The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Library just debuted a new exhibit on the most famous Republican.A. Lincoln: From Railsplitter to Rushmoreopened Saturday and will run through September 31. With 250 items culled from major collectors, it’s the largest assemblage of the Lincoln family’s personal effects ever displayed.
But other museums have examples of this exhibit’s highlights, such as his stovepipe hats, Lincoln-signed 13th Amendments and his gold pocket watches. There are plenty of blood-stained fabrics from the night of his assassination (curiously, none have been used to yield a sample of Lincoln’s DNA – that doesn’t exist). What makes this exhibit in Simi Valley, California, stand out is the inclusion of sets and costumes from Lincoln, the recent movie by DreamWorks Studios.
If you saw the movie, you’ll recognize the office where Daniel Day-Lewis gave his entrancing soliloquies, Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses and parts of Peterson’s Boarding House, the building where Lincoln died.
The exhibit, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, plays into the current fascination with Lincoln’s personal life. For decades he was widely perceived as a caricature – Honest Abe, who freed the slaves – and now Lincoln mania is drawing attention to the real man behind the stovepipe hat, his family and his political genius. Who would guess that 40 years ago, there wasn’t vast interest in Lincoln at all? According to James Cornelius, an Abe expert from Lincoln’s presidential library in Springfield, Ill., the 16th president enjoyed a big moment during the Civil War’s centennial in 1965, but then the fever died down until Ken Burns revived pop culture’s interest with his blockbuster Civil War documentary in 1990.
We’re pretty sure A. Lincoln won’t be the last homage for a while, though it will likely remain the largest.
Abraham Lincoln as a tourism driver is nothing new – history buffs have been making pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., Gettysburg and Abe’s Midwestern stomping grounds for decades, and Springfield, Ill., attributes the majority of its annual $350 million tourism and convention business to the rail-splitter. But actually following in Lincoln’s footsteps doesn’t take a traveler very far.
Lincoln never crossed an ocean, a curiosity that clashes with what we might expect given his means, his intellect and Mary Todd Lincoln’s famous taste for the finer things in life. Despite the difficulties of international travel in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t unheard of. William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, made it as far as the Middle East on a fact-finding mission. Benjamin Franklin had darted back and forth between the American colonies, England and France 100 years earlier.
It’s understandable that Lincoln was too preoccupied to travel during his presidency. Still, it’s a bit surprising that by his death in 1865, he hadn’t ventured farther than New Orleans, New York or Missouri.
Leisure travel to Europe wasn’t a popular concept in Lincoln’s time. “It would have been dangerous, for one,” says Dale Ogden, a senior curator at the Indiana State Museum who oversees a significant collection of the Lincoln family’s belongings. “And Europe was in turmoil anyway.”Domestically, the railroads that Lincoln worked for as a lawyer weren’t yet popular options for vacation. Even the train that took the president-elect from Springfield to D.C. on his Whistle-Stop Trip in 1861 wasn’t exactly posh. “Lincoln’s car would have been private as opposed to luxurious,” Ogden says. “I don’t think it would have been particularly unpleasant to travel by rail in 1860s, but it wouldn’t have been even remotely close to what it became 20 years later.” Instead, Lincoln “vacationed” at his summer home in D.C.
Yet travel made a serious impact on Lincoln’s life, an aspect examined in “The Lincolns: Five Generations of an American Family,” an exhibit that recently opened at the Indiana State Museum. He was frequently on the road on horseback as a circuit attorney in Illinois, and the job separated him from his eldest son, Robert, during the child’s formative years. Ogden says this is a primary reason why Lincoln and Robert didn’t have a close bond. “Lincoln was a workaholic,” he says. “The fact that he did travel so much, because of his work, had a major role in the family dynamic.”
The museum holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Lincoln artifacts, and “Five Generations” is only the second exhibit organized from its contents. A few of Mary’s travel accessories, including her opera glasses and ostrich fan, are currently on display, highlighting her trips to Europe after Lincoln’s death.
The things you find tucked away in someone’s safe after they’ve died don’t always reflect well on them. But in the case of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eldest child and the only one to survive to adulthood, secret documents found in his safe helped restore his image as a righteous man and a good son. In the years after his father’s assassination, his mother, Mary Todd, suffered from severe depression, paranoia and mental illness to the point where her behavior became a concern to the family.
Mary Todd, who also had to bear the burden of losing three sons that died young, was said to have an irrational fear of poverty and sometimes walked around with thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her outfits. After she almost jumped out of a window to escape a fire that was a figment of her imagination, Robert had her committed to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875.
Mary Todd got a lawyer and after a trial that made her son Robert look like a dirtbag who needlessly pushed his mother into an asylum without legitimate grounds, she was released. She drifted around Europe for four years before returning to Springfield, Illinois, where she died in 1882 at age 63. The cause of death was listed as paralysis and many believe that she may have had a stroke.
In 1978, nearly 50 years after Robert Todd Lincoln died at 82, caretakers of Hildene, his country home in Manchester, Vermont, found some papers labeled “MTL Insanity Papers” in a safe tucked away in his bedroom closet. The files, which contained Robert’s correspondence with family members and medical professionals regarding his mother’s condition, revealed that he wasn’t the uncaring son he’d been portrayed as. The file proved that his concern had always been his mother’s health and well-being.
Learning more about Robert Todd’s complex relationship with his mother is just one of many reasons to visit Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Vermont where Robert Todd Lincoln lived and died. Visitors can tour the stately home, built in 1905, visit a beautifully restored century old Pullman car, check out the estate’s farm and take a long stroll on the estate’s extensive grounds.
Robert was said to have had a distant relationship with his father as a boy, thanks to the demands of his father’s career and the fact that he was often away from home. He was 21 when his father was assassinated but managed to carve out a remarkable career of his own, even as his mother was descending into increasingly worse mental health. He was a successful lawyer who later served as the U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to The United Kingdom before becoming the President and Chairman of the Pullman Company.
When Robert was 20, he and his mother stayed at the Equinox Hotel and he was taken by the natural beauty of the Manchester area. He vowed to return one day and did just that 40 years later, purchasing a 500-acre plot that was to become a country home that would serve as a residence for Lincoln family descendants until 1975. While his father kept his summer home just miles from the White House, Robert Todd preferred Vermont’s natural splendor. Today, the residence is maintained by the non-profit Friends of Hildene, and if you don’t mind plunking down $400-500 per night, you can stay at the Equinox if you want the full Lincoln experience.
My children enjoyed petting the farm animals but the highlight of the visit for me was touring Sunbeam, a restored 1903 Pullman car that was moved to Hildene a few years ago to honor Robert time at the company and the fact that his father signed the Transcontinental Railways Act, which paved the way for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the heyday of trail travel, more than 100,000 Americans slept on Pullman cars while traveling around the country each day. It might have taken forever to get from Chicago to New York, but if you take a walk through Sunbeam, you’ll wish it were still possible to travel the country in Pullman style.
Whether you haven’t yet been, or you’ve visited it many times, Washington’s Lincoln Memorial never fails to inspire and amaze. Today’s photo, by Flickr user Christian Carollo Photography, provides a unique angle on this most famous of American monuments. The photo’s black and white color palette, artful use of light and shadow and interesting “behind the pillars” angle creates a feeling of mystery and significance for this otherwise highly recognizable landmark.
Taken any great photos of your own in our nation’s capital? Or maybe just down the street from your house? Why not share them in our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.
Kennedy had Hyannisport. Bush 41 summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush 43 favored his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Nixon loved his La Casa Pacifica Mansion in San Clemente, California. The Clintons had Martha’s Vineyard until Dick Morris, their pollster, told them it was too posh. A variety of presidents used Camp David to unwind. The Obama’s favor Hawaii. But what about Abe Lincoln? What did the man that most historians consider America’s greatest president do for vacation?
Perched on a hill in a gritty, working class neighborhood of Washington D.C., around the corner from stores with heavily fortified protective grills and an Eritrean Orthodox Church, sits one of the city’s most compelling, yet off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations. The Hamptons it is not. It’s the Soldiers’ Home, which served as the Lincoln family’s seasonal “cottage” retreat from 1862-4.
The Lincoln family moved into the Victorian style cottage 150 years ago shortly after the death of their eleven-year-old son Willie, who probably drank contaminated water from the Potomac and caught typhoid fever, one of the great scourges of the era. Like any grieving family, the Lincolns needed a change of scenery — someplace quiet, away from the bustle, foul air and contagious diseases that plagued crowded D.C.
The family moved into the Soldiers’ Home, a house that was built in 1842 for the Washington banking tycoon who founded Riggs Bank. The house is on the grounds of America’s first home for retired and disabled, enlisted veterans. When Lincoln moved in there were a few hundred veterans living on the grounds and there were also Union soldiers camping out in tents on the premises. Veterans still live on the grounds today.
Every morning from April or May through November, Lincoln would make the three-mile, 30-minute commute down the hill into D.C. on horseback. His advisors wanted him to make the trip with a cavalry security entourage, but Abe preferred to leave before they arrived, so he could go alone, stopping on the way to chat with soldiers and freed slaves who gave him a real picture of what life was like for ordinary people during the war. Last year, museum staff tried to reenact his horse ride and it took two hours due to traffic and lights.
Other presidents aside from Lincoln also spent time at the home, including Presidents Hayes, Buchanan and Arthur, but none were as attached to the place as the Lincolns reportedly were. After it fell out of fashion as a presidential retreat, it went back to being used as a veterans’ office, and part of it was turned into what was called Lincoln’s Lounge & Pub. (Never mind the fact that Abe was a teetotaler.)
According to my GPS, the home sits at an elevation of just 460 feet, but that’s a few hundred feet higher than the White House, so they believed that the place was a bit breezier and healthier as well. Today, the notion of traveling three miles away to “Get away from it all,” seems absurd — but it wasn’t at the time. There was no morning Tai Chi or organic food, but it was a kind of holistic retreat for the family before that term was invented.
Lincoln was seen riding his favorite horse, Big Bob, around the grounds of the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before he was assassinated. 135 years later, President Clinton declared the site a National Monument, and after an eight-year restoration project it was opened to the public on President’s Day in 2008.
It’s the only tourist attraction in D.C. that offers free parking, and the $12 entry fee buys visitors an informative guided tour as well as entry into the small but well organized museum in the visitor’s center (reservations recommended). The lifelike statue of Lincoln out front is exactly six feet four-and-a-half inches tall, so step right up to it to get an idea of what it might have been like to stand toe-to-toe with Honest Abe. (The hat brings him up to seven feet tall.) If you’re interested in knowing more about Lincoln’s life, this is a must stop in a somewhat obscure area of D.C.
These days the neighborhood isn’t the quiet, country retreat it once was — on my visit, the din of construction cranes could be heard in the distance. But there’s still a view of the Capitol, which was under construction when Lincoln lived there.
The Hampton’s designer-dog-in-a-purse crowd is nowhere to be found and no one would confuse the neighborhood with Hyannisport or Martha’s Vineyard, but walking around the grounds of the place, it’s not hard to conjure a vision of big Abe in his stovepipe hat riding up the hill on horseback after a long day at the White House.