Lincoln's Other White House: The Untold Story of the Man and His Presidency by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein

    Lincoln's Long Journey to the Soldiers' Home...

    Chapter 2 - 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.”

    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 thirtyfive, 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), butthat 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 you boys than all the rest of these people.’ So we plucked up
    courage and went in. The President gave us a cordial shake of the hand. We bowed to Mrs. Lincoln and the others and
    passed on into the large East room with the rest of the guests. At first it was a little like taking a cold bath when the
    water is a little extra chilly, but the first douse took off the chill, and after that we felt quite at home.

    Private Willard Cutter decided not to go to the New Year’s reception in 1863, “for fear I would jerk old Abe off his legs .
    . . [the guests] shook old Abe most to pieces. I guess he was glad when they shut the House up.”  Cutter was only partly
    right. No one really could shut the White House up. Walt Whitman had seen firsthand what Lincoln would face there as
    he began his presidency on March 4, 1861. The only peace Lincoln could hope to get was when he left it.

    A few tantalizing clues now suggest that the Lincolns may also have at times occupied another house on the Soldiers’
    Home grounds during their residency there. The National Trust is still pursuing these leads as it continues its extensive
    restoration of the Riggs villa.
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