"My thoughts, my solicitude for this great country follow me where ever I go."
-- Abraham Lincoln, August 19, 1864
The soldiers, generals, cabinet members, politicians, aides, friends, foreign visitors, and curious onlookers who met President Lincoln here at the Soldiers' Home witnessed him grappling with momentous issues. Here he confronted the devastating and drawn-out war, the question of emancipation, and his contentious campaign for reelection in 1864.
But here he also indulged his love of storytelling and reading Shakespeare, the Bible, or the light works of contemporary humorists. Here he chatted with the soldiers who guarded him and the Soldiers' Home, took leisurely carriage rides with his wife, and played games with his youngest son. Reminders of the war were everywhere, especially in the newly dug graves visible from the cottage, but here the president also found lighter moments.
The president enjoyed inviting guests to his "retreat" for relaxing social gatherings as well as politically discreet consultations away from White House scrutiny. Senator Orville Browning, a Republican from Illinois and a family friend of the Lincolns, notes in his diary many meetings in 1862 at the Soldiers' Home with social acquaintances, business leaders, and political figures.
Lincoln's fondness for spending time at the Soldiers' Home may have reflected his lifelong desire to talk with and listen to ordinary people. When he encountered wounded soldiers on his commute to the White House and on visits to military hospitals, he could gauge the course of the war at the front, directly from those fighting it. By expressing his genuine interest in the views of his friends and opponents, Lincoln was often able to win over skeptics. But his accessibility also left him vulnerable to "seekers" who pursued him even in his Soldiers' Home parlor.
Until 1862, the public could come and go freely on the Soldiers' Home grounds, but following the Union retreat after the second battle at Bull Run, a security detail was ordered for the president, and guards were assigned to control access to the area around the president's cottage at the Soldiers' Home. Even Secretary of War Stanton's family had to have a pass.
The Stanton family also occupied a cottage here, at the invitation of the Soldiers' Home commissioners. Once a rival, Stanton became one of Lincoln's closest confidants. Both were also attentive fathers: Stanton indulged Tad almost as much as Lincoln did.
"When only one or two were present, he was fond of reading aloud. He passed many of the summer evenings in this way when occupying his cottage at the Soldiers' Home. He would there read from Shakspere [sic] for hours with a single secretary for audience."
-- Lincoln's secretary John Hay on the president's pastimes, 1890