HISTORIC PLACES: The First National Cemetery

There will be a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery today, followed by a parade of colors. Though Arlington gets all the attention, it was not the first national cemetery. The first one was much closer to us - the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery.

Soldiers’ Home Cemetery in 1864. New York Public Library.

What is now the Armed Forces Retirement Home was called the U.S. Military Asylum when it opened in 1851, but quickly became known as the Soldiers’ Home. Disabled and elderly soldiers who had served in the Mexican War were the first to live there, but the Soldiers' Home also had some special guests. For nearly a quarter of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln did not live in the White House, he and his family lived in a large cottage on the 250-acre grounds of the Soldiers’ Home.  It was, in a sense, Lincoln's Camp David, and he used it well, staying from June to November beginning in 1862. Not only could he escape Washington’s downtown heat, he could get away from the daily pressures of the White House.

The Soldiers’ Home Cemetery, just a few hundred yards from Lincoln’s cottage, was dedicated after the first battle of Bull Run, in July of 1861. It began to fill up quickly. While President Lincoln was staying there, he would often go for walks around the grounds, sometimes chatting with the wounded veterans, sometimes keeping to himself as he pondered the life and death decisions of the Civil War. Day by day as the war dragged on, Lincoln could see men digging fresh graves and it surely affected him deeply.

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A woman from California visited the cemetery in 1864. “While we stood in the soft evening air, watching the faint trembling of the long tendrils of waving willow, and feeling the dewy coolness that was flung out by the old oaks above us, Mr. Lincoln joined us, and stood silent, too, taking in the scene: ‘How sleep the brave, who sink to rest /By all their country’s wishes blest,’ he said, softly...There was something so touching in the picture opened before us,–the nameless graves, the solemn quiet, the tender twilight air...that it made us cry as if we stood beside the tomb of our own dead, and gave point to the lines which he afterwards quoted: ‘And women o’er the graves shall weep/Where nameless heroes calmly sleep.’”

By 1864, more than 8,000 soldiers had been buried there and the cemetery was quite full. Burials then began in a new site across the river that would eventually become Arlington National Cemetery.

Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home is now open to the public and makes for a fascinating tour. The U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery is open daily from 8am to 5 pm. Visiting there, especially on Veteran’s Day, is still a moving experience.


© Robert Malesky 2017