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D.C. Site Shows Lincoln in a Human Light

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
President Lincoln’s briefcase and son Tad Lincoln’s photo album are on display in the visitors center of President Lincoln’s Cottage in D.C.

The United States observes Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday on Wednesday, and after years of celebrating the 16th president’s heroic accomplishments, the Lincoln Cottage is showing a more human side of the man from Springfield, Ill.

Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln” and last year’s 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation further cemented Lincoln’s mythological status. And while there will never be a shortage of praise heaped on his deeds, this year President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home in Washington is displaying artifacts that remind people there was a man behind the myth.

Last month, the cottage — where the Lincoln family spent the summers of 1862, 1863, 1864 and which is now a National Trust for Historic Preservation site — began displaying Lincoln’s personal briefcase, which the president used to ferry his notes and other personal and business items back and forth from the cottage to the White House (a 30-minute commute, door to door, on horseback, by the way).

The briefcase — a weathered, leather satchel embossed with “Abraham Lincoln” — is displayed in the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center next to the cottage. It rests alongside a photo album belonging to the president’s youngest son, Tad, which contains photos taken by the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers, or Bucktails, who guarded the first family at the cottage.

The briefcase and album are on display through the end of June, when they’ll head back to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., which loaned them to the education center.

“We’re trying to get a series of things specific to Lincoln and his time,” said Erin Carlson Mast, executive director of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

The briefcase could be anyone’s, give or take a bit of wear and tear. This is precisely the point: the president was, like many people, someone who still had to keep his papers in order. It’s only when one sees “Abraham Lincoln” in simple lettering across it that it becomes something more than any working man’s accoutrement. For anyone who has invested in a nice leather briefcase, it’s comforting to know how long a good one lasts.

Tad’s photo album was compiled by the Bucktails, who were a constant presence in the Lincoln family’s life, even camping outside the cottage as the Civil War raged only miles away.

Accompanying the briefcase and album are a diary and a portrait of Albert Nelson See, a member of the Bucktails. See’s artifacts are part of the cottage’s collection and will also be on display until the end of June.

And coming in July, there will be an even more prosaic exhibit. The “carpet slippers” Lincoln wore to putter around in will be on loan from the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio. One of the cottage’s primary source recollections — which cites the slippers — is by George Borrett, an Englishman who visited Washington in October 1864.

Borrett arrived late in the evening “considerably past eight” to meet the president, who had already slipped into something more comfortable.

“We had sat there a few minutes, when there entered through the folding doors the long, lanky, lathy-like figure ... with hair ruffled, and eyes very sleepy, and — hear it, ye votaries of court etiquette! — feet enveloped in carpet slippers. We all rose somewhat confused by this abrupt introduction to the presence of the highest in the land,” Borrett recounted.

“It’s evocative of how accessible Lincoln is,” Mast said.

Borrett, among other things, discussed the poet Alexander Pope with Lincoln, specifically Pope’s “Essay on Man.” The president said he was “deep in” Pope when Borrett came calling.

“Essay on Man and Other Poetical Works” by Pope is also among the items on display in the cottage. Just a little bedtime reading for the guy who saved the Union.

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