My husband and I played tourist today, visiting “Lincoln’s Summer Cottage” in northwest DC. This is actually a lovely home on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Rest, a site about 3 miles north of the White House.
It has been privately restored, and is available for guided tour, about an hour in length. There were only 4 people on our tour, and the guide had plenty to say. The rooms of the home are not furnished, surprisingly, just bare walls and bare floor, but with some interesting use of visual and auditory media. There was a great statue of Lincoln, perfect for a photo-op.
OK, enough of the Travelogue-y stuff. Here’s why the site has so much resonance for me.
President Lincoln spent three summers living at this home (1862, ’63, ’64), traveling each day by horseback to the White House. The cottage was an escape from the heat and stench of the still-marshy area in front of the capital building (which was still under construction). But he was hardly away from the war, as there were soldiers camped all over the Soldiers’ Rest property. Each day as he commuted, Lincoln passed wounded soldiers who were being transported to Soldiers’ Rest for medical care.
He always stopped and talked to the men directly, eager to hear from the front lines, literally. This was how he followed the progress of the war. With a city full of soldiers, and the Confederates nearby in Alexandria, there was no escaping this war, had he wanted to.
But what struck me was this: behind the cottage at Soldiers’ Rest was a cemetery for soldiers. There were 30 or more burials there each day, without ceremony. Lincoln often wandered among the graves in the evening, and they say he quoted scripture or Shakespeare as he walked.
I also liked hearing about Lincoln’s daily commute to the White House. On horseback it took about 35 minutes, the same length of time it takes now via car. Lincoln resisted having anyone accompany him, preferring the quiet time to think. Oh, I prize a president who values time to think! Heavy on Lincoln’s mind was the subject of emancipation. I also found it touching that Walt Whitman lived along the commute route, and he and the president were face to face each day, nodding at each other in passing.
As soon as I got home I had to look up the words to O Captain, My Captain! I would put them here for your pleasure, but I have one more thing to say.
After the tour, Doug asked the guide which works of Shakespeare Lincoln most often read and quoted. The guide answered readily: Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II. That led to a bit of conversation about the language of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which must be one of the most beautiful passages in the English language.
I commented: “It’s wonderful to think of having an orator in the White House again. It lifts up the value of language.”
The guide said, “People ask me what I think Lincoln would say about the election of Senator Obama.”
“Surely he would weep with joy,” I said.
The guide said, “I think Lincoln would see it as the fulfillment of the last part of that second inaugural, where he says ‘let us strive on to finish the work we are in.‘ This election was all about finishing some of that work.”
Indeed. So, while I’m on the subject, here is the ending of that great speech:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.