Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home by Matthew Pinsker
After the heartbreaking death of his son Willie, Abraham Lincoln and his family fled the gloom that hung over the White House, moving into a small cottage in Washington, D.C., on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a residence for disabled military veterans. In Lincoln’s Sanctuary, historian Matthew Pinsker offers a fascinating portrait of Lincoln’s stay in this cottage and tells the story of the president’s remarkable growth as a national leader and a private man.
Lincoln lived at the Soldiers’ Home for a quarter of his presidency, and for nearly half of the critical year of 1862, but most Americans (including many scholars) have not heard of the place. Indeed, this is the first volume to specifically connect this early “summer White House” to key wartime developments, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the firing of McClellan, the evolution of Lincoln’s “Father Abraham” image, the election of 1864, and the assassination conspiracy. Through a series of striking vignettes, the reader discovers a more accessible Lincoln, demonstrating what one visitor to the Soldiers’ Home described as his remarkable “elasticity of spirits.” At his secluded cottage, the president complained to his closest aides, recited poetry to his friends, reconnected with his wife and family, conducted secret meetings with his political enemies, and narrowly avoided assassination attempts. Perhaps most important, he forged key friendships that helped renew his flagging spirits. The cottage became a refuge from the pressures of the White House, a place of tranquility where Lincoln could refresh his mind.
I cannot count how many books on Abraham Lincoln I have come across in my history studies… Lincoln’s life and death…Lincoln the fearless commander-in-chief… Lincoln the godly leader…old, honest Abe. Matthew Pinkser introduced me to a new side of a Lincoln I have not been in touch with before…Lincoln, the man. Pinsker take a unique approach compared to previous histories on Lincoln by looking at his time spent in a little known cottage in Washington, DC just a few miles from the White House, Soldiers’ Home. Many people (myself included prior to this reading) did not know Lincoln spent his summers sleeping away from the White House in this cottage on top of a hill overlooking the city, surrounded by veterans and soldiers. It was in this cottage, his “sanctuary,” where he could find his brief escape, and it was in this cottage and his trips back and forth between the White House and the cottage where it was believed one of his greatest accomplishments, the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation, came to be influenced.
As I began Lincoln’s Sanctuary, I was a little hesitant assuming it would be like previous Lincoln books I have read. However, I soon found the author gave a revealing insight to Lincoln’s character from letters and other commentaries left behind that I had not previously come across. This reveal of a wartime-strewn president was a valuable look not commonly seen at one of our nation’s presidents. For example, Pinsker touched on “Lincoln’s down-to-earth qualities” as he inspected the animals on property and conversed with the others soldiers. (153) Being at Soldiers’ Home brought Lincoln together closer with the troops during wartime. He could hear their stories and find a fraternal comfort in their camaraderie and close quarters. (81-83) There were rare insights on many of Lincoln’s actions during the war, as well as events and emotions experienced at Soldiers’ Home. Pinkser also touched more on the family than I have typically found in other Lincoln biographies… particularly more on Mrs. Lincoln, Tad and Robert.
There did seem to be some assumptions made on the president’s thoughts and actions, particularly those directly relating to Soldiers’ Home experiences. The book did not convince me some of the actions taken by Lincoln may have related directly to the home. For example, Pinkser touched on Lincoln’s possible encounters during his commute between the White House and Soldiers’ Home with African Americans and how these travel encounters may have given him a “richer appreciation for the human rights and aspirations of African Americans” and influenced his writing of the Emancipation Proclamation. (66) While this may be true and his travels from Soldiers’ Home may have had an influence on his writings, I was not fully convinced of their impact and wanted even more background of possible other contributors.
Pinsker revealed a different side of war. One seen more from Lincoln’s encounters and stories passed from generals and others that took place during his time in Soldiers’ Home. The focus of his book was around the significance Soldiers’ Home may have had on Lincoln’s decisions and actions during his presidency, as well as in his personal life with his marriage, to name one example. Pinkser also sought to disprove some previously assumed facts by using personal sources and in depth research from individuals throughout, including Walt Whitman and others. After reading the book, I had the privilege of visiting Soldiers’ Home and tour the house. Being in the house, I could feel that peace… that escape from the city life. I instantly felt relaxed away from the constant bustle of downtown DC. The book was a wonderful compliment to the house tour experience and introduced me to a place I did not even know existed despite living in the Washington, DC area. I recommend reading this book for a new approach and understanding of the Civil War and the wartime president.