A Note from Hope: May 2020 — While public places are currently taking a pause from being open to the public due to medical recommendations during the Coronavirus pandemic, there are ways to continue to learn and appreciate history. We offer these insights from Erin Carlson Mast, president of Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. Learn more here: LincolnCottage.org.
Scroll down for a Q&A with Erin.
For American history buffs, there’s nothing quite like visiting the home of a former president. And when that president is considered one of the nation’s most revered and beloved, as is Abraham Lincoln, it’s both stimulating and enjoyable to meander through his summer home in Washington, DC. Just 3.5 miles from the White House, President Lincoln’s Cottage at The Soldiers’ Home stands as a landmark for visitors—as well as a spot to host parties, weddings, and attend events for kids that bring history to life.
As the executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage, Erin Carlson Mast has worked on a variety of key projects since 2003—including historical research, interpretive planning, and site development. She has overseen the launch of several exhibitions, the development of the “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions” program, which won the 2008 American Association of Museums Silver MUSEAward, and several online interpretive programs, including “Lincoln’s Commute,” a collaboration with the White House Historical Association.
So it was a pleasure to sit down with this expert on President Lincoln, who is an alumna of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Seminar for Historical Administration, and who previously worked at the Smithsonian Institution Archives and National Building Museum. Scroll down for our Q&A.
Erin, tell us about President Lincoln’s Cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home.
Erin Carlson Mast: There is so much to tell, but in short, this was a home for the Lincoln family for over a year of his four years in office. It’s where President Lincoln made some of his most important decisions during the Civil War, and also where he found time to play checkers with soldiers and his son Thomas “Tad.” Scholars have called it the Cradle of the Emancipation Proclamation because he created that document his first summer living here. This place is steeped in history, but we have only been open to the public since 2008. We’re old, but we’re new.
What are some of your favorite things about this property? And what do kids love to do when they come here?
Erin Carlson Mast:Whether kids come here with their family or school, we create opportunities for children to learn and express themselves. Adults and children alike frequently tell us that we made Lincoln come alive for them—that we made him human for them. We do that with an atypical historic site approach, too. We have no velvet ropes, we do not focus on objects, and we have no costumed guides. Our team works hard to engage multigenerational audiences around the stories of what Lincoln did here and his big ideas. People routinely tell us that we inspired them to learn more about Lincoln. Just this week a visitor told me that he bought his first book on Lincoln when he visited for the first time three years ago—he has since bought 76 more. He teased us that he was going to send us the bill. Another visitor reported that his youngest son formed a Lincoln club at his school after the family visited. He writes down his big ideas on pieces of paper and stashes them in his desk just like Lincoln did.
For me personally, I like that this place is an oasis in DC. We have sweeping views of downtown, though we’re only three miles north of the White House. Living here at the Soldiers’ Home changed Lincoln’s entire perspective. I also really enjoy the story of Lincoln’s commute here by horseback or carriage from the White House—it seems so normal! When he commuted by horseback, he was either riding alone (most of his first summer in residence) or accompanied (after September of 1862) by a Presidential Guard. When he commuted by carriage he was either riding in his own carriage or catching a ride with colleagues or visitors in someone else’s carriage.
I know it sounds bizarre for the president to be catching a ride with visitors, but it did happen according to primary sources. And because of that commute he encountered all kinds of people he wouldn’t have otherwise met—wounded soldiers just returning from the frontlines; self-emancipated men, women, and children; the poet Walt Whitman! It’s a reminder that even the most mundane parts of your day can be opportunities for growth. And that commute was putting Lincoln in harm’s way, but he chose to do it anyway. Lincoln wasn’t escaping the Civil War, he was putting himself closer to it.
Let’s talk more about Lincoln and the Civil War. For starters, why did they call it the Civil War?
Erin Carlson Mast: That’s a great question. Lincoln’s perspective was that the war was fought between citizens of one nation. Some of those citizens were in rebellion, others were fighting the rebellion. Other names for the war have come and gone that reflect different points of view, but “Civil War” is the name that has endured here in the United States.
How and when did you develop your liking for American history?
Erin Carlson Mast: My parents dragged us to historic sites, nature sanctuaries, and museums on every single family trip! In retrospect I feel bad that we complained, because we did have fun. And my parents succeeded in instilling an appreciation for the environment and history—authentic, place-based history, in all of us. School field trips were no different. It’s one thing to read about a 4,000-year-old earthen mound in the shape of a serpent (like the one in Southern Ohio)—it’s another to see it stretched out before you. It’s a powerful reminder that our history did not start with European contact, it’s much older. It fed my soul and made me a better citizen.
Clearly, Lincoln is a beloved president. And there are a lot of fascinating, often tragic, elements to his career, presidency, and life. What do we not know about him?
Erin Carlson Mast: For starters, many people still don’t know about his life at the Cottage. His time here represents significant stretches of his presidency and a rare glimpse into his private life as president—his family life, his time spent with friends and colleagues. It humanizes Lincoln. Despite thousands of books written about him, there is still a lot we don’t know about him and his family. There is more to discover—that’s an exciting message to share with everyone, especially young people. It’s something they can do.
Let’s talk a little about Mary Todd Lincoln. She was a fascinating person. In fact, she predicted decades before Lincoln was elected that he would be president. What are some things we don’t know about her life?
Erin Carlson Mast: Mary Lincoln was not short on ambition, that’s for sure, and political ambition is something she and her husband shared. Too many people dismiss her as crazy, which is counterproductive at best. And yes, the woman went shopping—we all know that. But a lot of people don’t know she also visited wounded soldiers in hospitals, bringing fruit and writing letters home on their behalf. Fewer still know that Mary prodded Lincoln to make the single largest donation to the Contraband Relief Association the first year it existed. Their donation provided much-needed aid to self-emancipated men, women, and children living in refugee camps across DC.
How can we get more kids excited about American history?
Erin Carlson Mast: Kids crave information—it just has to be interesting and age-appropriate. History already is interesting. Our challenge isn’t to make history interesting. Our challenge is to avoid making history tedious.
With children in particular, finding age-appropriate ways of sharing history is important. I’m not talking about dumbing things down. I’m talking about using methods that acknowledge that a 4 year old, an 8 year old, and a 14 year old have different knowledge bases, different grasps on the passage of time, consequences, truth and lies, good and evil. We all have different learning styles, too. Reading is important, but I’m going to retain more if I’m actively engaged.
As far as the education system goes, we have witnessed a rise in testing, emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and a drop in field trips. The history field trip is like a chemistry lab. It makes what you’re reading about a concrete, personal experience. It actively engages people in history. If we want our citizens to be knowledgeable and responsible participants in our democracy, they have to have an understanding of history—and appreciate that it’s a continuous chain of events leading up to this very moment, not a series of static, isolated points on a timeline.
What three fun facts about Lincoln and his life do you think kids should know?
Erin Carlson Mast: When Lincoln was president, you could walk up to his front door—here at the Cottage or the White House—unannounced, uninvited, and ask to meet with him. People did this all the time! One time at the Cottage, Lincoln had already gone to bed, but still agreed to meet with the visitors. He shocked them when he greeted them with messy hair and his slippers!
Lincoln was tall—6’4”, and skinny. When Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad, lost his pet peacock in a tree out here, Lincoln climbed up the tree to rescue the bird.
When Lincoln was thinking about something, he wrote his thoughts down on bits of paper and stuck them in his hat or his desk for safekeeping. Then he’d put all his notes together to write down his big idea.
In general, how do you pass enthusiasm from something old to people who are young: kids in K-12?
Erin Carlson Mast: You have to be genuinely enthusiastic about it yourself. You have to show them respect, you have to answer their questions—not just the obvious ones but the root concerns—in a way that is authentic and relevant.
For educators, being enthusiastic about telling a story for the 500th time isn’t easy. But we have to remember that it might be the first time that student is hearing the story. It’s new to them.
Can you offer some interactive activities parents can do to make history fun for their kids ?
Erin Carlson Mast: There are several things I think parents can do:
- Read together: it’s an easy thing to do and when you do it together, it makes for a great shared experience. Even better, let your kids pick out the books from the store or library.
- Have them interview each other and write brief biographies about their classmates.
- Today in History: We can debate whether the omnipresence of phones is a good thing or bad thing, but let’s use it for good. If you’re stuck waiting in line with your kids, pull out your phone and look up what happened that day in history to play a guessing game or download apps like Field Trip to see what piece of history might be right in front of you.
- Create a project to interview family members, or create a family tree that highlights historical events. They’ll see where they connect.
- Explore opportunities to go to real, authentic, historic places. I know this isn’t always easy, but it’s worthwhile.
For more information and insights into President Lincoln,visit LincolnCottage.org.
Fascinating Facts to Discuss Tonight at Dinner About Abraham Lincoln
Did you know:
- Lincoln was the only president to have a patent. He invented a device to free steamboats that ran aground.
- He practiced law without a degree. He had about 18 months of formal schooling.
- He wanted women to have the vote in 1836. He was a suffragette before it was fashionable.
- Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
- He loved oysters.
- Grave robbers were foiled in 1876 when they tried to steal Lincoln’s body.
- He was the first president with a beard.
- Lincoln was shot on Good Friday.
- Lincoln was photographed with John Wilkes Booth at his second inauguration.
- The suit that Lincoln died in was made by Brooks Brothers.
- Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had a brother who saved the life of Lincoln’s son on a New Jersey train platform.
The History of Lincoln Cottage
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln and his family were invited to stay in a Gothic-Revival “cottage” on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home. Located in Washington, D.C., the Cottage had been originally built for banker George W. Riggs in 1842, but the federal government purchased the estate in 1851 to found a home for retired and disabled veterans. The Cottage served as Lincoln’s family residence for a quarter of his presidency during the summers of 1862, 1863 and 1864, and it is where he was living when he developed his Emancipation Proclamation.
The historic significance of the Soldiers’ Home was officially recognized in 1974, when four buildings built before the Civil War, along with six surrounding acres of land, were designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2000, President Clinton designated the site a National Monument, and it remains the only official National Monument in Washington, D.C. The site was restored as part of an eight-year, $15 million project under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. President Lincoln’s Cottage opened to the public for the first time in 2008, giving Americans an intimate, never-before-seen view of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and family life. In addition to President Lincoln’s Cottage, the adjacent Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center features related exhibits and media presentations. Today, the site is governed and operated by President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, a 501(c)(3) public charity.
Also in 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private, non-profit organization, assumed stewardship of President Lincoln’s Cottage and began an eight-year capital project to preserve, restore, sustainably rehabilitate and conduct archaeology at the property. After the $15 million restoration by the NTHP, President Lincoln’s Cottage opened to the public for the first time in 2008, giving Americans an intimate, never-before-seen view of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and family life. In addition to President Lincoln’s Cottage, the adjacent Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center features related exhibits and media presentations.
Learn more at lincolncottage.org • Voted Best Museum Off the Mall in 2017, 2018, 2019 • Named “One of the Best” DC charities by Catalogue for Philanthropy 2019/2020