Lincoln's Country Getaway Coming Out of Obscurity
By Rudi Williams
WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2000 -- President Abraham Lincoln and his family spent about a quarter of his presidency at "Anderson Cottage," their haven of renewal and rest in the countryside.
The "cottage" is not some charming little bungalow, but a 14-room former banker's mansion. Known as the "Soldiers' Home" in Lincoln's day, the cottage is one of the nation's most important presidential sites, but it's one known only to a few people.
Anderson Cottage was where Lincoln wrote his final draft of one of the nation's most significant documents -- the Emancipation Proclamation. He completed the proclamation after the Battle of Antietam in Maryland on Sept. 17, 1862, and issued it five days later.
The document declared all slaves in the Confederacy free, but didn't end slavery. After the proclamation took effect Jan. 1, 1863, however, the North had made abolition a righteous cause. The proclamation set the stage for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery after the war.
Lincoln also spent the last night of his life at his beloved country haven. The next evening, April 13, 1865, he was dead at the hands of assassin John Wilkes Booth.
In spite of Anderson Cottage's place in history, it has been almost forgotten for more than a century. It is probably the country's most significant Abraham Lincoln site because it's so intimately associated with his presidency -- and it's the only major Lincoln site in the country that hasn't been restored.
"It's where Lincoln lived and worked, where his son played and his wife found solace, where ideas took shape and his last, best hopes for America took flight," President Clinton said July 7, 2000, when he declared Anderson Cottage the President Lincoln and Soldiers' Home National Monument. Clinton is the first president to go up and down the stairs in Anderson Cottage since Chester Arthur more than 100 years ago.
Anderson Cottage is finally being brought out of obscurity. Lincoln's retreat was miles out in the country when the capital city didn't extend much north of the White House. Urban Washington overtook the cottage long ago, however, and for some time now, the Gothic Revival former summer White House has been on the 320-acre campus of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home -- now close-in only about three miles north of the White House and U.S. Capitol.
Bill Woods, a retired Army master sergeant who started researching the history of Anderson Cottage in 1996, said the building today has been named since the late 1800s in honor of Brevet Maj. Robert Anderson, a founder of the Soldiers' Home.
"Originally, it was called the Riggs House, because financier George Washington Riggs Jr. had this house built between 1841 and 1842," Woods said. "He had to sell the house for $58,000 in 1851 because his family ran into problems during the Great Depression of 1847."
In its heyday, the house was second only to the White House in Washington as a mansion. "It was quite elaborate," Woods noted. "It was the first house in Washington, D.C., to have natural gas to replace the kerosene lamps. It also had a hand-pulled dumbwaiter. There are a lot of firsts here that we're still discovering."
Work to restore the cottage to the way it was in Lincoln's day is scheduled to start in the fall of 2001, according to Sophia Lynn, project manager of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for Historic Preservation. In the early days, for instance, the brick structure, which has been stuccoed, was outfitted with open fireplaces in nearly every room and with solid walnut furniture. Renovations are expected to cost more than $2.1 million.
The Soldiers' Home was designated a national historic landmark in 1973 as the first of its kind to house disabled or retired enlisted American soldiers. Woods speculated that the cottage's historical significance might have been obscured for more than a century because it's been in constant use. The Soldiers' Home used it as a headquarters, then as a hospital and as living quarters for the first women admitted in 1957. Even today, the public affairs officer and historian use it, and Lincoln's bedroom serves as a conference room.
The cottage and farmland surrounding it was bought by the government to form the core of what is today the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home. That story, too, is not widely known.
Gen. Winfield Scott had fought 25 years to establish an 'asylum' for the military, which in those days meant a refuge for soldiers, Woods said. Scott, Anderson and an unlikely third party, Jefferson Davis, put their heads together in 1851. Davis was secretary of war at the time, but a decade later became president of the Confederacy.
Congress objected to the trio's plan because it didn't want to spend taxpayers' money that way, Woods said. Scott solved the problem.
"In those days, it was legal to make your enemy pay your expenses," Woods said. The Mexicans had paid Scott about $175,000 not to ransack their cities during the Mexican-American War. He had used some of the money to pay his troops and to buy supplies, but he offered the remainder to Congress to establish the Soldiers' Home.
"He and Jefferson Davis made a proposal to Congress to buy the land and said the military would support it at 10 cents per month from each service member," the historian said. Congress approved it, but stipulated that no taxpayer's money would be involved.
"And until this day, nearly 150 years later, there has never been a penny of taxpayers' money to support this home," Woods pointed out. "The home is self-supporting by the military and the residents, who pay 40 percent of their income. All fines and forfeitures from the Army, and later the Air Force, help support the home."
By 1858 several buildings had been built around the former Riggs mansion to house retired and disabled soldiers. It has evolved from an "asylum for the old and disabled" to a retirement community for members of all branches of the services.
Anderson Cottage is about 315 feet above sea level, whereas the White House is only about 33 feet above sea level, Woods noted. "Being about the highest ground in Washington, there was always a cool breeze up this way," he said.