Accessibility links

Breaking News

Lincoln's Cottage: A Visit to a 19th Century Camp David

Lincoln's Cottage: A Visit to a 19th Century Camp David
Lincoln's Cottage: A Visit to a 19th Century Camp David

Click Arrow to Hear This Program:

Play Audio File

Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

STEVE EMBER: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

BARBARA KLEIN: And I'm Barbara Klein. This week on our program, we take you to President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington.


STEVE EMBER: Our story begins on the evening of Wednesday, September seventeenth, eighteen sixty-two.

The Civil War between the Union North and Confederate South is in its second year. The first major battle on Northern territory has just been fought that day a hundred kilometers from Washington. Union troops defeated a rebel invasion in the Battle of Antietam in the state of Maryland.

In all, more than twenty thousand soldiers were killed or wounded. September seventeenth, eighteen sixty-two, becomes the single bloodiest day in American military history.

President Abraham Lincoln is fighting to keep the Southern states of the Confederacy from leaving the Union. But from his office in the White House, he must also attend to his other duties as president of the United States.

BARBARA KLEIN: In summertime, which can get very hot in Washington, President Lincoln used a country house. It was about five kilometers from the White House. Each morning and evening, Lincoln rode between the two houses on horseback, unguarded.

Buildings would give way to farmland as he rode north out of the city. In about thirty minutes, he would arrive at the grounds of the Soldiers' Home.

Just inside the gate was a large house used by the president and his family. This house was on much higher ground than the White House, so the wind kept it cooler. It was also quiet -- a place to think.

STEVE EMBER: On this day we imagine Lincoln climbing the stairs to his study on the second floor. He places his tall black hat on his desk and opens a large window. He feels cooler already. He lights two lamps and sits down at the desk.

An important document that he has been writing, and rewriting, waits for him. He began working on it soon after he became president in eighteen sixty-one.

Lincoln has been thinking long and hard to develop his ideas and capture them in words. What he is writing sounds like it was written by a lawyer. He was, after all, a lawyer in Illinois before he became president. But this is different. It involves the war, the ownership of human beings and the future of the divided nation.

He knows that some people will support it, some will reject it and some will say it changes nothing. It will free the slaves, but only in areas where Lincoln has no power.

BARBARA KLEIN: Slavery was legal in the Confederate States of America -- the South. But it was also legal in several neighboring states that remained loyal to the Union.

Many Americans wanted Lincoln to free all the slaves. Lincoln opposed slavery. But he needed the continued loyalty of those border states, like Maryland and Kentucky, or risk losing the Civil War.

STEVE EMBER: The sixteenth president looks again at what he has written. Lincoln feels that what he is doing will give the war effort new meaning. He feels that in time it will lead to the end of slavery in the United States.

On this day, September seventeenth, he has finished his second draft of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Soon he will share it with his cabinet.


BARBARA KLEIN: Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary version five days later, on September twenty-second, eighteen sixty-two. It declared that slaves would be free anywhere that was still in rebellion on January first, eighteen sixty-three.

The final version of the Emancipation Proclamation came on January first, declaring: " ... all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free ... "

The document would become one of the most important in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation is in the National Archives in Washington, and it can be seen online at

STEVE EMBER: Lincoln was right that it would not be very popular. But he was also right that it would be the first step toward ending slavery in the United States.

The proclamation also welcomed freed slaves to serve in the Union Army and Navy. By the end of the war, more than two hundred thousand blacks had joined the armed services.


BARBARA KLEIN: The Civil War lasted from eighteen sixty-one to eighteen sixty-five. Troops were stationed at the Soldiers' Home to protect President Lincoln during the war. At first he did not welcome them. He did not think he needed their protection. But he began to enjoy talking to them. In fact, much of what historians know about the president's time at the house is from stories told by those soldiers.

One soldier told of guarding the president's house on a day when Lincoln was sitting on the porch with his young son Tad. They were playing a game of checkers. The president asked the solder to put down his rifle and join them.

The young soldier was confused. He was supposed to guard the president, not play a game. But the president was also commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy. The soldier decided he could not refuse the request. He spent the afternoon playing checkers with the president.

STEVE EMBER: Not far from the house was a military hospital. The president would sometimes watch the wagons arriving with soldiers wounded in the war. He would sometimes talk with the soldiers. The man with the long, sad face wanted to hear news about the battles they had been fighting. He said it helped him understand their experiences.


BARBARA KLEIN: Today the house at the Soldiers' Home is known as President Lincoln's Cottage. But Lincoln was not the first president to use it. That was James Buchanan, the president just before him. Later, presidents Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur also used it.

A Washington banker named George Washington Riggs built the house in eighteen forty-two. In eighteen fifty-one, he sold the house and the land around it to the federal government.

The government later expanded the house and used the land to build the Soldiers' Home for veterans. Today it is called the Armed Forces Retirement Home. More than one thousand retired service members live there.

STEVE EMBER: The location of President Lincoln's Cottage has not changed since Lincoln's day. But the city of Washington has. The house is now within the city limits.

Historians have compared it to the modern presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland. They call it a kind of nineteenth century Camp David.

The thirty-four room house opened to the public in February of two thousand eight after fifteen million dollars in work. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has restored the building so it looks as it did when Lincoln and his family lived there.

For example, workers removed more than twenty layers of paint from one room. The paint hid the wooden walls of what was Lincoln's library. Visitors can see lines left by bookshelves on the walls.

BARBARA KLEIN: Guides tell visitors that Lincoln lived at the house for one-fourth of his time as president. He and his family would go to the house in June or early July and stay until early November. They did this in eighteen sixty-two, sixty-three and sixty-four.

Records show that one year, White House workers moved nineteen wagonloads of belongings to the house. These included toys, clothing and furniture.

STEVE EMBER: One night in eighteen sixty-four, President Lincoln survived an assassination attempt. He was alone, returning on horseback from Washington. Someone shot at him. It happened near the house. His tall hat flew off and soldiers found it on the ground with a bullet hole through it. He was not injured.

After that, the War Department increased his protection. But it was not enough to save his life.

Records show that he visited his country house for the last time on April thirteenth, eighteen sixty-five. The next day, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and supporter of the defeated Confederacy, shot President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington.


STEVE EMBER: Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Steve Ember.


And I'm Barbara Klein. Internet users can learn more about President Lincoln's Cottage at For a link, and for transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, go to We hope you can join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.