Mapping the Soldiers’ Home: The Cemetery Visualized

Maps not only help us with directions, they also help us visualize space. Visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage today may explore Google Maps to find directions. If looking at a satellite view, the cemetery is very prominent in relation to the Soldiers’ Home grounds. But how did people view maps of Washington, D.C. in the 1860s? And how did the Soldiers’ Home grounds appear on those maps from the 1860s?

Boscke Map, 1861. courtesy of the Library of Congress

Boschke Map, 1861 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

This 1861 map, created before the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery broke ground by engineer Albert Boschke, shows the area around the Soldiers’ Home — which was created in 1851 — rather bare. Orchards and trees defined the landscape. The District of Columbia was still relatively contained to the downtown area and the war had not yet drastically changed the landscape.

Robert Knox Sneden, a painter in the Union Army, drew a series of battle maps during the war, including a map showing the forces involved in Jubal Early’s 1864 raid on Washington, D.C. This action was the only Civil War battle fought within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Shown here in detail, is his representation of the Soldiers’ Home and the adjacent cemetery. Even though by 1864, the national military cemetery had been distinguished from the original “Rock Creek” civilian cemetery, Sneden labeled the entire area adjacent to the Soldiers’ Home, “Rock Creek Cemetery.” Whether Sneden was unfamiliar with the national cemetery or he was basing his map off outdated sources, is unclear. What is important however, is that Sneden’s map reflects his own subjective experience of the landscape. Sneden’s visualization does not reflect the mass of Union graves that dotted the landscape. He did not include a specific area for the national cemetery, and while one cannot blame him in hindsight, his map does overemphasize the older civilian cemetery over the newer national cemetery.

Sneden Map 1864-5. courtesy of the Library of Congress

Sneden Map 1864-5 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Today, modern visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage have a clear view of the cemetery as they approach the grounds via either New Hampshire Avenue or North Capitol Street. However, the cemetery remains out of view for those entering the cottage from Upshur Street or Rock Creek Church Road, the traditional way Lincoln approached the grounds during his commute. For the visitors that have seen the cemetery prior to entering, many ask questions about it independently of guides mentioning it on tours. Visitors approaching from Upshur however, may not have seen the cemetery, which creates a different perception of the grounds prior to its inclusion on the tour. So just like with Sneden’s map, visitors’ perspectives influence their visualization of the Cottage.

***

Maps and other forms of graphics help us visualize physical spaces, yet they remain subjective works. What is put down in ink is ultimately the mapmaker’s interpretation of the physical ground. Even Google Maps, with a satellite image, reveals a perspective lost to those on the ground. It is perhaps only by physically walking among the graves of the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery, that one can truly gain a full appreciation for the sacrifices of those gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

There are many other visual aspects of President Lincoln’s Cottage to consider. Changes to the landscape have altered its appearance from the 1860s to the present day. Rock Creek Church Road, Upshur Street, and nearby New Hampshire Avenue and North Capitol Street all create a much more modern backdrop to the Soldiers’ Home. In addition, the Soldiers’ Home itself has expanded and different trees dot the landscape now than during the Civil War.

Nevertheless, much remains the same. From the veranda of the Cottage itself, one can look upon the Soldiers’ Home grounds in the same peaceful setting that the Lincoln family experienced. Today, visitors can even come upon veterans living on the grounds today, just as Lincoln did. Several of the buildings on the grounds, such as Quarters 1 and 2, and the original Soldiers’ Home residence, are the same structures Lincoln looked upon. Although much has changed, much has remained the same. With both digital and onsite views, visitors can take in the power of place and see how location influences peoples’ experiences, both during the 1860s and today.

USSAH National Cemetery in blue, President Lincoln’s Cottage in red (Google Maps).

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