Archive for February 15th, 2008

Lincoln’s Refuge

Friday, February 15th, 2008

On a hilltop outside of Washington D.C., stands a gothic revival “cottage” (34 rooms is a bit more than a cottage, but that’s what they called it at the time) in which Abraham and Mrs. Lincoln spent 13 months during the course of his presidency, including the night before his assassination.

The cottage was part of a soldier’s home complex which, sadly, shifted from retired soldiers to active ones by the time Lincoln got there. opened to the viewing public yesterday.

It’s little known despite the notable amount of time Lincoln spent there, and has only recently been restored by the private National Trust for Historic Preservation. They took an usual approach in that they kept it quite bare bones. They didn’t try to recreate it as it would have looked to the president, packed with furniture and whatnot. They’re going for atmosphere, for creating a feeling for Lincoln and the issues he was surrounded by in that house.

Then, because this is not a home filled with objects but a home with conceptual and biographical significance, it is treated as a kind of empty frame. The only way to see the cottage is as part of an hourlong 15-member group tour, with a guide explaining the issues that faced Lincoln during the crucial three summers that he lived here, from 1862 to 1864, while also sketching something about his character. Integrated into the tour are videos and re-creations of dialogue from documentary accounts.

In one room, for example, a single rocking chair is next to a small table. The guide sets up a scene based on an 1862 eyewitness report. Lincoln sits here, we are told, exhausted — overwhelmed by slavery debates, the war’s casualties and incessant demands — at the end of a day that offered little hope. An injured Union officer suddenly arrives, beseeching the president to help him recover his wife’s body — she died in a steamer collision — from a region closed off by the army. We hear Lincoln’s frustrated, angry voice: “Am I to have no rest? Is there no harbor or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office?”

It is a bit shocking. The sounds of impatience and frustration are unexpected, even if not unjustified; they undercut the reverent aura. Then we learn that the next morning Lincoln sought the man in his hotel, apologized, set the bureaucratic wheels in motion and asked him not to ever tell his children about the president’s shameful behavior.

I’ll be honest, it brings a lump to my throat just reading it, much more than bunches of furniture and paintings and documents under plexi would. This is definitely on my must-see list.

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