“How Sleep the Brave”

By Erin Carlson Mast

“How sleep the brave, who sink to rest
By all their country’s wishes blest!”

Lincoln recited those lines of poetry by William Collins as he looked over a sea of soldiers’ graves in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, adjacent to the Soldiers’ Home, in 1864.

While Lincoln lived at the Soldiers’ Home, burials of Civil War dead occurred on a daily basis in the National Cemetery, a reminder of the human cost of war in plain view. By the time the Lincolns moved back to the White House in 1863, two weeks before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, thousands of soldiers had been buried in the cemetery.  By the end of Lincoln’s last season living at the Home, the cemetery had reached capacity and the Army broke ground on a new cemetery at Arlington. 

To what extent the site of those fresh graves influenced his wartime policies, writings, or speeches, we may never know.   What is certain is that, in many ways, living at the Soldiers’ Home brought Lincoln closer to the war.

Ms. Erin Mast is the curator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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