“Surrounded by the Somber Echoes of War”

A modern day artist's rendering of Lincoln visiting the Soldiers' Home Cemetery. (Courtesy President Lincoln's Cottage).

A modern rendering of Lincoln reciting poetry at the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery (Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage).

In the fall of 1864, a California woman visited Washington, D.C. As part of her tour, she visited the Soldiers’ Home, a retirement home for veterans “situated on a beautifully wooded hill, which you ascend by a winding path, shaded on both sides by wide-spread branches, forming a green arcade above you,” she recalled in May 1865. While there, she and her companion visited the national cemetery that had been created three years prior. Yet they were not alone. “While we stood in the soft evening air, watching the faint trembling of the long tendrils of waving willow, and feeling the dewy coolness that was flung out by the old oaks above us, Mr. Lincoln joined us, and stood silent, too, taking in the scene: ‘How sleep the brave, who sink to rest /By all their country’s wishes blest,’ he said, softly.”

Lincoln’s presence moved the California woman. “There was something so touching in the picture opened before us,–the nameless graves, the solemn quiet, the tender twilight air, but more particularly our own feminine disposition to be easily melted, I suppose,–that it made us cry as if we stood beside the tomb of our own dead, and gave point to the lines which he afterwards quoted: ‘And women o’er the graves shall weep/Where nameless heroes calmly sleep.'”

This recollection, published anonymously in the San Francisco Bulletin just a month after Lincoln’s assassination, shows an extremely tender side of the President. It shows a President that had been emotionally battered by the Civil War, then in its fourth year. Specifically, it shows the enormous impact the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery had on Abraham Lincoln.

The Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, created in 1861, is the nation’s oldest national cemetery, and over the course of the Civil War 8,000 soldiers were buried there. Living in a cottage adjacent to the cemetery during the summer and fall of 1862, 1863 and 1864, Abraham Lincoln viewed burials taking place by looking out his window, the cost of war ever apparent. In fact, the burials peaked between August and December of 1862, when Lincoln drafted and released the Emancipation Proclamation while living at the Soldiers’ Home. Clearly he could not escape the human cost of the war as he was contemplating human freedom. As one visitor to the cemetery remarked, she felt “surrounded by the somber echoes of war.”

Despite this crucial location’s relationship to Lincoln’s presidency, material written about the cemetery remains sparse, especially Lincoln’s relationship to the site. This website fills that knowledge gap. We’ve organized it into three main sections:

This site would not be possible without the work of a history class from Washington Court House, Ohio taught by Mr. Paul LaRue. Mr. LaRue’s class compiled a database of all Civil War burials in the cemetery that remain in the 21st century. We’ve used that database to reach some conclusions about the cemetery, and it was especially helpful in creating the graphs of the burials. To thank him for the role he played in that project, we interviewed him for this project. In addition, you can also find an FAQ about the cemetery.

Today, the cemetery serves as an educational and interpretive tool for those wishing to learn more about the human cost of the Civil War and for those interested in remembering the Civil War and past military dead. President Lincoln’s Cottage, a private non-profit, maintains stewardship over the house the Lincolns lived in while at the Soldiers’ Home. Visitors to this historic site leave with a much better understanding of the struggles Lincoln faced as President. Though adjacent to the cemetery grounds, the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery — today called the U.S. Soldiers’  and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery — is not part of the standard tour. Instead, the Cottage experience can be augmented with a visit to the cemetery, and we hope this site will serve as a complementary resource to those visits.

Please feel free to comment under each section of our webpage with comments, questions, or concerns. We view this site as an evolving website, which can change and adapt as we continue our interpretation and research on Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery.

One thought on ““Surrounded by the Somber Echoes of War”

  1. I was reading from F. B. Carpenter’s book “The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln, Six Months at the White House” (p. 224) the two poetry quotes by Lincoln to the women at the Soldiers’ Home cemetery and wanted to know who was the poet and the name of the poem from which Lincoln quoted. I was able to find the first two lines with a Google book search: “How Sleep the Brave” by William Collins (1746). But a search for the second two lines which Lincoln “afterwards quoted” — “And women o’er the graves shall weep, Where nameless heroes calmly sleep.” – I could not find either the name of the poet or the poem.

    Is it possible that Lincoln himself became the anonymous poet in that moment, in that place, in the fall of 1864?

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