Tucked in a pleasant wooded area just a 10-minute drive north from the center of DC is President Lincoln’s Cottage, the place where our 16th President spent more than a quarter of his Presidency and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. The house is a veritable shrine to Lincoln and the Civil War, and is self-dubbed “the most significant historic site directly associated with Lincoln’s presidency aside from the White House.” The site was designated as a National Monument in 2000, yet only opened to the public in 2008.
The cottage—that’s a term used lightly, it’s actually a nicely-sized house—is on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home, a fully-functioning retirement home devoted to career veterans. The veterans’ home has existed since 1851, long before the location gained fame for housing brooding presidents. In fact, presidents were invited to stay at the cottage in order to build political support for the struggling retirement home. Presidents Buchanan, Hayes, and Arthur also all stayed for some period on the grounds.
President Lincoln and his family lived in the cottage during the summers of 1862-1864 as a respite from the hot weather of DC, but the President would commute the three miles to the White House every day. I was tickled by how our tour guide referred to his journey as “though the wilderness,” back in the day when there was no such thing as Petworth and the city ended at W Street!
The Visitor Education Center is your first stop on the tour, the second and only other stop being the cottage itself. The education center is filled with information about Lincoln, the prelude to the Civil War, and the war itself. It is a fancily-curated visitor’s center, with touch screens and videos and other technological gadgets that are sure to keep you engaged and informed prior to the tour.
One of my favorite aspects of President Lincoln’s Cottage is the exhibits devoted to the history of Washington, DC during the Civil War. I guess I hadn’t realized that the war happened here, right in our midst, with forts surrounding the city outskirts, wounded soldiers in makeshift hospitals, and tens of thousands of freed slaves lending a hand to the war effort. The city was only about 60 years old at the time of the war, and the exhibits did a great job of explaining how frightening it was that such a young capital city came under such intense threats.
After spending time in the education center you set out on the guided tour of the cottage. Because it only opened to the public a few years ago, the house itself is still being remodeled and refurbished. It’s nothing like other grand, furnished DC homes such as the Brewmaster’s Castle and Woodrow Wilson’s house, but it’s only going to get better over the next few years as more money is raised for preservation. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent experience to be in the same hallowed space that Lincoln lived and worked.
Washington, DC is filled with historic sites and homages to our famous politicos, but President Lincoln’s Cottage feels different for some reason. Perhaps it’s that when the breeze blows just the right way up on the hill, you can begin to feel the magnitude of the decisions the President had to make at this location. Whatever it is, it’s well worth a visit, and you’ll come away feeling a new appreciation for Lincoln and the tragedy of the Civil War.
To visit: 140 Rock Creek Church Road NW, 202-829-0436. Open Monday-Saturday 9:30am-4:30pm and Sunday 11:30am-5:30pm, tours almost every hour. H8 bus will stop at the gate. Adults $12 tickets, some discounts apply.