Though Arlington Cemetery is the nation’s most famous burial, ground, it was not the first National Cemetery. That distinction lies with the U.S Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Named after the adjacent Armed Forces Retirement Home — which has been known throughout its 160 years of operation as the Military Asylum, Soldiers’ Home, and U.S Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, prior to its current name — the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery was dedicated after the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 18161. The cemetery eventually grew to contain close to 8,000 graves of Union soldiers. In 1864, the cemetery reached its temporary capacity, so burials of Union war dead continued across the Potomac River in what is now Arlington National Cemetery. Today, there are a total of about 14,000 graves, of which 5,200 or so are Civil War casualties. (The remaining 2,800 original Union soldiers buried have been disinterred and reburied across America, mostly in the home states of the deceased.)
The site’s relationship to Abraham Lincoln, however, is what makes this site unique. During the Civil War, President Lincoln and his family moved to the Soldiers’ Home for the summer, to escape the hot, noisy atmosphere of downtown Washington near the White House. Living in a 34-room cottage in 1862, 1863 and 1864, Lincoln spent a total of 13 months of his presidency at the Home, commuting every day to the White House. While in residence, Lincoln crafted the Emancipation Proclamation, first announcing it in September 1862.
When the First Family moved to what was then the countryside in June 1862, they were still grieving the loss of their third child, Willie, who had died the previous February, and sought solace in the bucolic Soldiers’ Home . “When we are sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us,” Mary Lincoln wrote just before the move. As they settled in that summer, and the next two summers, they became quite fond of their retreat three miles north of the White House. Four months after Lincoln’s Assassination, with Mary unable to return to the Soldiers’ Home as an ex-First Lady, she reminisced, “How dearly I loved the Soldiers’ Home.”
Yet, although the Lincoln family found some degree of refugee in the cool breezes of the Soldiers’ Home, President Lincoln could not escape the war from his sanctuary. From his cottage, he could look out his window and see very plainly the human cost of the war, as dozens of burials took place daily in the Soldiers’ Home Cemetery just a few hundred yards away. As historian Matt Pinsker wrote in his definitive account of Lincoln’s time at the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln’s Sanctuary, “even while attempting to escape from their private grief and the national crisis, the Lincolns still found themselves surrounded by the somber echoes of war.”
Rebecca Pomroy, a nurse who worked in Washington, DC during the Civil War, described how these “somber echoes of war” brought powerful emotions to those who visited or lived near the cemetery. In October of 1863, she wrote, “I have often visited the spot, and could never help shedding tears for the dear ones at home, some of whom, perhaps, may never know where father, husband, or brother are laid, for in passing along I have often observed on the walnut slabs that mark these graves, this inscription, Unknown.” In an earlier letter, Pomroy described the Cemetery as “a more sorrowful sight I have never seen.”
Though Lincoln never explicitly wrote about the cemetery like Pomroy, he was known to walk among the graves at times in deep reflection. Lincoln was no stranger to personal loss. He had lost two sons by the summer of 1862 from illness and two of his good friends, Colonel Elmer Ellsworth and Senator Edward Baker had both died earlier in the war. While he did not personally know those buried in the cemetery, his mind must have returned to memories of his dear friends and family long gone as he walked among the newly tendered graves.
The cemetery also had an effect on the soldiers who guarded the grounds and protected Lincoln while staying at the Soldiers’ Home. One soldier was Private Willard Cutter of Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, the unit assigned as Lincoln’s personal guard. In a letter to his brother dated September 16, 1862, he describes the cemetery, writing, “There is a grave yard less than one hundred yards from the Co.[company] Camp where two thousand Pennsylvanians are buried[;] there was forty 2 one Saturday and Thirty one yesterday all died in the hospital…” Although the claim of 2,000 Pennsylvanian graves is an overestimate, this quote nevertheless reveals the omnipresence of the effect the burials had on those nearby. President Lincoln could view the burials take place as well. As Commander-in-Chief, seeing the young men he had called to serve buried in the ground must have weighed heavily on his mind.
Since the Civil War, the cemetery has expanded and contains the graves of many American military veterans such as Buffalo Soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor, and distinguished Civil War generals Henry Hunt and John Logan. Even today, veterans are still buried at the cemetery. This final resting place for those who served symbolizes the sacrifices of generations of armed service members. Like Lincoln, visitors today can reflect and find meaning walking over the same grounds and reading the same headstones that Lincoln did 150 years ago.
Unfortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, there is not that much written about Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. As part of its Civil War Sesquicentennial celebration, the National Park Service created a database of the 116 Civil War era national cemeteries scattered throughout the country, and the USSAH National Cemetery is one of the entries. However, “Lincoln” does not appear once on the page, nor does “emancipation.” Hopefully this website helps fill the knowledge gap on the cemetery.