The venerable home of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln when he ordered the freedom of slaves in the Confederate States rebelling against the Union during the Civil War by declaring in part:

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.

The building where Lincoln conceived and wrote these famous words is now called President Lincoln's Cottage and is located in Washington, D.C. some three miles from the White House. In 1862, 1863 and 1864 from June through November, the cottage served as the home of the Lincoln family and provided President Lincoln with some rest and relaxation that enabled him to firm up his views regarding slavery.

History of the Cottage

Lincoln's Cottage was built in 1843 as the home of banker George Washington Riggs. It is a 34-room Gothic revival style home with many gables and latticed windows that sits on 250 acres atop the third highest point in Washington, D.C. After the land was sold to the U.S. Government in 1851, General Winfield Scott directed that the property be used to build a large central building called the Soldiers' Home where old and disabled U.S. soldiers were brought to live in their retirement. Two smaller houses, including President Lincoln's Cottage, are located nearby the Soldiers' Home and have served as the homes of senior staff caring for the aged and disabled soldiers. President James Buchanan was the first president to use the home later called President Lincoln's Cottage as his summer retreat away from the pressures of the White House.

In 1861 just three days after President Lincoln's inauguration, he took his first horseback ride to the Soldiers' Home to visit the veterans residing there and found that he liked the tranquility of the wooded hilltop grounds. During the first summer of his administration, Lincoln stayed at the White House due to the demands of the presidency at the onset of the Civil War. In May of 1862, the Lincoln family moved into the cottage at the Soldiers' Home to escape the summer heat and humidity of the city below and to distance themselves from the sadness of the White House where their son Willie had died in February of typhoid fever at the age of 11.

Drafting the Emancipation Proclamation

In 1862 during the first summer of his residence at the cottage, President Lincoln formalized his opinion that emancipation of the slaves was in the best interest of the Union. This viewpoint was an evolution from his prior position that although he personally opposed slavery, he believed that southern slaves should be freed gradually with compensation to their owners. In June of 1862 while living at the cottage, Lincoln decided that in order to save the Union all slaves in rebel states should be emancipated in order to encourage them to volunteer for service in the Union Army against their former slaveholders and sympathizers. Lincoln also believed that England and France, who were considering supporting the Confederacy, would not do so if the United States took a position against slavery.

Lincoln began writing his ideas at the cottage while away from his heavy workload at the White House. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln informed his cabinet about his current views on slavery by reading them his first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that called for gradual emancipation. Lincoln was advised to hold off on publishing his Proclamation until the Union won a victory in battle and so kept silent after the disaster at the Battle of Bull Run. He worked on his document at the cottage throughout the summer and finished a second draft. After the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln read this new version to his cabinet calling for the immediate freedom of slaves in states that had seceded from the Union. It was published as an Executive Order on September 22, 1862 and became effective January 1, 1863 when the Confederate States did not restore themselves to the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation initially freed only a small percent of the slaves behind Union lines in areas that were not exempted. Eventually as the Union Army took more and more territory from the South, those numbers multiplied. It also enabled some 200,000 blacks to join the Union Army, which helped turn the tide of war. Internationally, the Emancipation Proclamation realized its intended outcome in changing popular opinion in favor of the Union and stopping the South from gaining official recognition by European nations.

Lincoln's Life at the Cottage

President Lincoln's Cottage parlor was an active place while his family was in residence with hundreds of people visiting them including Lincoln's favorite poets and dramatists. The cottage adjacent to Lincoln's was used by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as his summer residence and occasionally he would commute with the President to the White House. Mary Lincoln loved the summer home where she could escape the far more public White House and could live with her family in a more tranquil setting.

President Lincoln commuted each day after breakfast by carriage or on his horse Old Abe from the cottage to the White House and in the evening returned to the cottage. Initially, Lincoln made the trek alone but later at the insistence of Secretary of War Stanton, Lincoln was given a military escort of 25 to 30 cavalrymen to protect him from being kidnapped or assassinated. Lincoln objected to being escorted due to the noise and clatter of sabers and spurs of the cavalry and asserted that he couldn't talk to his wife when she accompanied him to the White House in their carriage. As a result, Lincoln did not always cooperate with being guarded and would occasionally venture alone on horseback.

In August 1864, when Lincoln was riding alone from the White House to the cottage, he arrived at the foot of the hill on the road leading to the entrance to the Soldiers' Home and heard a rifle shot from a sniper that he calculated was from some 50 feet away. The shot went through Lincoln's stovetop hat knocking it off of his head. He raced unharmed to the gate at the grounds of the Soldiers' Home where he was met by Private John W. Nichols, who had heard the rifle shot. Lincoln told Nichols that he had been shot at and that it had frightened his horse. The next day Nichols went down the driveway toward the main road and found Lincoln's hat with a bullet hole through the crown and returned it to the President, who told him to keep the matter quiet. The name of the person who fired the shot remains a mystery to this day.

President Lincoln made his last commute from the cottage to the White House and back on April 13, 1865, one day before his assassination at Ford's Theater.

After Lincoln's Death

After Abraham Lincoln's death, the Soldiers' Home has remained as a retirement home for regular U.S. Army and Air Force enlisted personnel, warrant officers, and disabled soldiers and airmen. After the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War, its grounds became the first National Cemetery where it became the final resting place of some 14,000 veterans including 21 Medal of Honor recipients.

President Lincoln's Cottage was used as a summer retreat by Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur. The home was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1973 and was proclaimed a National Monument in 2000 by President Bill Clinton. After extensive restoration, President Lincoln's Cottage was opened to the public in February 2008 as a National Trust site. On the first day of its opening First Lady Laura Bush was in attendance. On display at the cottage visitors' center are a signed copy of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the pen President Lincoln used to sign it. A reproduction of Lincoln's desk on which he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation is in the cottage while the original desk is in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House. Outside of the cottage is a life-size statue of Lincoln standing next to his horse, Old Abe.

Tour Information

President Lincoln's Cottage is open to the public seven days a week except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day and has regular guided tours lasting about one hour. The street address is 140 Rock Creek Church Road, NW, Washington D.C.


Dennis P. Brescoll, a graduate of Wayne State University Law School, is an attorney with the firm Brescoll & Brescoll, PC in Mt. Clemens. He focuses his practice on personal injury cases, employment discrimination, and the Federal Employers' Liability Act.

Published: Fri, Jul 03, 2015