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10 Places in Washington to Relive the Civil War
Comments () | Published August 15, 2011

The cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home where President Lincoln finished the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. Photograph of Lincoln Cottage courtesy of Library of Congress

3. President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home
Rock Creek Church Rd. and Upshur St., NW

On summer evenings, Lincoln left the White House and rode, often alone, on horseback up the Seventh Street Turnpike—now Georgia Avenue—to this stucco cottage on the grounds of the federal institution for disabled veterans. Sitting atop a hill four miles from the presidential mansion, the house caught cooling breezes that relieved the seasonal heat. Even more important, it offered a retreat from the agonizing stress and constant lack of privacy that Lincoln endured in his official residence. Each day, dozens of visitors filled the White House corridors awaiting an audience with the President, demanding federal patronage, offering unsolicited—and often crackbrained—advice, or pleading clemency for a son sentenced to die for desertion. Only at the cottage could he find peace and a place to think. He spent about a quarter of his presidency here.

Lincoln grappled with the most important and difficult decision of his life in this house. Although he had always detested slavery, he had long hesitated to endorse—much less decree—abolition, fearing that it would only deepen the fissures that had split the country. But by July 1862, swayed by political pressures as much as by moral ones, he had begun his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. An account of that period records the fact that he gave the second draft its finishing touches at the Soldiers’ Home cottage in September, after news came of the Union victory at Antietam.

The cottage and its role in history were almost forgotten for a century and a half. Now under the stewardship of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it was restored and opened to the public in 2008. This is not a typical house museum—most rooms are austere and almost unfurnished. In one, a table holds a rotating display; at one point it was several 19th-century volumes of Shakespeare, evoking an evening here in August 1863 that Lincoln’s young secretary John Hay described, when the President “read Shakespeare to me, the end of Henry VI and the beginning of Richard III till my heavy eyelids caught his considerate notice and he sent me to bed.”

In a simple bedroom upstairs is a replica of the desk where equally immortal words were penned: “That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, 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...”

One of Washington’s most captivating works of art is this monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts regiment—the subject of the movie Glory—on display at the National Gallery of Art. Photograph courtesy of National Gallery of Art

4. Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment
National Gallery of Art West Building
Sixth St. and Constitution Ave., NW

What may be the nation’s greatest work of public sculpture stands not on the Mall but tucked away in the maze of rooms that hold the National Gallery of Art’s collection of 19th-century American art. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s larger-than-life relief, completed in 1897, pays tribute to the men of the 54th Massachusetts and their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

The 54th—famous in its time and still familiar to many people from the movie Glory—was among the first black units in the Civil War and the first to win renown in battle. In July 1863, the troops staged a bold, doomed assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. Shaw was killed as he stormed the parapet; nearly half his men ended up dead, wounded, or captured.

Saint-Gaudens labored for 14 years after a group of Bostonians commissioned a monument to Shaw in 1884. The masterpiece that he produced is like no other American war memorial. Instead of placing Shaw alone on horseback or depicting his death in battle, Saint-Gaudens situated him with his troops on the day that they paraded through Boston on their way to the battlefront. Each soldier’s face is distinctive and full of character, based on African-Americans who posed for the sculptor at his studio. Together, they compose an eloquent statement about the idea of belonging, of forming a larger whole—whether a military unit or a free society—while preserving individual liberty and dignity.

The final version of the monument, cast in bronze, was installed on Boston Common alongside the street that the 54th marched down on its way to war. It has inspired poems by Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. But DC’s version, although less famous, is more original and more powerful. It is the plaster model, coated in gold and brass leaf, from which the Boston monument was cast. Far more than the metal version, its surfaces convey a sense of the sculptor’s hand at work. For decades it stood deteriorating under an outdoor shelter at Saint-Gaudens’s former house in New Hampshire. It was rescued and restored by the National Gallery more than a decade ago, becoming one of Washington’s most compelling works of art.

Next: Frederick Douglass's Cedar Hill Home

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Posted at 07:00 AM/ET, 08/15/2011 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles