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

    Prologue  

    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.

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