the peace and quiet they craved after the loss of their adored second son, Willie, to typhoid fever that winter. But Mary was wiser after one year of living in a White House where the public roamed the First Home anywhere they pleased. She expected, even dreaded, that the Soldiers’ Home might turn into an even greater resort, and she was right. Perhaps wryly, she wrote, Each day brings its visitors. A century and a half later, when the Soldiers’ Home was dedicated as a national monument, another president, William Jefferson Clinton, would explain, the Soldiers’ Home gave the Lincolns refuge, but not escape.

In anticipation of at least some relief, Lincoln had ridden out to the Soldiers’ Home days before the family moved out on June 13, 1862, and he was seen by a passerby sitting upon the steps of that summer mansion... very sober, his head leaning upon his hand. The President had evidently gone out for a ride and stopped to refresh himself at the quiet retreat.

In the end, Lincoln would come to spend an astonishing quarter of his presidency—thirteen months—at the Soldiers’ Home. The day before the assassination, he was seen heading toward it. So much of the site remains intact that it is remarkably easy to conjure up an immediate sense of Lincoln’s presence there. Strange as it may seem, despite that immediacy, the Soldiers’ Home is the least known significant presidential site in America. Even now, few know what happened to Lincoln there; few have even looked. Yet it is the only site in the country that encapsules Lincoln’s life experience as father, husband, commander in chief, greatest and most beloved president. It is the only place left to offer fresh new insights into his startling physical appearance, his unusual temperament, the idiosyncratic character of his leadership, and the intensity and breadth of his political and personal relationships. It would be the last home the Lincolns would share together. It is the missing link in the study of his presidency. This is that untold story.


Lincoln’s Long Journey to the Soldiers’ Home



The picturesque country cottage where tradition holds that the Lincolns stayed at the Soldiers’ Home for the three seasons was surely the most comfortable, even fashionable, home Lincoln ever knew. With two floors of spacious, airy rooms and more on the third, the cottage was worlds apart from the cramped log cabins of Lincoln’s miserable earlier years. As if those crude shelters weren’t bad enough for a young man with Lincoln’s drive and genius, after hacking their way in 1816 through thick forests to Little Pigeon Creek, Indiana, seven-year-old Lincoln, his father, Thomas, mother, Nancy, and older sister, Sarah, even lived for a time in what was called a pole shelter or half-faced camp. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s dashing third secretary in the White House, later offered a journalist’s vivid, if imaginative, description: It was a shed, log-walled on three sides, open on the south and roofed with riven slabs. It was about fourteen feet square with the ‘fire-place’ out on the ground on the open side. Its floor was the earth and it had neither window, door, nor chimney. It was the poorest home to which Nancy (Hanks) Lincoln’s husband had brought her. Years later historian George Dangerfield embellished that description: The sides and roof were covered with poles, branches, brush, dried grass, mud; chinks were stuffed where the wind or rain were trying to come through.

Thomas Lincoln managed to build a log cabin in time. A succession of these cabins has been re-created—and revered—all the way from Kentucky through Indiana to Illinois. A massive temple now covers the tiny cabin at Sinking Springs Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky, where Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. Each of the fifty-six steps leading up to it is meant to represent a year in his life. It wasn’t until he’d lived more than half those years that he escaped the humiliation widely associated in those days with such crude places.

Even though the Harrison-Tyler presidential campaign of 1840 had made log cabins somewhat respectable, however hypocritically (Harrison had been raised in a mansion), and though Lincoln had been railroaded at the 1860 nominating convention by some well-meaning supporters into endorsing what became a smashingly successful railsplitter image, the presidential hopeful dismissed his log-cabin years with a single line from Thomas Gray’s elegy, the short and simple annals of the poor. Paradoxically, the cabins move millions of people today as indispensable symbols of our faith in democratic government. They shore up our conviction—indestructible up to now, at least—that anyone in America can aspire to be anything one wishes, no matter how humble one’s beginnings. Lincoln later explained this basic American ideal to some Union soldiers. The purpose of the war, he told them, was that each of you may have through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field and fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence. As for himself, Lincoln was confident enough in his ability and destiny to have taken to heart two other lines from Gray’s elegy: he was determined not to become another flower born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.

In some ways the Little Pigeon Creek cabin must have been an improvement on the half-faced camp where they had first lived, but the 1820 census of Spencer County, Indiana, gave some hint of how miserable the family’s living conditions still must have been. The census recorded a total of eight people, including the future president, his father, his new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston (Nancy Hanks had died in 1818), and her children, all living in one three-hundred-sixty-square-foot room, just a few square feet larger than the squalid three-room tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. These would be put up for maximum profit and minimum comfort during the Civil War to house the hordes of immigrants flooding into the city who were to make up about a quarter of Lincoln’s Union Army.

Lincoln had lived only in log cabins before he moved to Springfield, Illinois, in April 1837 at the age of twenty-eight. The house at Eighth and Jackson was the only home he ever owned.

Materially and emotionally, Sarah brought much to the cabin, and Lincoln loved her for all of it: her affection and understanding, her Bible, decent clothes rather than buckskins, beds, glazed windows, a door that really shut. Even in the White House, journalist Noah Brooks reported that Lincoln could still remember how he lay in bed of a bitter, cold morning, listening for [Sarah’s] footsteps rattling the slabs of the rough oaken floor as she came to arouse him from his pretended sleep.

That harsh existence changed radically once Lincoln got to Springfield, Illinois, where he arrived in April 1837, with two saddlebags to his name, a self-taught lawyer ready to start a practice. By the time he left Springfield for Washington as President-elect on a bleak February day in 1861, Lincoln and Mary Todd, his wife of nineteen years, and their three surviving children—Robert, Willie, and Tad—were living in one of the most respectable houses in town.

Lincoln had once said to a friend that it isn’t the best thing for a man ... to build a house so much better than his neighbors. But by 1860 he had. We know now from the stunning discoveries of the Lincoln Legal Papers Project that he could well afford it. Lincoln may have started out as a poor country lawyer, but by 1860 he was one of the most prominent attorneys on the frontier, and even had been admitted to practice before the Illinois and United States supreme courts. His legal practice had provided most of the one thousand dollars he needed to buy a one-and-a-half-story Greek Revival cottage on the edge of the prairie in 1844, two years after he and Mary Todd married. A back-breaking load of cases, five thousand in all—from petty thefts to murder to corporate liability—tried in anything from crude log courtrooms to ornate federal court chambers, had enabled him and Mary to keep on enlarging the house until it had two full stories and five bedrooms. Fees as high as five thousand dollars for one case, but usually around fifty dollars, laid the financial base for their political and material ambitions.

For all that, their marriage paid a price. Lincoln’s law practice took him away as much as twenty weeks each year. It was his only source of income, because he had chosen not to add to it by land or real estate speculation, as had many of his associates, or by farming, which he loathed. He told a friend, Joseph Gillespie, that he had no capacity whatever for speculation and never attempted it.

After Lincoln’s nomination on May 18, 1860, as the new Republican Party’s candidate and the country’s first presidential nominee born west of the Appalachians, politicians and the press swarmed to the house at Eighth and Jackson. The none-too-friendly New York Herald gave the house, and the Lincolns, good reviews:

It is like the residence of an American gentleman in easy circumstances, and it is furnished in like manner... there is no aristocracy about it; but it is a comfortable, cozy home, in which it would seem that a man could enjoy life, surrounded by his family... the internal appointments of his house are plain but tasteful, and clearly show the impress of Mrs. Lincoln’s hand, who is really an amiable and accomplished lady.

The New York Evening Post found Mr. Lincoln

living in a handsome but not pretentious, double story house, with parlors on both sides neatly but not ostentatiously furnished. It was just such a dwelling as a majority of the well-to-do of those fine western towns occupy. Everything about it had a look of comfort and independence. The library, I remarked on passing, particularly, that I was pleased to see long rows of books, which told of scholarly tastes and culture of the family.

The Utica Morning Herald correspondent confessed that he had an instinctive aversion to dogging the footsteps of distinguished men, and nothing seemed more impossible than that I should ever... join the great mob of those who should pay [Lincoln] their respects. But he did, and was pleasantly surprised both by the house and the Lincolns.

After you have been five minutes in his company you cease to think that he is either homely or awkward. You recognize in him a high-toned, unassuming, chivalrous-minded gentleman, fully posted in all the essential amenities of social life, and sustained by the infallible monitor of common sense.

As for Mary,

You would have known instantly that she who presided over that modest household was a true type of American lady. There were flowers upon the table; there were pictures upon the walls. The adornments were few, but chastely appropriate; everything was in its place, and ministered to the general effect. The hand of the domestic artist was everywhere visible. The thought that involuntarily blossomed into speech was, What a pleasant home Abe Lincoln has.

These were valuable clues to what she would later try to do to make the Soldiers’ Home just as pleasant for the family’s summer stays. Mary had other motives in mind when she turned the White House from a dirty, tattered place that looked like a down-at-the-heels, third-rate hotel into a shining and elegant place that impressed even her many savage critics.


The Riggs Villa

The Cottage Mary dearly loved at the Soldiers’ Home had been built in 1842 in the Rural Gothic style for a prominent, wealthy young Washingtonian, George W. Riggs. One look at it shows how carefully Riggs and the builder, William H. Degges, followed the recommendations of the predominant tastemaker of the 1830s and 1840s, Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing’s views on what was architecturally suitable for country residences for rich and poor alike had begun to percolate nationally in the 1830s, when he was in his midtwenties. His 1841 Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening was a best-seller despite its high price ($3.50), and would become one of the most influential books on the subject published in the nineteenth century. His Cottage Residences of 1842 put the final seal of approval on the Gothic Revival style.

It was clear that Riggs, as a retired gentleman of fortune, should build a beautiful and picturesque villa in the Rural Gothic style, Downing wrote, the lines of which point upwards in the pyramidal gables, tall clusters of chimneys, finials and the several other portions of its varied outline, harmoniz[ing] easily with the tall trees, and tapering masses of foliage, or the surrounding hills. Even if the villa did not have its unique connection with Abraham Lincoln, the cottage would stand by itself as a rare survivor of early Gothic Revival architecture in the nation’s capital.

In this perfect gem of a country residence, Riggs intended to introduce his growing family to the charms and benefits of the rural life that he’d enjoyed as a child on his family’s Maryland plantations, where slavery had made life easier. He’d already made what would amount to millions today in the banking business with his older partner, William Corcoran, known as the American Rothschild and a connoisseur and collector of art. But Riggs was more conservative, and growing tired of the risks and worries Corcoran thrived on. He was uncomfortable with the bank’s heavy investments in loans to the federal government for the war in Mexico, in railroads, and in land speculation. I think it wrong, he wrote, for persons who do a banking or collecting business to operate in stocks unless possessed of money to carry on such operations without taking from the regular business. Our situation here induces many people to put confidence in us such as would not be placed if it were known that we speculated largely.

Mary Todd Lincoln included this picture of the Soldiers’ Home cottage she loved so much in the Lincoln family album.

So finally, in January 1849 (he’d already tried to convince his father to keep out of Wall Street a little), Riggs explained to a friend,

I am engaged in winding up my affairs with Corcoran & Riggs, in which I had an interest. After that is over I shall have my whole time to devote to my family and my little farm. I have not the large fortune that the public give me but I have enough to live on if I live moderately and I want to try to do so [George Riggs was being modest here about his fortune, for a young man of thirty-five, his net worth already must have exceeded two hundred thousand dollars—a very large figure for his day]... I am confident I have adopted the prudent and wise course in withdrawing. I am a happier, if poorer man. Contentment is, after all, riches, not possession of money.

A year later, he wrote the friend again:

I am living quietly in the country, out of business entirely, excepting the charge of the books of the old firm of Corcoran & Riggs.

But a year and a half later, to the same, probably astonished friend, Riggs announced that:

this last winter, I sold my country place to the Government for a site for a military asylum. I did it at the earnest request and advice of my father & brother ... both of whom are desirous to have me remove to New York or the vicinity.

The death at the farm of their youngest daughter may have haunted the Riggses away, just as Willie’s death would make the Lincolns eager to escape the White House. In any event, the $58,111.75 Riggs received from the government for the house, out-buildings, and 256 acres was not a bad price for the time. Riggs was soon back in business—in Washington again—with a bank of his own.

Lincoln had deposited his first paycheck at George Riggs’s bank on April 5, 1861 (for the month of March he earned $2,083.33), but that was nothing new for the Riggs Bank. President John Tyler before him had banked with Corcoran & Riggs, and most of Lincoln’s cabinet already had accounts at Riggs. But Lincoln and George Riggs never met. According to the vehement testimony of Riggs’s two granddaughters, Riggs was a Lincoln hater and made it clear to his many friends in the Washington establishment that Lincoln would not be welcome in his house. It didn’t help that Riggs was treasurer of the national committee of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party that in 1860 had nominated John C. Breckinridge, who had been defeated by Lincoln.

Among the many other ironies of Lincoln’s attachment to the Soldiers’ Home was that one of the prime movers in Congress to establish the Soldiers’ Home institution was log cabin-born Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, later president of the Confederacy. And as far back as 1840, Major Robert Anderson, who would be in command at Fort Sumter in April 1861, was pleading for its creation. Let the soldier know that a home is prepared for him, where he will be kindly welcomed and well taken care of, and he will be more active and zealous in the discharge of his duties, more willing to incur fatigue and danger, than can now be the case, when he knows that the greater the suffering he endures, the sooner is his constitution destroyed, and he, by discharge, deprived of the means of obtaining his daily bread. (General Winfield Scott, Lincoln’s first military adviser, was the third cofounder.)

The Riggs cottage would be enlarged before the Lincolns came to use it, in order to serve temporarily as the inmates’ living quarters, and from the records of their meetings, it’s clear the governors of the institution didn’t care to spend their limited funds on amenities. Major Thomas Alexander, a very nice, considerate man who ran the institution during the time the Lincolns used it, and who visited them often, pleaded for a modest sum to furnish his quarters. In six years, he said, he’d received nothing and was having a hard time getting along with what was there. His own property had been destroyed in a fire at his previous post. (Much of the Lincolns’ Springfield furniture had been sold when they left for Washington and was also destroyed in the great Chicago fire of 1871.) That history of parsimony surely explains why it took a long train of wagons to transport the Lincolns’ belongings from the White House when they moved out for the summer and explains the long list of embellishments (gilt paper and borders, lace curtains, mirrors, and more) Mary ordered to refurbish the cottage for what would turn out to be their final summer of residence, 1864.

Mary was not unaccustomed to luxury when she’d married Lincoln, and she had done her best with their modest home in Springfield. She would struggle to turn the White House into a glittering symbol of national pride. For Mary had been raised in great comfort in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, Robert Todd. She’d been accustomed to life with slaves and politically influential family friends, including Henry Clay, and was given a superior education. Marrying Lincoln had changed all that. She had to learn to cook, sew, and keep house, with the help of a servant or two, none of whom stayed long. Life with Lincoln was made no easier, she also knew, by their opposite natures.

So their house at Eighth and Jackson in Springfield is a monument to the many things that kept the two devoted to each other to the end, as eyewitnesses to their days at the Soldiers’ Home would later confirm. What bound them was their ambition and fascination with politics, their love of children and friends, shared memories of their desolate childhoods, their passion for poetry, theater, books ... and each other.

It is likely the Lincolns had separate bedrooms at the Soldiers’ Home, just as they had at the house in Springfield and in the White House, an arrangement expected of couples in their respectable position in those days. Perhaps, too, at the Soldiers’ Home Lincoln continued his practice of occasionally receiving visitors in his bedroom as he did at the White House, where he was sometimes so exhausted he had to meet with colleagues while in bed. Given his nightmares and Mary’s migraines, such an arrangement was even more practical. In Springfield, it may also have been a means of spacing the births of their four children.

We know that there were, at the very least, seventy visitors to the Soldiers’ Home during their stays: old friends, generals, politicians, members of the cabinet, the brazen, and the curious. If the Lincolns entertained at all, it was not remotely on the scale of their efforts in Springfield, where five hundred people were invited to one party (owing to an unlucky rain, three hundred only favored us by their presence, Mary wrote to her sister, Emily Todd Helm). Anguish over Willie’s death in the White House in February 1862 was too constant, and massive public receptions there more than took care of their social and political obligations. These White House events were usually open to all, as the soldiers of Lincoln’s guard reported in their letters home and in their memoirs. Sergeant Smith Stimmel, a member of the Union Light Guard of Ohio, Lincoln’s cavalry escort to and from the Soldiers’ Home in 1863, wrote:

When not on duty, it was our privilege to attend his public receptions if we wished to do so.... One evening three or four of us boys concluded to slick up and take in the President’s reception ... we stood in the anteroom for some time, watching the dignitaries pass in, before we could make up our minds to venture into the presence of the President. Cabinet Ministers, the Judges of the Supreme Court, Senators and Congressmen, Foreign Ambassadors in their dazzling uniforms, accompanied by their wives, army and navy officers of high rank, and the aristocracy of the city, all in full evening dress, were there. Naturally we boys in the garb of the common soldier, felt a little timid in the presence of such an assemblage ... the door-keeper said ‘Go on in, boys, he would rather see