"We are truly delighted with this retreat. The drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day brings its visitors."
-- Mary Todd Lincoln, July 26, 1862
Abraham Lincoln first rode out to see the Soldiers' Home a few days after his inauguration on March 4, 1861. Soon, a local newspaper reported that he and his family planned to summer at the Soldiers' Home. The outbreak of civil war and the unexpected Union defeat at Bull Run kept the commander in chief preoccupied in the White House the rest of 1861 -- but during the warmer months of the next three years, the president commuted to the White House from the Soldiers' Home.
Lincoln made the Soldiers' Home his home for a total of thirteen months, roughly a quarter of his presidency. He was last seen riding the grounds in the afternoon of April 13, 1863, just one day before he was assassinated.
By the time the Lincolns came to the Soldiers' Home in June 1862, their beloved son Willie had died. Four months earlier, he had succumbed to typhoid fever, probably from polluted drinking water. With thousands of Union troops encamped along the Potomac's banks, sewage fouled the river, which supplied water to the White House. Three miles to the north, the Soldiers' Home occupied the third highest spot in the capital. Its breezes offered a respite away from the unsanitary conditions and sweltering weather of the low-lying city.
Ironically, a child's death had touched the Soldiers' Home before. The banker George W Riggs Jr had built the fashionable Gothic Revival cottage for his family on his country estate in 1842. Saddened by the death of his two-year-old daughter, he sold the property to the government in 1851.
The White House, with presidential offices just down the hall from "private" rooms, offered little privacy. Even at the Soldiers' Home, government business intruded. To relax, Mary traveled often, taking Tad with her. She attended social gatherings, shopped, visited her son Robert, and wrote home frequently.
Robert Todd Lincoln (1843-1926): Robert rarely came to the Soldiers' Home because he was a student at Harvard until 1864. He wished to enlist in the Union army, despite his mother's terror of losing another son. Finally, his father asked for General Grant's help. Grant made Robert a captain but kept him out of danger.
William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln (1850-1862): Abraham Lincoln was a doting father who indulged his youngest sons, allowing them to roughhouse in his office. He was especially fond of eleven-year-old Willie, who he apparently felt was much like him.
Thomas "Tad" Lincoln (1853-1871): Only nine when the Lincolns first arrived at the Soldiers' Home, and lonely without his brother and favorite playmate, Tad spent much of his time with the Soldiers' Home troops. They affectionately dubbed him "3rd Lieutenant Lincoln" and welcomed him to share their meals.