Matthew Pinsker: Historian explores the cottage where Lincoln spent his summers during the Civil War

Historians in the News

Early in September 1862, after a train trip marked by tedious delays, a 25-year-old Union Army private named Willard A. Cutter arrived in Washington as a member of Company K of the newly formed 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. Luckily for Matthew Pinsker — and anyone else interested in history — Company K was sent to a height of land overlooking the city to guard the Soldiers' Home, where Abraham Lincoln and his family were spending the summer in a cottage on the grounds. There Cutter began writing weekly letters to his mother that contained frequent references to "old Abe."

Mr. Pinsker, an associate professor of history at Dickinson College, used those little-known letters — along with other recollections that many historians might dismiss as "peripheral" — to add detail and color to his book about the Lincoln family's three summers away from the White House, Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home. And beginning next month, Mr. Pinsker's research will help visitors picture the Lincolns' everyday lives when the handsome cottage they occupied here opens to the public for the first time.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which commissioned the book and published it in 2003, has just finished restoring the cottage as part of a $15-million project that has also converted a 1905 office building nearby into a visitors' center. Both are set to open February 19, the day after Presidents Day.

His research into Lincoln's summers at the Soldiers' Home brought him a new respect for historians outside academe, Mr. Pinsker says.

"When you're a historian focusing on politics, like I was, you just don't really care about houses. There's almost a culture of dismissiveness — there are house historians and then there are real historians. But I had a kind of awakening when I was working on this book — if you don't know the setting, you don't know the people. It really hit home for me."

He also developed a new respect for Civil War re-enactors — not least because letters from re-enactors led him to Private Cutter's letters, squirreled away in the library at Allegheny College, in Cutter's hometown, Meadville, Pa."One of the things we need to do is get these different types of historians — these re-enactors and these preservationists and these academic historians — working together a little more," Mr. Pinsker says."There are opportunities in these forgotten places, like the Soldiers' Home, where people can do a lot of good if they work together."

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