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Soldiers' Home - Abe Lincoln's Retreat

Soldiers' Home - Abe Lincoln's Retreat American Presidents American History Government

Throughout his presidency, Abraham Lincoln spent time at a retreat known as "Soldiers' Home."  It was located near Washington and was built in 1842 for George W. Riggs (a wealthy banker).  The federal government bought the place soon after.

This image depicts Soldiers' Home.

President Lincoln loved Soldiers' Home for many reasons.  He was able to think clearly there since it gave him much more privacy than he had at the White House.  Commuting between "the cottage" and the White House also put Lincoln in touch with people who did not work for him. 

The National Park Service provides more background on the place Lincoln loved so much. For one thing, it is located on the highest hill in the D.C. area, providing cooler breezes than one can experience in the city (including at the White House which, of course, was not air-conditioned when Lincoln lived there). 

Lincoln wasn't the first President to enjoy the setting and the breezes. It was actually President Buchanan who suggested that the Lincolns use the place:

Four presidents of the United States escaped the heat and humidity of summer in Washington, DC at The Old Soldiers' Home on a hill three miles from the White House.

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln spent June to November, 1862-1864 in a 34-room Gothic Revival "cottage" there. He reportedly made his last visit to the house, on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination.

He found cool breezes and quiet, but he brought his wartime responsibilities with him. Lincoln was staying in this house when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862...

Who built the home Lincoln loved so much—and—why did he turn it over to the U.S. government?

Wealthy Washington, DC banker George Riggs completed the “Corn Rigs” cottage at his 250-acre summer retreat in 1842. The irregular shape of the house, its many gables, latticed windows, and elaborate gingerbread trim mark it as Gothic Revival, a style considered particularly appropriate for country “cottages.”

In 1851, Riggs offered to sell his property to the United States Government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled veterans of the United States Army.

Originally proposed in 1827, plans for a military asylum stalled until General Winfield Scott designated part of the money Mexico City paid to avoid invasion during the Mexican War for that purpose. An army committee purchased the Corn Rigs estate in 1851 and opened the house to its new residents the same year. By 1857, the retired soldiers moved into a large new stone Gothic building near the cottage.

The Old Soldiers' Home invited President Buchanan to make his summer residence on the grounds of the United States Military Asylum, and Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers there during his presidency. By the beginning of the Civil War, there were four buildings on the grounds.

When did President Lincoln first visit the Old Soldiers’ Home?

President Lincoln visited the Old Soldiers' Home three days after his first inauguration, presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan.

He and his family occupied the house from between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family's belongings to the cottage, though there is no record of exactly what they brought.

Located on one of the highest hills in the District of Columbia, the grounds offered solitude and respite from the swampy heat and wartime congestion of the capital. In July 1862, Mary Lincoln wrote a friend, “We are truly delighted with this retreat . . . the drives and walks around here are delightful."

Did the President commute from Old Soldiers’ Home to the White House?

Lincoln did not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership. Every morning he rode to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the Old Soldiers' Home every evening. The cavalry units that accompanied him with drawn swords and the hospitals, cemeteries, and camps for former slaves he passed on his route served as constant reminders of the war.

How did Lincoln become the only U.S. President to come under hostile fire (while he was staying at the Old Soldiers' Home)?

When Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, on July 12, 1864, Lincoln brashly went to observe the battle, even though his family had been evacuated from the Old Soldiers' Home (about one mile from the battle) to the White House for the four days of the battle.

He became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.

That same summer, one of John Wilkes Booth’s plots proposed kidnapping Lincoln along his commute, and a sniper attempted to assassinate him on his way to the cottage.

Besides Lincoln and Buchanan, what other Presidents stayed at the Old Soldiers’ Home?

Lincoln was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage. President Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 at the house.

President Chester A. Arthur stayed there during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882 and spent summers there as well.

What is the status of the Old Soldiers’ Home today?

The significance of President Lincoln’s cottage faded from memory after the mid-20th century, while the Old Soldier's Home continued to adapt the house for new uses.

In 2001, the Soldiers’ Home officially became the Washington Unit of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. It is the nation’s only retirement community for Regular Army and Air Force enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and disabled soldiers and airmen.

The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, consisting of the cottage and the other three buildings constructed before the Civil War, as a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

President Clinton declared the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home (the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres) a National Monument in 2000.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage in 2001 and opened President Lincoln's Cottage to the public for the first time in history on President's Day in 2008.

To learn more about this important part of Lincoln's presidency, see Lincoln's Sanctuary by Matthew Pinsker.  Thanks to Oxford University Press and Google Books, much of that work is available for online reading.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5183stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Oct 15, 2019


Media Credits

Image of Soldiers' Home, online courtesy U.S. National Archives.

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