President Lincoln's Cottage offers reminders of the past

April 1, 2008

On President's Day, your chief medical editor attended the dedication ceremony of the newly renovated President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, one of the historic sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Washington, DC.

"Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally."

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

"Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser-in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."

If you have ever visited the nation's capital in the dog days of summer, you know that the heat and humidity can be oppressive. In the summer of 1862, burdened by the war and devastated by the death that year of his son Willie, Abraham Lincoln decided to move his family out of the White House to a cottage 45 minutes away by horseback.

The cottage is located uphill from downtown District of Columbia, at the site of the Armed Forces Retirement Home for retired military personnel (today some 1,200 retired veterans reside here). The location is blessed with pleasant breezes, which made it possible to tolerate Washington summers. Lincoln frequently made the commute without an escort. It provided him an opportunity to interact with "regular people," including local residents and soldiers encamped around the capital. This arrangement allowed Lincoln to learn firsthand what people were thinking about the war and political issues of the day.

The president encountered "contraband camps" on his commute. The contraband in these ramshackle camps was human, consisting of slaves who had escaped from Virginia and other slave states into Washington, where slavery was outlawed.

Historians believe that the desperate circumstances of these folks strengthened Lincoln's resolve to limit the spread of slavery (at a minimum) or eliminate it because he considered it a moral abomination. His dilemma was that many Northerners would support a war to preserve the union but not a war to end slavery. Also, Lincoln did not believe the Constitution gave him the legal authority to outlaw slavery.

Lincoln held meetings with his political advisers at the cottage to discuss his options for ending slavery. He also conferred with ex-slave Frederick Douglas, who urged Lincoln to end the practice of slavery and allow blacks to enlist in the Northern army.

Emancipation Proclamation

Eventually, during the time he stayed at the cottage, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and a signed copy of this document is on display here. According to information provided to visitors to the cottage, Lincoln argued that the free slave labor provided to the Southern military represented an unfair advantage to the rebel states. So he justified proclaiming an end to slavery in the South as a military move, although he was well aware of the political and moral implications.

Another poignant aspect of Lincoln's cottage is the presence of a military cemetery adjacent to the cottage grounds. Every day, several soldiers were interred there, so Lincoln constantly was reminded of the human cost of the war. In our current era, in which political figures from mayors on up travel with security details and often are removed from the common folk; I find it refreshing to think that Lincoln often made his commute by horseback alone. Apparently, horseback riding was a pleasant diversion for the president, temporarily allowing him to escape the stress of his position.

At the dedication ceremony, we learned that Lincoln, riding over the cottage grounds one evening, was shot at and lost his signature top hat. A soldier retrieved the hat, discovering a bullet hole. Lincoln also rode around the cottage grounds on the evening prior to his assassination.

The Armed Forces Retirement Home adjacent to the cottage cares for retired U.S. military veterans, and it seems to me that the facility has many features of a medical institution. It strikes me as ironic that it was not until 1963, 100 years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation while living on the premises, that segregation of the retired soldiers by race was ended at the home. Similarly, it often surprises people to learn that many hospitals in this country did not end segregation on inpatient wards until the 1960s, about two decades after the U.S. military put an end to that practice. Probably most ophthalmologists old enough to remember separate "white" and "non-white" hospital wards have retired or will do so soon.