In President Abraham Lincoln’s day, Washington, D.C. was a city in the midst of a dramatic transition. Step back in time to experience D.C. through the eyes of Lincoln, and see what sites any history buff should add to his or her visit to the nation’s capital.
In this guide, we will discuss:
• The Willard InterContinental hotel
• Fort Stevens
• The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum
• President Lincoln’s Cottage
• Ford’s Theatre
Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!
The Willard Intercontinental Hotel
The Willard InterContinental is a hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, just a short walk from the White House. The Willard is probably one of the most famous hotels in Washington, in part because of its location, but also because of its long history.
Notably, it has been a host to presidents. Every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce has either stayed here or attended an event here. One of the most interesting visits was Abraham Lincoln’s.
Lincoln’s election in November 1860 was polarizing. Many pro-slavery legislators saw this as the final straw that would lead to secession—and they were right. But in the months leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration the next March, another, more specific threat emerged.
Through a complicated series of events, Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency had been hired to ensure Lincoln’s safety. One of his agents—a young widow named Kate Warne, who is believed to be the world’s first female private detective—uncovered what came to be known as the Baltimore Plot to assassinate the president-elect.
Though visitors naturally have to pay to stay in the Willard, it is free to walk into the grand lobby. The hotel’s bars and restaurants are open to the public.
Fort Stevens was the only fort inside D.C. boundaries to see action during the Civil War. This happened in the summer of 1864, after General Ulysses S. Grant pulled about three-fifths of the troops defending Washington out of the city to fight in other campaigns.
Confederate general Jubal Early, whose troops were encamped at Rockville, Maryland, sent a small number of soldiers to probe Fort Stevens’ defenses. Several small skirmishes broke out, but no battle.
The fort is notable, however, because Abraham Lincoln visited the fort at this time and stood on top of the parapets. Some of the Confederate sharpshooters spotted him and fired, but missed. To this day, Lincoln is the only American president to come under fire from an enemy combatant while in office. The fort has been partially restored under the care of the National Park Service, and a commemorative plaque marks the place where Lincoln stood.
Now, war is well known to drive technological innovation, and the American Civil War was no exception. When we think of these innovations, we logically tend to think of the development of weaponry. But what is often overlooked is the way that war drives developments in communication and medicine.
The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum
In 1861, Clara Barton, a former teacher and patent office clerk, heard that a number of wounded soldiers from her home state of Massachusetts were being housed in the U.S. Capitol Building. She and several local women brought food, clothing, and supplies to the Capitol and offered their assistance.
Eventually, Barton would serve as a nurse on the front lines of the war—at the Second Battle of Manassas, Harper’s Ferry, Antietam, and more. When the war was over, she dedicated herself to searching for missing soldiers.
Working out of her home in a boarding house at 437 ½ Seventh Street NW, she and her assistants responded to more than 60,000 letters from distraught families searching for missing soldiers. They found more than 22,000 of these men and reunited them with their families, or, if they were deceased, helped locate and mark their graves.
The building from which Barton worked was eventually restored and opened in 2015 as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. The museum’s regular hours are limited, but group tours are available most days, so be sure to check the museum’s website if you choose to visit.
President Lincoln’s Cottage
Washington’s summers can be brutally hot and humid. In Lincoln’s day, the only way to escape the weather was to escape the city—which he, and several of the presidents before and after him, regularly did.
The house called President Lincoln’s Cottage is found about four miles northeast of the White House, in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest DC. It was built in the 1840s as the summer home of banker George Riggs, who sold the cottage and the 250-acre hilltop estate it sat on to the federal government in 1851.
The government built a retirement home for veterans there. Known originally as the Old Soldiers’ Home, it is still in operation as the Armed Forces Retirement Home. The cottage there was first used as a summer White House by Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan. Lincoln spent three summers there—from June to November of 1862, 1863, and 1864.
Later on, the National Trust for Historic Preservation took on the job of restoring the home to the condition it was in when Lincoln lived there, and they competed their work in 2007. It is now open to the public, with exhibits dedicated to Lincoln’s life and work. The cottage itself is only accessible by guided tour, and it is recommended to buy tickets several weeks in advance.
The First Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall was not the first memorial to the president in D.C. The statue of Lincoln found on Indiana Avenue NW, in front of the D.C. Court of Appeals, was actually the first.
On April 28, 1865—just two weeks after Lincoln’s death—city leaders agreed to place a statue here. The project was funded mostly by private donations. The single largest donation came from John Ford, manager of Ford’s Theatre.
Any visitor to D.C. with an interest in Lincoln will want to visit Ford’s Theatre. It is forever tied to the president. On April 14, 1865, during a performance of Our American Cousin, Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth entered the president’s box, shot Lincoln in the back of the head, and fled.
Two surgeons entered Lincoln’s box and found him still breathing. They took him across the street to the home of a tailor named William Petersen. The surgeon general and Lincoln’s personal physician joined them there. It was clear he could not be saved, so they did their best to make him comfortable. Lincoln died quietly at 7:22 a.m. the next morning.
Booth was found 12 days later at a farm outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, and was killed in a shootout. His co-conspirators, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Azterodt, were captured, tried, and hanged for their roles in the conspiracy.
After Lincoln’s assassination, Ford’s Theatre went through a number of changes. The government purchased the property from John Ford and ordered that the site never again be used for entertainment. However, in 1964, Congress decided to fund its restoration, and in January 1968, Ford’s Theatre became a theatre once more. The theatre as it exists today looks much as it did in Lincoln’s time, with one major exception: the presidential box is never occupied.
There is also now a museum beneath Ford’s Theatre, which chronicles Lincoln’s tenure as president, important figures and events of the Civil War, and the assassination and its aftermath. Among the artifacts found in the museum is Booth’s Derringer pistol. William Petersen’s house across the street, where Lincoln died, is also part of the museum complex, and has been meticulously recreated to show visitors the scene of that terrible night.
The museum is very much worthwhile, but if you visit, you should also consider seeing a performance. The theatre typically puts on four productions per year, including plays and musicals, beloved classics, and newly commissioned works.
Sic semper tyrannis
After shooting Lincoln, Booth yelled, “Sic semper tyrannis”—a Latin phrase meaning “Thus always to tyrants”—and escaped the theater through the backstage door. That phrase was (and is) the Virginia state motto, which Booth probably intended as a cry of allegiance to the Confederacy. However, he may not have known that it was also the motto of the African American regiments of the United States Army during the Civil War.