Living History At Lincoln's Summer Retreat A country home on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., provided a respite and a summer getaway for a president mired in the Civil War.
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Living History At Lincoln's Summer Retreat

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Living History At Lincoln's Summer Retreat

Living History At Lincoln's Summer Retreat

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Even with air-conditioning, Washington is a miserable place in the summer -hot, humid. When Abraham Lincoln was president, D.C.'s summers were even worse, filled with heat, humidity and the Civil War. So, for three of his summers in office, starting in 1862, Lincoln moved out of the White House to a not-too-distant cottage on a hill.

NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SUSAN STAMBERG: Traffic is thick on Georgia Avenue, one of the capital city's main thoroughfares. Cars, crowd pass Howard University, some stores and clubs. Just off Georgia, out of the Soldier's Home, birds almost blot out the traffic sounds. It's tranquil here. Swaths of sloping green lawns, tall trees and nice breeze. Abraham Lincoln spent about one-quarter of his presidency in a house on this hill - one of the highest points in the city.

Mr. FRANK MILLIGAN (Director, Lincoln Cottage): This is one of my favorite spots, the verandah, just looking out of this window.

STAMBERG: Frank Milligan is director of the Lincoln Cottage, restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and opened to the public just a year and a half ago.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

STAMBERG: Visitors learn about a cottage that was news even to some Lincoln historians, and information keeps cropping up from soldiers who guarded the president here.

Mr. MILLIGAN: I learned a lot from these guys because they were A, bored and B, educated. So, guess what? They wrote letters, they wrote diaries home.

STAMBERG: The men described Lincoln's walks around the grounds, popping his head into their tents in the evening to see his soldier boys. He'd look south toward the incompleted Capitol dome or sit on the verandah rocking.

Mr. MILLIGAN: This is the view. You ask me, what're we looking at? To me, we're looking at Lincoln's escape.

STAMBERG: Not total escape, of course. Ambulances passed by, carrying war wounded. The first National Veterans Cemetery was on these grounds. But the hillside caught breezes while he jotted notes for the Emancipation Proclamation or thought through major policies. And it was a refuge from the White House routine.

Mr. MILLIGAN: He didn't like the White House. It was hot. It was loud. It was stinky. His son had died from the bad water down there.

STAMBERG: It was a swamp.

Mr. MILLIGAN: It was a swamp. And the noise of the war was an ever-present reminder to this man that, as the war progressed, he alone was becoming more and more responsible for its continuation.

STAMBERG: Earlier presidents had stayed at the cottage. Actually, it's a 34-room country home built by a young Washington banker in 1842. George Riggs eventually sold it to the federal government, which needed a retirement home for veterans. But no president loved the place as Lincoln did. And so, in summers, Lincoln was a commuter. He went down to his White House office every day. But first, David Derickson, captain of his cavalry guard, had to pry him out of the cottage library.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Typically, he said, he would find him here reading Shakespeare or the Bible or military strategy, poetry, of course, all the time. Derickson would get him up into the front room for his coffee and egg and then on his way down to the White House.

STAMBERG: Today, the four-mile drive down Georgia Avenue takes maybe 15 minutes. In the 1860s, on horseback, it was slower and dicier.

Mr. MILLIGAN: A good portion of that route was wilderness, and then the outskirts of the city was kind of a rough lot.

STAMBERG: On route, he might call on Cabinet members who lived nearby. He passed hospitals. Walt Whitman, working as a nurse, spotted Lincoln almost everyday, he wrote. He stopped to visit the wounded, winding his way to work -long workdays. A Kentuckian's diary entry for this date - July 20th, 1862 -notes being invited to the Lincoln Cottage for the evening but finding no president present. Disappointed, the diarist and friends ride back to town.

Mr. MILLIGAN: And they see this lone horseman galloping towards them. And they describe his coat flapping in the breeze and the top hat on head. It's Lincoln, riding alone, galloping back here on a Sunday evening.

STAMBERG: Late for dinner, wife Mary waiting at the cottage. He rode alone, much to the dismay of his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, and his top general.

Mr. MILLIGAN: For the first summer, he had no military protection. And then finally Stanton and, ironically, George McClellan - whom Lincoln would fire twice - and Mary Lincoln, to her credit, all were coming to the same conclusion: This is nuts.

STAMBERG: By the fall of 1862, his military guard and cavalry guard were assigned to protect him on his commute. The Civil War got closer. Artillery fire from various nearby battles was heard on the hill. By 1864, Confederates attacked the capital, and Lincoln's guard was called to the front to defend the city. Mary Lincoln, mad with fear, begged for help.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Think of it. The first family of the United States protected by 125 soldiers, and there's 17,000 Confederates a mile away. And you're here in the middle of the bush.

STAMBERG: The family was rushed from the cottage to the White House under cover of darkness. But Lincoln was back the next day to witness the war. Frank Milligan says all of that history swirls in the winds that wrapped the Lincoln Cottage. In his four years living on these grounds as director, Milligan says he's encountered no ghosts, but he certainly feels the presence of a force.

Mr. MILLIGAN: All you have to do is come out here as a visitor and sit on that verandah and feel that breeze and absorb some of this story and understand the huge weight, the crisis upon crisis that this man - it's unparalleled in American history what he carried virtually on his shoulders for four years.

STAMBERG: Sitting where the president once sat in the refurbished, sparsely decorated library, Frank Milligan quotes, a great Lincoln Historian.

Mr. MILLIGAN: He was, as David Donald said, alone and lonely.

STAMBERG: You can feel that loneliness at Lincoln Cottage, as well as the solace this place must have brought our 16th president. Born 200 years ago, Abraham Lincoln spent the last summer of his life, those brief 56 years, on these gentle green slopes above the tumult of the federal city.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of song, "The Star-Spangled Banner")

WERTHEIMER: You can see photos of the Lincoln's Cottage on our Web site,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


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