By Erin Carlson Mast
President Lincoln’s Cottage was declared a National Monument in 2000 in recognition of Lincoln’s time there and the important decisions he made regarding emancipation and the war, but Lincoln was not the only President to spend time at the Soldiers’ Home.
Four presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, are believed to have lived at the Soldiers’ Home while in office. Research confirms that President James Buchanan lived in a house at the Soldiers’ Home during part of his presidency, though the research indicates he stayed at Quarters 1 (also known as “House No.1”). After Lincoln, Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur also lived at the Soldiers’ Home, and like Lincoln, they lived in the Cottage.
There is, however, one other president who may have lived at the Soldiers’ Home, President James A. Garfield. The record is clear that Garfield intended to make the move, but it seems fate had other plans.
The Soldiers’ Home Board Meeting Minutes of April 1881 indicate Garfield accepted their offer to reside at the Soldiers’ Home for the hot season. On May 12, 1881, the Washington Post ran an article titled, “Mrs. Garfield’s Health.” After reporting on Mrs. Garfield’s physical well being (reportedly a case of malaria), the article lists problems with the White House sewage, ventilation, and other issues before closing with the advice “…the President ought to lose no time in removing his family to the invigorating heights and air of the Soldiers’ Home.” A few weeks later, the Postreported that the house at the Soldiers’ Home had been thoroughly renovated for the President and First Lady’s impending arrival and it was thought that, “Mrs. Garfield would be sufficiently recovered to be removed there by Thursday next.” The President was shot on July 2, 1881 and died on September 18, 1881, unable to fully recuperate from the attack. The research indicates the Garfields never made the move to the Soldiers’ Home, but they still managed to enjoy the grounds.
Thanks to research shared some time ago by Ms. Deborah Weinkamer, a Living Historian who interprets* Lucretia Garfield in connection with the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, we have magnificent details from the president’s and first lady’s diaries about their experiences at the Soldiers’ Home. The Garfields rode out to the Soldiers’ Home on a number of occasions to enjoy the grounds or inspect the house they were meant to occupy for the hot season, as in this entry from James A. Garfield dated March 24th, 1881.
Thursday, 24. …I closed the doors at one P.M. and did not see the general public after that hour. At four P.M. Gen. Swaim , Crete and I drove to the Soldiers’ Home and examined the house in which the President and his family spend the summer.
And this entry from President Garfield’s daughter, Mollie, in July 1881.
Saturday, July 30.  …We staid there [Mount Vernon] until 1 o’clock & came back home. When we got to W. [Washington] we all rode out to the Soldiers’ Home & spent a delightful evening, reaching home about 9 P.M. Oh, I have had just what I call a jolly good time. But I fear I won’t get to sleep because I drank coffee.
Download the pdf transcription of Garfield family diary entries related to the Soldiers’ Home here: President Garfield at the Soldiers’ Home
Special thanks to Ms. Weinkamer for sharing her research.
[*Update, 9/9/2009: Ms. Weinkamer was affiliated with the James A. Garfield National Historic Site from 1998-2004. Weinkamer and Ed Haney continue to portray the Garfields on a free-lance basis and are docents at the replica Garfield cabin at his birth site in Moreland Hills, Ohio.]