In the spirit of continuing to discover Washington, we visited Lincoln’s Cottage which is located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in the Upper North-west quadrant of the city. Lincoln was not the only president to stay here in the summer months, but he particularly liked it and during the Civil War, he commuted back and forth to the White House every day. “How long would it have taken him to get to the White House?” A question from a member of our group. Answer; On horseback in the 1860s it would have taken him 30 minutes. Hah! These days it would take you an hour by car at rush hour. So much for progress.
The cottage was built in 1843 by George Riggs of Riggs Bank – a bank used by presidents, senators, generals and foreign embassies, a bank that funded the Mexican-American war, a bank that funded the purchase of Alaska, a bank that became caught up in many scandales involving more than a few global personages with a couple of grubby shillings to rub together, including the late, unlamented Chilean dictator Pinochet and the ruling family of Equatorial Guinea who use the country’s oil revenue like a private income source. When accounts were opened for two of the 9/11 Saudi hijackers by another Saudi whose wife later received considerable sums of dosh from the wife of the then Saudi ambassador, everyone in US law enforcement of any stripe got a tad exercised, so much so in fact that Riggs is no longer a bank and one of its old digs was turned into a Marriott Courtyard hotel. It will soon become a sexy new European hotel called Riggs Washington D.C. which I’d say is redemption of a sort…..
But back to Lincoln’s cottage – a 34 roomed house – which you can only visit as part of a tour, though I found the museum nearby, where you can wander at will, to be more interesting. The entity that runs the cottage is a 501(c) 3 public charity that does not receive federal funding and when they took it over they decided to leave it as it was – empty – and develop a tour where visitors would listen to the words of Lincoln on speakers, as they move through the house along with the guide, as opposed to shunting the crowds through a house filled with era-appropriate furnishings. My own feeling is that a stick or two of furniture dotted about the place would not go amiss.
Our guide who is a history major, did provide lots of Lincolniana; one story involved Lincoln’s embroidered slippers, which are now in the museum. Lincoln had a reputation for being accessible and when a passel of Englishmen showed up on his doorstep one evening – unannounced and at the height of the Civil War – they were courteously shown into the drawing room. Shortly thereafter Lincoln appeared through the double doors from the library wearing his slippers and sat down for a cordial chat. They were apparently rather surprised at this although it was not entirely clear if they were surprised that he bothered to show up to talk to them at all, or that he wasn’t properly shod for the meet and greet.
The other story concerned a general coming to his house one evening to ask him for help in finding his wife who had drowned when the boat she was on sank in the Potomac. Lincoln told him to take it up with Seward, his Secretary of State. The general said he had already done so and been rebuffed and as a last resort was coming to Lincoln. Lincoln got a shade snippy at this and said he was not about to overrule his secretary of State and hell’s teeth, man – he couldn’t be responsible for everything. (I am making up the bit about hell’s teeth but you get the drift…..) The next morning however, Lincoln had a change of heart, called Seward and told him to do the necessary to find the people who had gone down with the ship, then called the general to apologize for his gruff tone of the night before and begged the man not to tell his children how unfeeling he had been. I use photos as aide-memoires but as you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the house – I can’t think why as there is nothing there – that’s all I remember.
As far back as 1827 a home was proposed for retired soldiers, but although there was support for it nothing actually happened until 1851, when Congress finally passed a bill sponsored by none other than Jefferson Davis – which just goes to show that inertia on the part of Congress is not new. That same year George Riggs sold his cottage and the land around it to the government, which finally built a home for retired soldiers.
In 1847 General Winfield Scott, who was a supporter of the scheme, received a large sum of cash from the Mexican government as thanks – if that’s the word – for having not pillaged Mexico City. After paying off spies and buying shoes and things for his men, he banked $100,000 with the intention of donating it for the eventual home for retired soldiers. The Secretary of State was outraged by this particular pillage as he saw it, and sued to have it sent to Treasury. He lost and the money went towards funding the soldiers’ home.
The Sherman Building, completed in 1890, is grandiloquent with a distinctive castellated clock tower and an air of the Southern Gothic about it, whereas the Romanesque Grant Building is elegantly arched, though it was originally built as a barracks. The modern building opposite Sherman tower, named for General Scott, now houses the retirees.
Aside from Lincoln’s slippers, the museum has a lot of information about immigration that is particularly apt given the times we are living in. In 1860, the foreign born population of the United States was 13% – the same as it is today – and stereotyping was every bit as rife as it is today. The haughty WASPS forgot they had once been immigrants themselves and had a collective hissy when Catholics from Europe began showing up, and denigrated them as violent and backward. As for the Chinese, they were merely sinister and brought disease. It sounds awfully familiar because racism, alas, is as American as apple pie. Indeed, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans and people of African descent were not even eligible for citizenship until the passing of the 14th amendment in 1868, while women were so non-existent that they could only obtain citizenship through their spouse. A congeries of early deplorables formed a society whose members came to be known as the Know-Nothings because at first they were self-aware enough to know their views were repugnant and they did not want people to know who they were. But by 1854 they had thrown caution to the wind and exposed themselves, as it were. They whipped up the mob by instilling fear and resentment of immigrants and although they ultimately never amounted to much, their offensive legacy lives on in a certain segment of the populace today.