“How Sleep the Brave Who Sink to Rest”


Circa 1861-1865 photo of Soldiers’ Home Cemetery (courtesy New York Public Library)

Ever since college graduation, I have been fortunate to work at a place I truly believe in – President Lincoln’s Cottage. From June through November of 1862, 1863, and 1864, Abraham Lincoln lived in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C, commuting each day by horse to the White House. While at the Cottage in 1862, he developed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate territory and led the way to abolition of slavery in the United States. In addition, Lincoln met with members of his cabinet, generals of the Union army, and interacted with all sorts of visitors. For these historically significant reasons, President Bill Clinton named the site a National Monument in 2000. After an eight-year restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Cottage opened for tours on President’s Day 2008. (If you haven’t gone yet I highly recommend it; as the only National Monument in the country that doesn’t receive regular government funding, we rely on earned income such as ticket sales and donations!)

The Cottage, in addition to serving as “the Cradle of the Emancipation Proclamation,” also influenced Lincoln’s presidency by virtue of its proximity to the first National Cemetery. Hauntingly, Lincoln witnessed hundreds of burials, as the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery lies just a few hundred yards from the Cottage’s front steps. The precursor to Arlington, this cemetery (today officially called “United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery”) was created in 1861 in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run. Lincoln often visited the cemetery, and one California visitor recalled him reciting lines from William Collins’ poem “How Sleep the Brave” as he walked among the graves. Clearly living so close to such a busy cemetery affected the President.

Working with my colleague Evan Phifer — who serves as one of our Historical Interpreters that lead tours of the Cottage — we hope to create a viable digital resource documenting this underrepresented part of Lincoln’s time at the Cottage and the Soldiers’ Home. We propose to create a visitor friendly and easily accessible database of the Civil War graves in the cemetery. As Evan can attest, we get a lot of questions about the cemetery from visitors, especially since we refer to it in our exhibits and programs, but do not regularly give tours of the cemetery (it falls under a different jurisdiction than the Cottage).

Unfortunately, not many online resources on the cemetery that currently exist can answer these visitors’ questions. The Park Service has a brief description of the history of the site, but completely fails to mention Lincoln; this is a glaring omission in the historical background. On the Cottage website, there is an old blog post of data detailing the burials, compiled by an Ohio history class in 2004. Evan and I will use this as a starting point, and certainly are grateful to Mr. LaRue’s class for compiling the raw data. However, both this post and the NPS description are not obviously accessible, lack robust interpretation, and/or do not promote interactivity. Our resource hopefully will include these elements.

We have a few platform options for our project. First, we could create a mini-site on www.lincolncottage.org, which uses the WordPress CMS. Second we could create a separate site using WordPress. And lastly, we might use Omeka to build it as a database/digital collection. Regardless of format, one of the key elements of our website will be a graph charting when the burials took place during the Civil War. This graph will be combined with a timeline of important Civil War, slavery and Lincoln family milestones. From this combined presentation, visitors will appreciate the context of the burials and how in turn they affected Lincoln’s leadership, ideas, and humanity.

In addition to demonstrating general trends over the course of the Civil War, we are especially interested in is the stories of the actual soldiers buried in the cemetery. The stories of these brave men are not told in any of the current research on the cemetery. By looking at records in the Library of Congress, National Archives and other veteran databases, we hope to create profiles of at least some of the soldiers who eternally rest in the Soldiers’ Home cemetery.

As for President Lincoln’s Cottage’s role, we will obviously keep our colleagues apprised of our work, especially Erin Mast, the Executive Director, and Callie Hawkins, Associate Director for Programs. In addition, George Wellman, a volunteer who also is a resident of the Soldiers’ Home, has an extensive personal knowledge of the cemetery. We certainly will use George to help in our research, as needed. Also, the Cottage’s Facebook and Twitter platforms can help us reach our intended audience.

It is our ultimate goal that this resource will help visitors to the Cottage, local D.C. residents, Americans interested in Civil War history and in fact any “historian,” professional or amateur, with internet access to better understand the profound impact the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery had on President Abraham Lincoln.


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About Zach Klitzman

A History Grad student at American University

3 responses to ““How Sleep the Brave Who Sink to Rest””

  1. drdankerr says :

    Excellent project!!

  2. David Lockmiller says :

    I was reading recently from F. B. Carpenter’s book “The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln, Six Months at the White House” (p. 224) the two poetry quotes by Lincoln to the women at the Soldiers’ Home cemetery and wanted to know who was the poet and the name of the poem from which Lincoln quoted. I was able to find the first two lines with a Google book search: “How Sleep the Brave” by William Collins (1746). But a similar search for the second two lines which Lincoln “afterwards quoted” —

    “And women o’er the graves shall weep,
    Where nameless heroes calmly sleep.”

    – I could not find either the name of the poet or the poem.

    Is it possible that Lincoln himself became the anonymous poet in that moment, in that place, in the fall of 1864?

    The complete narrative from one of the women’s story in the San Francisco Bulletin, as written by Carpenter at pages 223-24, reads as follows:

    The ‘Home’ only admitted soldiers of the regular army; but in the graveyard near at hand there are numberless graves – some without a spear of grass to hide their newness – that hold the bodies of volunteers.

    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 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, but more particularly our own feminine disposition to be easily melted, I suppose, — 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.”

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