BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Matthew Pinsker, author of "Lincoln`s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers` Home," when did you get the idea to do a book on this?
MATTHEW PINSKER, AUTHOR, "LINCOLN`S SANCTUARY": Well, they called me about three years ago. When I say "they," I mean the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That`s a story in itself because they -- the trust was working on a restoration campaign with first lady Hillary Clinton, and they wanted a historian to just provide some background. And so I got a phone call from a woman named Sophie Lynn, who works at the trust, and she said, “Would you be willing to come down here and talk to us about, you know, the Lincoln cottage of the Soldiers` Home.”
I was just finishing teaching, I was heading into a summer, and I said, Sure. I hung up the phone, and then I realized I wasn`t really sure what the Soldiers` Home was. And so I started digging around, and I found out that, you know, this was a kind of Camp David for President Lincoln. And we looked into it, Sophie and I and a few other people down there, and one thing led to another and we realized it was a much bigger project than a pamphlet. I mean, this was a book. And that was about three years ago, and it`s finally coming to fruition.
LAMB: You said in your book that you and Sophie Lynn exchanged 300 e-mails.
PINSKER: At least. I mean, she`s one of those, you know, inveterate e-mailers, always full of ideas. This is a woman, you know, who`s not a historian. She, like so many people at the trust, became, you know, invested in this project. And actually, there`s a wide network of people who are caring about this project. And that`s one of the, I think, most important things about this book, which is that historians need to break down some of their barriers because there are descendants and genealogists and preservationists and even Civil War reenactors who play a role in this story. You know, so I can write this book, but there`s a litany of people behind me who made this happen.
LAMB: What is the trust?
PINSKER: The National Trust is a non-profit organization that spearheads efforts to preserve historic sites in the country. Richard Moe is the president, and he`s the guiding force, and also a Civil War historian himself. And I think he is, in many ways, the decision maker who turned this idea into a reality.
LAMB: Where were you teaching when the call came to you, and why did they call you?
PINSKER: Well, I was teaching then at Franklin and Marshall College, which is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Now I teach at Dickinson College in Carlisle. They called me because I was a research assistant for David Donald when he wrote his biography of Lincoln. And I`ve been researching and writing about Lincoln for years. Gabor Boritt, who`s a leading Lincoln scholar, and Harold Holzer, who`s another leading scholar -- they both recommended me. And you know, we talked, and it was a fit.
LAMB: So it`s published by Oxford.
LAMB: I`d ask, how did Oxford get it? And then what kind of restrictions did you have? Could you say anything you wanted to in this book?
PINSKER: Well, the study I wrote for the National Trust was commissioned, and I, you know, tried to answer the questions they had for me. It`s funny. You know, the questions that they have when they look at a place like the Soldiers` Home and where Lincoln lived -- they want to know specific details about the setting, the furniture, physical details. And a historian tends to look at other stories, a broader political/social context. And it turned out that, you know, when I mixed the two, I found, I thought, some interesting connections. You know, there were moments when the private life influenced the larger decisions, whether it was emancipation or the election of 1864.
And so I didn`t have any limitations when I wrote the original study, but I had a certain set of goals. And I tried to meet those goals, but I found a whole host of other things, unrelated to those goals, which turned out to be material for a book. And then I contacted Peter Ginna, who is an editor at Oxford, who went to the same college at Oxford University that I went to, although earlier than me. And he was interested in the project and became a supporter of it, was convinced that this is a story that crosses two worlds. It`s about public history, but it`s also something worthy of academic attention. And so Oxford got behind it, and now we have this book.
LAMB: But did the trust have anything to say about the final product? Could you say whatever you wanted to?
PINSKER: There were no limitations on what I could say.
LAMB: But there`s a couple names also involved in this -- Gilder and Lehrman...
LAMB: ...who underwrote your part in all this. How did that work?
PINSKER: Well, Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman are two incredibly generous benefactors for American history projects, especially Civil War-era projects.
LAMB: New York-based.
PINSKER: New York-based. The Gilder-Lehrman Institute funds projects for American history, also a lot of projects for teaching history at the high school level. And they were originally, I think, the funders for my work. I didn`t realize that at the time. But I think they provided the significant amount of money to the trust that made this possible. You know, it`s a story in itself. It`s hard to get grant money, typically, for a project on someone like Abraham Lincoln, so it takes committed folks like the Gilder-Lehrman people or the National Trust to underwrite projects like this.
LAMB: Why is it difficult to get grant money?
PINSKER: Well, because there`s been 60,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, and there`s a sense in the academy that you can`t find out anything new. I mean, that`s why I hope this book is a wake-up call. I think, you know, when you dig deep, you can find some new insights.
LAMB: We have some video. Let`s look at the cottage, and you can explain to us what we`re looking at. On the screen is the Anderson cottage. What is that?
PINSKER: Well, Robert Anderson of Fort Sumter fame was one of the guiding spirits behind the establishment of the Soldiers` Home, which is an institution for disabled veterans, as it was originally created in the 1850s.
LAMB: How far from the White House?
PINSKER: About three-and-a-half miles, on a hilly section of Washington, inside the District but just near the border. The cottage there was built by the original owner, George W. Riggs of the Riggs Bank fame, in the early 1840s, mostly as a country home for his family. He lived there for several years. A daughter died, and the family decided to move back into the city. And then in the 1850s, the government bought the grounds and the property, and they added several buildings and created an institution for disabled soldiers.
LAMB: First president to use that cottage?
PINSKER: Well, the first president to go to the Soldiers` Home in the summer, not necessarily to use that cottage, but the first president to do so was James Buchanan. It`s an interesting story there. You know, the Soldiers` Home was a really new experiment. The idea that the government should care for veterans in a home, what they called an asylum -- that was unprecedented in America. There were precedents in Europe but not in the United States. It took a lot of fighting to get it to happen. Robert Anderson, Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis, as a senator, was a moving force behind the legislation.
But when they started to build these Soldiers` Homes -- one in Washington, a couple of others across the country -- they were something of a flop. The soldiers weren`t treated properly. The veterans who lived there weren`t really cared for well. They didn`t understand how to care for them. They didn`t have a recreational facility. They didn`t have much medical attention, except for one surgeon on duty. They were required to cook and clean for themselves. And some of these men were really struggling to survive. So they complained a lot, and they complained to members of Congress, who considered abolishing the whole thing at the end of the 1850s.
And then that board of commissioners who ran the place, they made a very smart, very Washington decision. They said that they needed to cultivate support in the administration, so they started inviting presidents, secretaries of war to spend summers on cottages on the grounds of this institution. It was hilly. It was shaded. It was a beautiful area, about 300 acres, very pastoral. And Buchanan took them up on the offer and loved it. And I think that`s probably the only good thing he did for Abraham Lincoln was tell him to use the Soldiers` Home because the week after the inauguration in 1861, both Lincoln and his wife rode out there to take a look.
LAMB: How many days or months did Abraham Lincoln spend there at that cottage during his presidency? And when was he president?
PINSKER: He was president from 1861 to 1865. He went out that first week in 1861, in March, to look it over. And they were planning to go out the summer of `61, but the war intruded. So Mary Lincoln took the boys and went to New Jersey. Lincoln, the president, stayed in the White House and worked. Then in the summer of `62, they decided to go out for personal reasons which I`ll get into in a minute, but they spent from June until November officially in residence that year. That`s five months, essentially, out of the year in 1862.
They went back again the next summer and spent several months, from late June until late October, and then again in the summer of `64, early July through early November. And altogether, they spent over a quarter of his presidency in residence there. And then, during the winter, when they weren`t in residence they would ride back and forth in the afternoon and visit the grounds. It was a kind of standard afternoon ride.
LAMB: There is a story on page 53 that`s out of context of what we`re talking about right now, but it`s a story that illuminates the atmosphere that was out there, and it`s about Charles Scott and John French. Do you remember that story?
PINSKER: Yes. It`s an incredible story.
LAMB: Set that whole episode up.
PINSKER: Well, there was -- Colonel Scott was a New Hampshire officer who was wounded in the battles that took place on the Virginia peninsula in the summer of 1862. Horrific battles. They raised the stakes of the war tremendously. His wife read about his injury in the local newspaper, and she was worried because medical care then was primitive. And so she decided to go down to Washington and obtain permission to bring him back to New Hampshire, to care for him herself.
And she was refused permission at first. The War Department, you know, stood in the way. He was at some temporary hospital in Virginia. But she fought her way through it, got down to pick him up. And they were riding back on some steamships along the Potomac, and there was an accident. And she was killed in the steamship collision. He survived.
And when he realized what had happened and he recovered, he went to John French, who was a friend of his who worked in the administration, in the Treasury Department, and French tried to take him to the White House. They discovered that President Lincoln had left for the day. He typically would spend, you know, the full day in the White House and then ride back in the afternoon to the Soldiers` Home and come back the next morning.
Well, French felt that he could take Scott out to the Soldiers` Home, and so he rode out with him. You know, here they are, it`s the end of a long day, late summer, 1862...
LAMB: Middle of the Civil War.
PINSKER: Middle of the Civil War. But more even pressing than that, they`re on the verge of another major battle in Virginia. It`s going to be the second battle of Bull Run, and so the War Department has once again sealed off access to Virginia. And Scott wants to go to that zone and pick up his wife`s body and take her back to New Hampshire for burial.
LAMB: By the way, just for a moment, Washington is how far away from Bull Run?
PINSKER: Well, I think it`s about 25 miles.
LAMB: So it`s close in.
PINSKER: It`s close. In any event, the idea that a colonel who went through a tragedy like that approaching the president, asking for an exception, is an idea that I think fits with our concept of Abraham Lincoln. But what happens at the Soldiers` Home is interesting. They discover Lincoln in the drawing room or parlor of the cottage with his shoes off.
LAMB: What time of night is this?
PINSKER: It was late afternoon, early evening. You know, an August day in Washington. It was hot. He was fanning himself.
LAMB: There were no phones, so does he know he`s coming?
PINSKER: No. In those years, people would show up unannounced and sometimes they would bring calling cards. They called them cartes de visites. In this case, I`m sure they had no cards. It was simply a rushed meeting. But it tells you something about Lincoln`s accessibility that people felt free to go to the White House or to the Soldiers` Home without any notice. And in that period, that first summer, there was no guards, necessarily. They didn`t have any kind of secret service protection, nothing -- no barrier between the president and the public.
So French and Scott arrive. Lincoln is there fanning himself, tired at the end of a long day. And Scott pours out his heart to him, tells him his whole story about his wife and how he wants to recover her body. And you know, all of us would expect Lincoln to respond to that with charity and sympathy, but instead he responds with anger.
LAMB: Let me read.
LAMB: I`ve got it here. His quotes -- where`d you get the quotes, by the way, from?
PINSKER: It`s from a recollection written by John French, the friend who took him out there.
LAMB: "Am I to have no rest," says Abraham Lincoln? "Is there no hour or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office, where they have charge of all this matter of papers and transportation?"
And then what happens?
PINSKER: Well, and then he dismisses Scott. I mean, there`s a long sort of litany of complaints he makes, but that one complaint sticks in my mind. "Am I to have no rest?" You know, a weary president in the middle of a tough war, confronted with a personal appeal, sends the man away without a favor.
But you know, then the next day, according to French, Lincoln wakes up to what he had done and calls for Scott and makes the arrangements to allow him to have this. Now, as a historian, I see a story like that and I wonder if it`s true. And you know, the details, to an amazing degree, can be corroborated. For example, in French`s recollection he doesn`t name the steamships and he doesn`t even remember Scott`s first name.
But if you go to the records -- and I had some support from wonderful research assistants who were hired by the trust, as well. One of them was Eddie Daniels, who`s now a law student, and he went to the Baltimore newspapers and pored through the files. And there was a Baltimore newspaper that reported a list of the survivors, naming Scott, interviewing him, talking about the steamship accident, giving the dates and times of the collision, and even reporting his wife as one of the dead, which, to me, adds lot of credibility to the story.
There`s another detail that adds a lot of credibility to that moment. Earlier in the day, Lincoln had been approached by a woman who wanted a promotion for her husband at the White House. And apparently, she had been pushy, and in his notes we have in his collected works a memorandum to himself saying that he`d better promote this man because his wife was a saucy woman who wouldn`t leave him alone.
So you see in this one moment -- you know, I think it was a Friday, a Saturday afternoon at the end of a long week in August, we have these -- this incredible, vivid recollection, but it`s supported by some contemporary documents that makes me at least think, even if the exact dialogue that French reports isn`t true, the gist of the story probably is, which is that Lincoln was tired, fed up and irritable when they approached him originally.
LAMB: Richard Moe, who`s the president of the National Trust, writes in the afterword that you`ve got some new information in this book. Is that part of the new information that hasn`t been published before?
PINSKER: Well, there`s nothing exactly new about that story, although you can look high and low in Lincoln biographies, I don`t think you`ll see it, but it was published. French wrote that story years after the Civil War. I don`t know if anybody`s ever tried to check the details on it.
LAMB: So in your opinion, what is really new in this?
PINSKER: There are several things. To me, the most remarkable new thing is when Lincoln decides to live outside of the White House, it creates a security problem. He`s commuting every day. He`s living away from the center of town. The Soldiers` Home was in a rural area then, relatively easy to attack.
LAMB: Three-and-a-half miles from the White House.
PINSKER: Yes. That`s it.
LAMB: How would he get there?
PINSKER: He would ride back and forth on horseback or in carriage. The typical route might be down what was then 7th Street Turnpike into the city, and then Rhode Island Avenue to Vermont and then into Lafayette Square. But there were other routes. I mean, there were several routes in and out of the city -- 14th Street, North Capitol, a variety of options.
LAMB: Who was with him normally?
PINSKER: Well, in that first summer...
LAMB: In the early days.
PINSKER: ...he would typically ride alone. But the security...
LAMB: By himself.
PINSKER: Someone in the summer of `62, just a few weeks before the Scott incident, writes William Seward and says, You know, this is dangerous. You know, the president shouldn`t be riding back and forth alone at night to the Soldiers` Home.
LAMB: Who was Seward, by the way?
PINSKER: William Seward was secretary of state, a political figure of the era and a close associate of the president`s. He was in his cabinet, but he was also a friend. And Seward responds to this letter and he says, Assassination is not an American habit. Don`t worry about this, essentially. He says, I myself ride back and forth to the Soldiers` Home at all hours of the day. But other people were beginning to worry, not just about assassination but about the idea of the Confederates launching an invasion into Maryland, which they did after the second battle of Bull Run.
LAMB: I don`t mean to belabor this, but you mean that Abraham Lincoln, this giant now in American history, would leave the White House, get on his horse, ride out to the old Soldiers` Home by himself, nobody else with him?
PINSKER: Yes. That first summer...
LAMB: ...in `62.
PINSKER: Yes, that first summer he did.
LAMB: In the middle of the war.
PINSKER: Yes. Absolutely. It`s shocking.
LAMB: Was he armed?
PINSKER: I don`t think so. No. It`s shocking to our sensibilities, but you have to remember there had really been no precedent for assassination or even, you know, an assault on the president. There had been some deranged man who attacked Andrew Jackson. There had been some threats against Franklin Pierce. He`d had a bodyguard briefly. But really, it was something that had not even occurred to many of the folks. Of course, some of them increasingly began to worry about it. And that`s why, in the fall of `62, they decided to assign soldiers, an infantry company, to the Soldiers` Home itself and a cavalry escort to follow the president back and forth.
LAMB: How many people involved in that?
PINSKER: Well, you know, there`s are about 100 soldiers in the infantry company, and you know, in that first summer, the company from the cavalry that escorted the president, about 85 soldiers. And they rotated them. So in a typical escort, he might have 20 or 25 soldiers.
LAMB: What would he see on the way back and forth?
PINSKER: Well, on the outskirts of the District, on the outskirts of the city, it was largely rural, pasture. Then as he crossed Boundary Street, I think what`s now Florida Avenue, it would get increasingly busy. Washington still was not an impressive town. If you read the accounts of foreigners who visited the city, they`re amazed at how rundown and rural it is, and they comment on it in very cynical, funny ways. At the beginning of the war, there were about 61,000 people. By the end of the war, they had over 200,000 people. You know, it got to be a big, bustling city.
Now, from Lincoln`s perspective coming from Springfield, I think he thought it was a big town. You know, to him it would seem big and imposing, in some ways.
LAMB: What was the status of his family when he got in the White House? How many children did he have? How old were they? And what was his relationship with his wife?
PINSKER: Well, they had originally four children. One died as an infant. At the White House years, they had three children. Robert was the eldest. During the war, he was at Harvard. There was a middle son, Willie, who died the second year of the war.
And to me, that`s the primary motivation for Lincoln`s decision to go to the Soldiers` Home. Willie`s death creates grief in both parents, but especially for Mary Lincoln. She has a difficult time grieving for him at the White House. And so even though the president had been reluctant to take a vacation at the Soldiers` Home in the summer of `61, she convinced him that it would be a refuge for a grieving family in the summer of `62. She had a dispute with some aides over whether or not the band could play outside the White House, and that was finally the trigger that convinced the president to try this. And the youngest son was Tad, who was just, you know, about 10 years old when they started going out to the Soldiers` Home.
The president and his wife, you know, they have a difficult relationship to assess the outside. Some historians think they were incredibly unhappy and they fought, and others think that it was a relatively stable and happy relationship. My, you know, review of the evidence from the book leads me to think that from the outside, it seems that by the presidential years, they had found a working relationship.
You asked me earlier, What were some of the new insights you developed? Well, as funny as it sounds, one of the new insights was something like this. One of the soldiers in the infantry company who was guarding the president received a telegram, and it was urgent, but it was late at night and the president was already asleep. And he was told to take it up to the president and wake him up. So he enters the cottage, goes upstairs, knocks on the door. The president says, Come in. The soldier walks in, and the president`s in bed with his wife. He was, you know, shocked by this, and then later, years after the war, told what happened to Ida Tarbell, a famous journalist but also a Lincoln biographer, and she decided not to put it in her biography because it was a little too racy.
I put it in my book because I think, you know, we have different sensibilities now, but I think it`s the first time that we`ve got an eyewitness who claims to see the president and his wife, you know, sharing a bed together in that stage of their life.
LAMB: That book of hers was never published?
PINSKER: No, she published a biography of Lincoln but left out that story.
LAMB: Left out that story. And is that one of the Dericksons that saw them?
PINSKER: That`s right.
LAMB: Which one?
PINSKER: That was Charles Derickson, who was the son of the captain who was in charge of this company that becomes very close to the Lincolns. And to me, that`s the other level of what you asked me about -- you know, what`s new about this book and our insights on Lincoln. And the new story here is not so much just about a place, it`s about the people who were with Lincoln at this place. And one group of these people are these soldiers. And I`d found an awful lot of material from them that has been left out of other Lincoln books -- letters, diaries, recollections.
LAMB: Where`d you find them?
PINSKER: Well, for example, one of the soldiers in the company, Willard Cutter, was 25 at the outset of the war. Now, his father had died just before the war began, and his mother was worried. You know, she was just recently widowed and now she`s sending a son off to war. So she begs him to write. You know, write frequently. He says, You`re awful tenderhearted. Do you think you`re the only mother with a son in the Army? But he`s a good son and he writes her 150 letters, almost once a week.
Now, this is a young man who was with the infantry company that was originally assigned to the Soldiers` Home in the fall of `62, and then spends the rest of the war following the family. The president made the decision at the end of the fall to keep the company with him. And they went to the White House each winter, and they went out with the family to the Soldiers` Home. So he`s there with the Lincolns for three years, writes 150 letters that the family keeps in a box, passed one generation to the next. Ultimately, they become auto dealers in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which is in the northwest corner of the state, and the letters sit there unexamined by scholars.
Now, finally, they donate the letters to the local college, Allegheny College, but the only people who knew about them were Civil War reenactors from Meadville, a group of really dedicated amateur historians.
LAMB: Current day?
PINSKER: Current day. And when the project sponsored by the National Trust became widely publicized around the summer of 2000, they contacted people at the Soldiers` Home and at the National Trust and they sent a transcript of one of the letters to these folks. And when I went down for that first set of meetings to initialize the project, they passed along a box to me of stuff, and in that box was this transcript. And I saw it and I said, I never heard of Willard Cutter and I never knew that there were letters from a soldier who guarded the Lincolns, and I had read a lot of Lincoln books.
And so I started e-mail. I contacted these reenactors, and eventually, I went up to Allegheny College and read these letters. It is a remarkable body of testimony from an admittedly secondary figure, but to me, it`s a wake-up call. You know, if so many years can pass and we still haven`t examined the testimony of figures like Willard Cutter, then we need to work a little harder at breaking down these boundaries between historians and being better detectives.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier David Herbert Donald...
LAMB: ...who you studied under. Where? And what was your relationship to him?
PINSKER: Right. Well, I was a student at Harvard when I met Professor Donald. Now, I had always been interested in history. My parents are both teachers. My grandfather had been a person who loved to tell family history stories. But when I got to Harvard, I was more interested in cold war-era modern U.S. politics. And I took a class with David Donald. He`s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, a biographer of Lincoln, one of those master teachers that can change, you know, people`s lives. And he convinced me -- just -- I fell in love with the subject and took a seminar with him about Abraham Lincoln. And then he asked me to be his research assistant my senior year of college. And he drilled into me a lot of good habits. You know, he was just a relentless researcher.
LAMB: Like what?
PINSKER: You know, the type of researcher who looks at every edition of a book to see how the stories change or, you know, how the text evolves. And they`re minor things, but when you add them up, they can be important. You know, and he was also good in another way. You know, I always got the feeling that he used me as the kind of research assistant who did more for the assistant than the master. You know, I felt like he was redoing everything I did, but he was doing it for me to learn. You know, I don`t feel like I did any of the grunt work that he didn`t have to do. I felt like a lot of the work I was doing was unnecessary in the scheme of things, but was very vital for my learning curve.
LAMB: David Herbert Donald`s got a new book that`s out.
LAMB: And it`s about Lincoln`s men around him. And one of the things he talks about in the book is Joshua Speed...
LAMB: ...Joshua Speed`s relationship to Lincoln. And it goes to the very heart of something you have in your book, whether or not Abraham Lincoln was a homosexual.
LAMB: And I`m sure the audience is saying, My God, why is he getting into that at this point? But it`s in both books, so let`s deal with it. What was the Joshua Speed story, and then what is your story?
PINSKER: Well, Joshua Speed and Lincoln were best friends when they were younger men, and they roomed together as young men. And in those years, men shared beds together, men who were friends, men who were strangers. If you traveled, like Lincoln did as a lawyer, on a circuit, running from town to town, you know, you were thrown into a lodge. You might be thrown into a bed with another man. Now, to modern sensibility, that seems strange. But not to them.
So David Donald writes in his latest book about Speed`s relationship with Lincoln, and I wrote in my book about Lincoln`s relationship with the captain of the infantry company, this guy David Donald -- David Derickson.
LAMB: Before you go to Captain Derickson, Speed and Abraham Lincoln were together for four years, living above the store, something like that?
PINSKER: Yes. Now, they lived above a grocery store for four years or so and shared a bed but not alone. There were other men in the room. You know, it was kind of a bachelor`s hang-out. They were close friends during that period. Then Speed got married, Lincoln got married and they drifted apart. Speed does come back into his life occasionally. He visited Lincoln at the Soldiers` Home toward the end of the war. But they were never as close after those early days in Springfield.
LAMB: So, what`s the Captain Derickson story then?
PINSKER: Well, David Derickson was about 10 years younger than the president and he was the captain of this infantry company, company K of the 150th Pennsylvania. He was from Meadville, he was a businessman, but he was a Republican politician. And he showed up with the company early September, 1862, and the president as a courtesy asked him to ride with him that second morning into the city. And they did.
And as they were riding into the city, they struck up a conversation, and Lincoln felt some sort of, you know, connection to him. They talked politics; they both came from relatively similar backgrounds. And over the next several weeks, he and Derickson became friends. It`s a remarkable story about their friendship. He took Derickson with him on a tour of the battlefield at Antietam, and then later in late October when Mary Lincoln took Tad and went traveling to New England, Lincoln, the president, was alone in the soldier`s home cottage, and according to the soldiers who were there, he invited Derickson to spend a night in the cottage, and according to the soldiers, Derickson slept in the bed with Lincoln at this cottage.
And you can I think from a modern perspective, you know, raise an eyebrow over that, thinking about sexuality. They raised eyebrows back then too, but they didn`t think sexuality at all. Their gossip was about how a president could dare to be such close friends with a captain. And there were literally gossipers in the city. There was a woman who writes in her diary that a captain was becoming close friends with the president and even riding with him and staying with him in the cottage, and she writes in her diary, what stuff.
You know, but she had, I would think, no, you know, insinuation about sexual relationships. It`s about the willingness of the president to break down class and social barriers. I tried to do a little more in this story here, because I think this is one of those instances where Lincoln`s private life has a connection to his public decisions.
There is a context to his relationship with Derickson. This is the fall of `62. The war is not going well, overall. He`s made a decision to emancipate slaves from rebel masters, and that`s a very controversial thing. He`s awaiting election results that are destined to be very disappointing to the Republican Party. And he`s considering firing General George McClellan, who is a controversial figure and this is the final decision to terminate McClellan, it`s a big move. And his wife and his son have left him alone in this cottage on the grounds of the soldier`s home. He is lonely.
It`s not just Derickson. You can see him reaching out to John Hay, a 25-year-old aide, to Edwin Stanton, to a handful of men. And what he`s trying to do, is he`s trying to recreate that world he had left behind in Springfield, with Speed and the guys in the grocery store or with the lawyers on the circuit, you know, where they were more carefree, where they just told stories and relaxed. And so for me, the Derickson story is about how a lonely man found a little emotional support, a fraternity, that helped sustain him make some tough decisions.
LAMB: Had that story about Captain Derickson ever been written before?
PINSKER: Not in the way that I`ve done it. Now, there have been some references to Derickson in other books, and it`s interesting who does it, too. Margaret Leech wrote "Reveille in Washington," a very important book. She is a journalist, or she was a journalist, and it was a journalist, I think, who appreciates that the intimate connections more than maybe some academic historians. So she mentioned the story, and Carl Sandburg, a poet, mentioned Derickson, although he didn`t talk about this particular episode.
So, I think people who really focus on human behavior in that way, they see some value in stories like these and they talk about them. Ida Tarbell, another journalist, for example, did. But none of them really explored the details of this.
LAMB: Because Lincoln followers watch every single word that`s been written.
LAMB: Did this particular story worry you? Did you think that people would be coming after you for whatever reason, because it`s just another little special indication of what Abraham Lincoln was like, and if you got it wrong ...
LAMB: ... it`s still out there in the history books.
PINSKER: Well, obviously the story has some political repercussions in the current context, but you know, you try not to worry about that when you do the history. The answer to your question, I don`t think Lincoln was gay and I don`t think he had gay encounters, but I`m not Ken Starr and this book is not, you know, an investigation of that. And anybody who really tells you that they know one way or the other, they`re telling you more about themselves than about Abraham Lincoln, because these are matters -- those physical intimacy issues are matters almost beyond the scope of normal history.
I think on the emotional questions, did the president need emotional intimacy and where did he find it, and how he found it, I think that`s a real subject and I think, you know, that`s worthwhile exploring and debating and discussing, and you know, I was happy to do it in this book. I didn`t worry about the repercussions of that discussion.
LAMB: Let`s look at some more videotape of inside the house.
LAMB: ...at the soldier`s home. By the way, what`s out there now?
PINSKER: Well, you know, the Armed Forces Retirement Home, as it`s called now, still exists. It`s no longer just for disabled veterans, but veterans of wars lived there -- and have an active retirement community there.
LAMB: Now, this house is empty right now. Is it undergoing reconstruction?
PINSKER: The National Trust is organizing the restoration of this cottage where the Lincolns stayed. You`re seeing scenes of it, you know, before the reconstruction is complete. It was used as a public affairs office for years, and, also, as a women`s dormitory and as a visitor`s house. It`s a two-story building. It`s got several rooms. The Lincolns had a, I think an appreciation for its size. It was a little bigger than their home back in Springfield, Illinois, although built in some ways in a similar style.
LAMB: Did he have any servants when he was there?
PINSKER: Yes, they had a cook, a couple of cooks, but one woman named Mary Dines, who was a runaway slave. She shows up in the letters of the soldiers, like Willard Cutter and also in the president`s own letters he makes reference to her.
There are parts of that stairway you are looking at now that are original to the Lincoln era. You can`t quite see that from the camera shot, but you know, when the site is opened, people will be able to see the banister and the stairs where Lincoln walked up and down. They`ll be able to see some of the original interiors from his era.
LAMB: Another episode from your book is Mary Todd Lincoln getting thrown from the carriage …..from the home to the White House.
LAMB: What was that, when did it happen and what impact did it have?
PINSKER: Well, 1863 is a turning point year, for the war and for the president`s family. In July of `63, you`ve got this battle at Gettysburg that absorbs the nation, it`s the largest conflict of the war. The president is following every detail at the War Department telegraph office. On the second day of the battle, while that`s going on, his wife is traveling from the soldier`s home to Mount Pleasant Hospital, which is not far. There were several hospitals near the soldier`s home. And there was an accident with her carriage. It appears that some of the bolts got loose and she was thrown. And at first, they didn`t think the injuries were too severe, but then she got infected. And it`s really -- it seems that she almost died. She was, you know, severely wounded by the infection and struggled for weeks.
Well, this is all occurring in the president`s life while he`s dealing with the aftereffects of the battle of Gettysburg. Now, we know Gettysburg is a Union triumph, but for the president it was a tremendous disappointment, because he wanted General Mead to follow through on the battlefield victory and capture Lee`s army before they crossed back over the Potomac. And he was incredibly agitated that it didn`t happen. His agitation over that, Mead`s failure to pursue Lee, was almost overwhelming his concern for his wife. And so, you`ve got this man who`s struggling between a private crisis and a public catastrophe in his mind, and you can really see him stretched to the breaking point.
Robert Lincoln has very few interactions with his father during the course of the war. They have a strained relationship.
LAMB: The oldest son.
PINSKER: The oldest son, but he was back from Harvard that summer. He goes to see his father. He`d actually delayed coming back and his father had sent him a very sharp note, when his mother got really sick, saying, come home. And Robert Lincoln shows up at the White House to go with his father back to the soldier`s home. And it`s this vivid scene, where the president literally puts his head on his desk and appears on the verge of tears, complaining not about his wife but about General Mead in the middle of July, 1863. Why can`t, you know, he follow through on this victory? I think he says, I could have whipped Bobby Lee myself, and he says that to his aides as well.
So it`s a turbulent period, but the turning point is, even though Mead failed to follow through, the Gettysburg victory and the fall of Vicksburg in the west changed the nature of the war. It becomes, I think, more clear from that point forward that Lincoln and the Union will prevail.
LAMB: You either say yourself or you quote somebody as saying, Mary Todd Lincoln was really never the same again.
PINSKER: Well, Robert Lincoln said that. I quote him. Now, I don`t know if that`s true. But I think it`s a turning point in her life. You know, the head injury might have affected her moods. She had mood swings anyway. And she had health problems. The carriage accident might have made it worse.
LAMB: When did Robert Lincoln have her committed?
PINSKER: In the 1870s, years later. And that was a very brief period. It was controversial, a decision that he made to have her put in an asylum in Illinois because he thought she was being victimized by charlatans and she wasn`t managing her life, she was falling apart. She ended up then leaving the asylum and spending time with her family, and that`s where she lived until the end of her life.
LAMB: You mentioned the fact that Eddie died real young.
LAMB: Then they had Willie died at what age? In `62.
PINSKER: About 12.
LAMB: In 1862. When did Tad die?
PINSKER: Tad died after the war, but as a young man. He got sick. They were traveling in Europe, he and his mother. On the return back to the United States, he contracted a lung disease and died.
LAMB: Now, what kind of a kid was he? I mean, you talk about him here as a 10-year-old, 11-year-old.
PINSKER: He had a -- it appears he had a cleft palate. Maybe he was learning disabled. Very cute, rambunctious, but hard to understand. It`s not clear that he was reading and writing well. They had a tutor who was very frustrated with his lack of progress. But the soldiers who were guarding the soldier`s home and the family -- they loved him. He was named Third Lieutenant in their company. He had a little uniform, he would come to the camp, get his face all grimy. Willard Cutter said he would always give him bread and jam. Whenever Tad and Mary Lincoln traveled, they would always bring back gifts for the soldiers.
And another example of the bond that developed between the family and the guards is that at the end of the war, the soldiers made a photo album at their own expense, a picture of each of them, which they presented to the family, to Tad and his mother, and that album is now sitting in Springfield, Illinois. It is a remarkable collection of documents. These young men who guarded the president.
LAMB: You often write in the book about the cemetery. We`re going to show some more video on that. That is on this property. What kind of a cemetery is it?
PINSKER: Well, this is a precursor to Arlington National Cemetery. It`s a U.S. national cemetery, that was created at the beginning of the war and was overrun by gravestones, and that was why they decided to expand and create a national cemetery on Robert E. Lee`s farm in Arlington.
LAMB: Do they still use this cemetery?
PINSKER: I -- that`s a good question. I can`t answer that. But I don`t think so. It`s still there. You can visit it. It`s a somber sight. It plays a role in my story, because, you know, President Lincoln reportedly walked along the rows of gravestones at night, during the day, when he was collecting his thoughts.
In the summer of `63, of course, he is living at the soldier`s home doing these walks. It`s just across the road from the cottage. And this is all in the months and weeks in the run-up to the battle -- to the dedication of the cemetery of Gettysburg. I mean, he literally returns from the soldier`s home to the White House just a few weeks before he goes to Gettysburg in late November 1863, to dedicate the national cemetery.
Now, he collects his ideas for that speech, I think in some measure while he`s living here. And you know, there`s a famous scene on July 4, 1863, a group of citizens come to the White House. They called it a serenade; they asked the president to give a little speech. And they asked him to talk about the meaning of Independence Day in the middle of this war. And he begins his speech by saying, how long ago was it, 80 odd years? And of course, a few months later his thoughts have coalesced, and he moves from 80 odd years to fourscore and seven years ago. And to me, the sanctuary he found at the soldier`s home, the ideas he developed walking along those gravestones in Washington before he went to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania is what helped him evolve from 80 odd years to fourscore and to develop this idea of the new birth of freedom.
LAMB: By the way, Hannibal Hamlin, the vice president from Maine who you get a sense, in a lot of books, that he didn`t matter at all.
LAMB: You`ve got him having some intimate conversations with Abraham Lincoln when he was president and one that went on most of the night, through the night.
PINSKER: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Where did you find this stuff?
PINSKER: Well, I found it from him and his family, so I`m not convinced that it`s true either. And I put it in the book because I do think these recollections deserve a hearing. And then I let the reader decide. Hannibal Hamlin claims that Lincoln talked about emancipation with him, that he consulted his vice president, read him an early draft of the policy. I don`t particularly think it`s believable, but Hamlin insists it`s true. There is some corroborating evidence. He was the vice president. He was also known as a supporter of abolition and emancipation. So you know, it`s a tough call.
LAMB: Had Hannibal Hamlin been a Democrat?
PINSKER: He had originally been a Democrat and then became a Republican before the war.
LAMB: And then, if you go to `64 and the election when Abraham Lincoln ran against George McClellan -- by the way, how old would McClellan have been in `64? Do you remember?
PINSKER: Well, he was 34 at the outset of the war, so he would have been in his late 30s.
LAMB: And you had the Union Party and you had Andrew Johnson, who was also -- was he a Democrat?
PINSKER: Yeah, he had been a Democrat during the war, a Southern senator from Tennessee who didn`t go out with the state, stayed in the Union, became the wartime governor of occupied Tennessee, and then Lincoln allowed the convention to select him instead of Hamlin to run as the vice presidential nominee for the second term.
LAMB: Short story, John Nichols?
PINSKER: Yeah, John W. Nichols was a private in the company from Pennsylvania. And he says that in the summer of `64, one evening, there is a gunshot, and a horse gallops up with President Lincoln on it, hatless, and Lincoln claims that the gunshot had scared the horse, somebody had fired a gun off accidentally, and everything was fine. But Nichols and I guess another soldier who was on guard duty with him; they were suspicious. So they walked around the pathways and the grounds of the soldier`s home, and they found Lincoln`s hat, you know, his signature hat, with a bullet hole through the crown. And he claims they took the hat to the president the next morning and -- and Lincoln said, let`s just keep this between us.
And that story was published in a newspaper, interview after the war. Other people then adopted that story and claimed it as their own. I`m not sure I believe that story either. But it`s hard to dispute it. It`s an eyewitness who is recalling an event. One thing that corroborates that story is important -- after the alleged incident took place in summer 1864, they increased the security around the president. They began deploying Washington police detectives around the president, more frequently in the fall of `64. And there is a letter from a nurse who used to come out to the soldier`s home to take care of Tad, and she says that Aunt Mary, Mary Dines the cook, said there had been a lot of threats against the president and they had been increasing security.
So maybe it is believable. It`s just one of those, you know, imponderables.
LAMB: Silas Burt. Do you remember him?
PINSKER: I do.
LAMB: I`m going to read a quote eventually from him...
LAMB: ...but tell us who he is.
PINSKER: Well, Silas Burt was an officer in the army from -- or a politician from New York, who was sent as an emissary by the governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, to talk to President Lincoln. Seymour was a Democrat, Lincoln was a Republican, and there`s a great deal of, you know, political dispute between them over questions that involved civil liberties, the suppression of free speech, the question of whether or not Democrats who opposed the war should be arrested. These are tough, tough issues. And the president pursued a very hard policy toward some of his critics.
Well, Seymour, of course, had an interest in this, because he was becoming more noticeably critical of the president in the spring of `63 and he sent Burt down to Washington to talk to the president. It seems like it was a back channel. You know, the idea of being -- that Burt would assure Lincoln that Seymour was loyal to the Union coalition, but Burt had a hard time getting in to see the president. So he ran into someone on the street, also from New York who was in the Army who assured Burt that he could take him to the soldier`s home. And Burt wrote a recollection about the trip out there.
LAMB: Here`s what I want to read is, it`s June 26, 1863. Here`s what Burt says: "At length we heard slow shuffling steps come down the uncarpeted stairs. And the president entered the room as we respectfully rose from our seats. That pathetic figure has ever remained indelible in my memory. His tall form was bowed. His hair disheveled. He wore no necktie or collar, and his large feet were partly encased in very loose, heelless slippers."
PINSKER: That`s a very vivid scene. And Lincoln talks to them, listens to what they have to say about Seymour, doesn`t seem much impressed, and, you know, this is the eve of the battle of Gettysburg. It is a very difficult period, you know, a nervous period. The president has relieved one commander and replaced him with General Mead on the eve of this battle, and he`s tired. It`s been a long, exhausting war. This is a very tense-ridden period, tenseful period, and he starts to fall asleep. You know, in the middle of this conversation, you know, the conversation drags and Lincoln starts to nod off a little bit in the cottage.
Well, the man that Burt had met on the street, he says later he was probably drunk, and apparently this man slaps the president on the knee and says, "Mr. President, tell us one of your favorite stories." And Lincoln, you know, startled, wakes up, and very memorably rises. He is indignant, and he says that, you know, he doesn`t tell stories just for entertainment, his stories have a point, and dismisses them. And Burt related that incident in a recollection years after the war to indicate the dignity in Lincoln.
You know, because he had a reputation during the war for being kind of a country bumpkin, uncouth, and the point of the story in Burt`s mind was to show that Lincoln had a sense of dignity.
LAMB: "We drove up to the door and being challenged by the sentry replied with becoming modesty that we wanted to see Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. He let us pass, and we rang. I rather expected the door to be opened by the disputable coachman” -- I mean, “disreputable coachman." Why did he call him a disreputable coachman? I`ll tell you who this is in a second.
PINSKER: I`ll tell you, this is George Borrett.
PINSKER: You are now reading from a recollection of an English visitor who is recounting his visit to Washington in 1864, and earlier in the book I talk about how he jokes that the coachman who leads Lincoln`s carriage, brushes his hat the wrong way and doesn`t really have any sense of decorum, and this Englishman finds it ridiculous and laughable that the president of the United States travels in this fashion.
LAMB: How does he feel about the ability to walk up to the front door and knock on it and see him?
PINSKER: Well, he’s flabbergasted, and the thing is, you know, he’s taken there by the daughter of an administration official, and she`s, according to George Borrett, a brassy woman who shocks him with her sort of forwardness. And he`s amazed that the president responds to this.
LAMB: Let me read this again. "He let us pass and we rang. I rather expected the door to have been opened by the disreputable coachman, but we were waited upon by a buttonless ‘buttons’, apparently the sole domestic on the premises, to whom we told our wish." What does he mean by buttons?
PINSKER: It`s sort of referring to the idea that this was a butler or valet, sort of an older man who is ushering them into the drawing room or the parlor.
LAMB: "He suggested that it was rather late for an interview with Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, and it was then considerably past 8:00. I thought the hint very reasonable, not so the secretary`s daughter. With ready with and honorable aplomb, she bade the officious page to go in and tell his master that there were three gentlemen there who had come 3,000 miles for the express purpose of seeing him and his lady and didn`t intend to go away until he had done so." What happened?
PINSKER: Lincoln comes down sleepy, informs them that Mary Lincoln is not able to join them, but he listens to their stories of their travel to the United States, charms some of them, although Borrett remains a little skeptical until the end of the conversation. They stop talking about politics and business and the travels, and they start talking about poetry. And Lincoln quotes to him from Pope`s essay on man. "All nature is but art unknown to thee." And it ends with the expression, "whatever is, is right."
Now that was a famous poem in that day, and Lincoln`s ability to quote it is impressive, but he turns it on the visitors, and he says, some people think if whatever is, is right, then whatever isn`t must be wrong, and that would be a mistake, and Borrett thinks that`s a little shrewd. And he was expecting Lincoln to be kind of rough and not so intelligent, and so he walked away charmed.
For me, the underlying theme of the story is that the president has evolved to that point, from the Scott story where he says, am I to have no rest? To this story, where he says, whatever is, is right. He has evolved to the point where he is comfortable, as commander in chief and president, where he is self-assured, he has grown, and I think that growth was the result of a sense of poise and equilibrium that he got in part because he found sanctuary at the soldier`s home.
LAMB: By the way, where do you put him on your list of presidents?
PINSKER: At the top.
LAMB: Any question about that at all?
PINSKER: No, not for me.
LAMB: And what would be the number one reason you`re putting him there?
PINSKER: Well, the accomplishment of keeping the union together and freeing the slaves, while explaining the purpose of democracy in those famous speeches, unparalleled.
LAMB: Did you send the transcript of your book or the manuscript to David Herbert Donald to read?
PINSKER: I did, he reviewed it, made a lot of criticism and helpful suggestions, and it`s a better book for it.
LAMB: Do you get some -- what was something that he might have objected to or suggested that you change?
PINSKER: Well, I`ll give you one great example. And this is, I think, where he is so valuable to me. Originally, this book was not organized in narrative form. Now, I believe in narrative history, but I wasn`t convinced at first that I could pull it off. He was the one who urged me to take it season by season and tell it as a story and unfold it in a more vivid way, and, you know, I am grateful for that advice. I think it was smart.
LAMB: Again, the other ingredients of your book, you have a timetable.
LAMB: Why did you go that? I mean, you can go through the years and the months, and all of those things that we`ve talked about, a lot have been highlighted. Why did you do that?
PINSKER: Well, I am just a believer in the power of narratives as explainer. I think that too many historians nowadays look past narrative. In many ways, narrative is coming back, but even for someone as well examined as Lincoln, you can write a story that follows him day by day that still brings forth new insight, and sometimes the only way to get that insight is to ask yourself, what day of the week was this, you know, what happened right before it and right after it. You have to put things in the chronological context. It`s not the only way to do history, but it`s an important way to do history.
LAMB: Do you have any idea whether the Trust is happy with your book?
PINSKER: They are very happy. Dick Moe, Sophie Lynn, a whole host of people in the organization, who were part of this, I think they feel a sense of pride and ownership in it. They are interested in, you know, growing the project, using the book to help publicize what`s happening, and turning the Lincoln cottage into the sort of premiere site for Lincoln`s presidency.
LAMB: When will it be ready for the public to view?
PINSKER: It`s available to a degree now. They organized certain private tours and public tours through Heritage group in Washington, although you have to have a reservation, but they are hopeful that they`ll get the operation up and running and fully accessible to the public in the next few years. And it`s still, by the way, a living, breathing armed forces retirement community there, so they have to be sensitive to that. You can`t just bring whole hosts of students and visitors up there without respecting the lives of the veterans who are living there now.
LAMB: You dedicate the book for Rachel, "whose love is my sanctuary." Take off on the name of the book. Who is Rachel?
PINSKER: Well, Rachel is my wife. And we got married in the process of this book coming to publication, so it`s a special connection for me. She is a lawyer, but she is a former history major. And she was a wonderful editor and friend, and, of course, I love her, and she`s just been a wonderful help to me. I didn`t publish a book before I met her, and I published two since we have been together.
LAMB: What do you teach at Dickinson College?
PINSKER: American history.
LAMB: Where is your home originally?
PINSKER: Lancaster, where I live now.
LAMB: And where did you go to college, besides you mentioned Oxford, where was that? Harvard?
PINSKER: I went to Harvard as an undergraduate. I got my doctorate from Oxford. And then I have been teaching and working as a consultant ever since.
LAMB: What college at Oxford?
PINSKER: Brasenose college.
LAMB: And on the cover of the book, you have a picture here of Abraham Lincoln. Did you choose that? And if you did or didn`t, why is that on the cover?
PINSKER: The people at Oxford Press chose that. I think it`s a good choice, because it shows Lincoln in a kind of parlor setting, you know. That`s not a picture from the soldier`s home, the bottom picture of him, but it is a picture that reflects, I think, the kind of peace and ordinary lifestyle that he aspired to find at the soldier`s home.
LAMB: Our guest has been Matthew Pinsker, and this is the cover of the book, "Lincoln`s Sanctuary, the Soldiers Home," right outside of the center of Washington, D.C. Thank you very much for joining us.
PINSKER: Thank you.
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