By Erin Carlson Mast
Memorial Day is a time to gather with friends and family, and to remember our fellow citizens, past and present, who served this country through military service. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we know we’ll have a great weekend with some good weather, and visitors anxious to learn about Lincoln’s presidency, his time at the Soldiers’ Home, and how his time here may have influenced some of his policies throughout the Civil War.
What was Lincoln doing on May 23rd, 24th, and 25th during his presidency? And how does it relate to his time at the Soldiers’ Home? To find out, I looked at one of my favorite resources: Lincoln Day by Day.
On May 23, 1860, Lincoln accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States. To read the letter, you may link to the entry in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. This milestone is significant to Lincoln’s presidency and the Civil War. Many of the succeeding milestones of Lincoln’s presidency and the war (including the development of the Emancipation Proclamation) occured during the 14 months Lincoln lived in the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.
On May 24, 1861, Lincoln openly wept over the death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, a young friend of the Lincolns who was one of the first men killed in the Civil War. Ellsworth was fatally shot after removing the Confederate flag flying atop a building in Alexandria, VA, just one day after Virginia officially voted to join the Confederacy. That evening Lincoln arranged to have Ellsworth’s body brought to the White House for the funeral. The war lead to deep, personal loss for both of the Lincolns, as well as a division in Mary’s own family between those fighting for the Union cause and those fighting for the Confederacy. Adding to the drama of 24-year-old Ellsworth’s death is the fact that the man who shot him, James T. Jackson, was the brother of Dr. John Jackson, a physician from Mary Lincoln’s home town of Lexington, KY. While living in the Cottage, the Lincolns regularly saw soldier burials in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, the first national cemetery and predecessor of Arlington.
On May 25, 1862, Lincoln presses General George B. McClellan to either attack Richmond, or to return to the defense of Washington, D.C. To read the telegram, you may link to the entry in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Two months before, in March of 1862, Lincoln had stripped McClellan of the General-in-Chief title, leaving him with command of the Army of the Potomac. Throughout the early years of his presidency, Lincoln struggled to find leadership for the Union army who would fight the war as he believed it had to be fought, a struggle that plagued him many of the nights he spent at the Soldiers’ Home.
I hope you all have a happy and safe Memorial Day holiday weekend, and that you each take a moment to reflect on our shared history, the Civil War, and the impact of that war on individuals, country, and history.