Washington, D.C. in the Time of Abraham Lincoln

FROM the LECTURE SERIES: The Great Tours — Washington DC

By Richard Kurin, Ph.D., The Smithsonian

During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C. was a city in the midst of transition. Anyone who walks D.C.’s streets today can come across powerful reminders of how this beloved American president—and the Civil War that defined his life—transformed the nation’s capital forever.

A night photograph of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The statue was designed by a local Irish American artist named Lot Flannery, who had known Lincoln personally and was actually at Ford’s Theatre the night he was killed (Image: By Yvonne Navalaney/Shutterstock)

Smuggling Lincoln into the Willard Hotel

Throughout its long history, The Willard Hotel, today rated as a AAA Four Diamond Hotel, hosted many famous guests, from writers like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman to entertainers like P. T. Barnum and Gypsy Rose Lee. It has been a favorite of politicians, diplomats, and activists and has been a host to history. It has also been a host to presidents. Every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce has either stayed there or attended an event there.

Sketch showing Franklin Pierce departs from the Willard Hotel for his inauguration, March 1853
Franklin Pierce departs from the Willard Hotel for his inauguration, March 1853
(Image: By Not identified – Illustrated News, March 12, 1853, p. 164/Library of Congress/Public Domain)

One of the most interesting visits was, of course, 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 of course, they were right. But in the months leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration in March 1861, 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 after his election. 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.

This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours: Washington DC. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Portrait of Allan Pinkerton by Brady's National photographic Galleries (circa 1861)
In an attempt to thwart the Baltimore Plot, Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency smuggled Lincoln for the last 50 or so miles to Washington, D.C., and hid him in The Willard Hotel. (Image: By Brady’s National photographic Galleries/Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Lincoln was supposed to take a train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C. on a sort of whistle-stop tour. Rather than complete the tour, Pinkerton and Warne disguised Lincoln, smuggling him the last 50 or so miles to Washington, D.C., and hid him in The Willard Hotel. Around the same time, the group of 131 federal legislators known as the Peace Conference was having regular meetings at The Willard. This group was attempting to come to another compromise on slavery to prevent secession of the southern states, but as we know, they failed.

The Willard continued to play a major role in D.C.’s public life for generations. Several vice-presidents used the hotel as their residence. Woodrow Wilson’s League to Enforce Peace met there and developed a plan for the League of Nations. The Army Reserve Officers Association was founded there. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech in his room at The Willard, just before the March on Washington in 1963.

The historical accounts are numerous and The Willard will likely play a role in additional historical events in the years to come. Although the cost of staying in a room is expensive, walking The Willard’s grand lobby is free and open to the public, as is visiting the hotel’s bars and restaurants, where people can eat and drink while enjoying the magnificent environment of the hotel.

Learn more about the origins of the District of Columbia

Fort Stevens—A Near Miss for Lincoln

Photograph showing Detachment of Company K, 3d Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, by guns of Fort Stevens 1865
Fort Stevens was the only fort inside the District boundaries to see action during the Civil War. (Image: By Smith, William Morris; Civil War Glass Negatives – Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Lincoln, of course, survived his inauguration day. Just over a month later, on April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Within weeks, the fighting reached Virginia, and Confederate forces began closing in on Washington.

On July 21, Confederate forces defeated the Union defenses at the First Battle of Manassas, about 26 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The shattered Union army marched back to the city to reach safety.

At that time, only one fort guarded D.C. from the south—Fort Washington, on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, just a few miles upstream from Mount Vernon. The Union Army quickly got to work building other defenses, which collectively came to be called the Fort Circle. One of these defenses was Fort Stevens, about a four-and-a-half-mile journey north of the White House. Fort Stevens was the only fort inside the District boundaries to see action during the Civil War.

Plaque memorializing President Abraham Lincoln's visit to the fort
Abraham Lincoln, as president, visited Fort Stevens during the Civil War and stood on top of the parapets. Some Confederate sharpshooters spotted him and fired, but missed (Image: By By dbking/Public Domain)

The fort is notable, however, because Abraham Lincoln, as president, visited the fort during the Civil War and stood on top of the parapets. Some Confederate sharpshooters spotted him and fired, but missed. To this day, Abraham 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.

Learn more about how the Capitol building was designed, constructed, and expanded in the early years of the nation

Avoiding the Heat at Lincoln’s Cottage

As anyone who lives in the city can tell you, 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.

But he didn’t go far.

The house called Lincoln’s Cottage is found about four miles northeast of the White House, in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington. 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 here. Known originally as the Old Soldiers’ Home, it is still in operation as the Armed Forces Retirement Home. The cottage was first used as a “summer White House” by Abraham Lincoln’s predecessor, President James Buchanan.

Photograph of Lincoln Cottage, February 1975
Lincoln’s Cottage (Image: By Jack Boucher/Library of Congress/Public Domain)

Lincoln spent part of three years here: from June to November of 1862, 1863, and 1864. He visited it for the first time three days after his inauguration, and for the last time the day before his death. Most days, Lincoln would ride to the White House in the morning and ride home at night. He rode alone, which proved to be dangerous in August 1864, when a sniper shot at him and missed, as he rode to the cottage late one night. That sniper was never found. Lincoln also conducted official duties at the cottage. He regularly met with his generals to plan the war here, and this is where he began to draft the Emancipation Proclamation.

Two later presidents also used the cottage as a summer retreat: Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur. But by the turn of the 20th century, it was just another administration building for the Armed Forces Retirement Home. It did not acquire landmark status until 1973, and it was not proclaimed a national monument until the year 2000.

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, and hosting symposia, reenactments, performances, and other special events throughout the year. The cottage itself is only accessible by guided tour, and it is recommended that you buy tickets several weeks in advance.

Lincoln’s Assassination at Ford’s Theatre

Of course, any visitor to Washington, D.C. with an interest in President Abraham Lincoln will want to visit Ford’s Theatre.

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth slipped back into the theater and made his way to the president’s box. He stood at the door of the box, waiting to hear a line he knew was coming, a line that always got the biggest laugh during the entire play. The audience laughed on cue, and Booth attacked. He opened the door. He drew a single-shot, .44-caliber Derringer pistol from his pocket. He shot President Lincoln in the back of the head, while he was sitting in his chair in the president’s box.

slide depicting John Wilkes Booth leaning forward to shoot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford  Theater
(Image: By unattributed; based on the depiction from a mechanical glass slide by T. M. McAllister of New York,by Adam Cuerden – Heritage Auctions/Public Domain)

After Presidents 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. It served as a records storage depot for the War Department until the turn of the 20th century, when the department abandoned the site. The Office of Public Buildings took over, then the National Park Service. For decades, the park service operated a small Lincoln museum on the first floor, but the rest of the building stood empty.

Finally, in 1964, Congress decided to fund its restoration, and in January 1968, Ford’s Theatre became a theater once more. The theater as it exists today looks much as it did in Lincoln’s time, with one major exception: the presidential box is never occupied.

Fords theater. View from beneath the balcony. The Presidential Box is at right.
Ford’s Theatre today looks much as it did in Lincoln’s time, with one major exception: the presidential box is never occupied (Image: By Wknight94 talk/Public Domain)

Now, there is also a museum beneath the theater, which chronicles Lincoln’s tenure as president; important figures and events of the Civil War; and, of course, 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 President Lincoln died, is also part of the museum complex, and has been meticulously recreated to show visitors the scene of that terrible, horrific night.

Learn more about the wealth of art museums on the National Mall

The First Lincoln Memorial

The call to create a national monument to Lincoln started almost immediately after his assassination in 1865.

The Lincoln Memorial that was completed in 1922 was not the first Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia. The statue of Lincoln found on Indiana Avenue NW, in front of the D.C. Court of Appeals, was actually the first one. On April 28, 1865—just two weeks after Lincoln’s death—city leaders agreed to place a statue there. The project was funded mostly by private donations. The single, largest donation came from John Ford, manager of Ford’s Theatre.

The statue was designed by a local Irish American artist named Lot Flannery, who had known Lincoln personally and was actually at Ford’s Theatre the night he was killed. It was placed there on April 14, 1868, the third anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and now is the oldest monument to Lincoln in the United States.

Common Questions About Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.

Q: Was Washington, D.C. home to Abraham Lincoln?

Abraham Lincoln lived in Washington, D.C. twice: once as Representative of Illinois in the House and again as President.

Q: What nationality was Abraham Lincoln?

Abraham Lincoln was English with Dutch and Scots-Irish heritage.

Q: Does the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. cost to visit?

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. is free to visit and is wheelchair accessible.

Q: Is there actually a misspelled word at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.?

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. has Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and there is a letter “E” carved where an “F” should be. It has been fixed and thus is no longer an actual misspelling.

This article was updated on 12/29/2019

Keep Reading
Who Designed and Built the U.S. Capitol?
What Happens Inside the U.S. Supreme Court?
Pierre Charles L’Enfant—The Architect of Washington, D.C.