(Jan. 17, 2018) I officially picked up Maryland on the 11th for my State Collection, and got Washington, D.C., on the 12th. If you check the state map, you’ll see I’ve also picked up Virginia (Jan. 13) and Delaware (Jan. 17). I know D.C. isn’t a state, but the federal city is our capital, and the center of historic preservation of our national treasures.
It’s also, like most modern cities, a center of absolutely horrendous traffic, but I’ll forgive that. I’m going to wrap one Maryland stop into my foray into D.C., and then focus on other Maryland stops later.
The day was oddly warm as a tropical front collided with Old Man Winter, raising temperatures to 70 and creating a lot of fog. I cut through Rock Creek Park on my way to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland (Rock Creek Park is inside the district). The tepidly wet conditions created a creepy, mysterious fog across the creek that looked like something right out of Tim Burton Halloween movie. It might have been 10:00 in the morning in January, but at any moment one could easily expect the Headless Horseman to burst out of the woods, sword swinging and heads flying.
Speaking of heads, you can see multiple parts of many heads in the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Beginning life during the Civil War as the Army Medical Museum, it has one of the most extensive collections of morbid specimens in the world, and has been pivotal in modern medicine’s ability to understand the effects disease, injury, and even aging has on the body—and how to overcome it. There are some rather amazing—if sobering—exhibits to see, such as the bullet and killed President Lincoln and the section of President Garfield’s spine showing the track of the bullet that killed him. Gird up your stomach, because there are not merely exhibits on the brain and joints and muscles, or historical bones shattered by bullets 150 years ago. You’ll come up against limbs swollen grotesquely by elephantiasis, severe birth defects, and kidney stones as big as baseballs.
One whole exhibit space is dedicated to modern battlefield medicine, with a focus on the trauma centers that operated in Afghanistan and Iraq. A section of bloodstained floor from one of the temporary hospitals is the dominant artifact, and the bloodstains alone eloquently tell the story of the injuries that were treated on it. Therapy art—some of it quite disturbing—created by a recovering soldier gives visitors a very direct window into the mind of warriors who served, suffered, and are having to rebuild their lives.
Even without the impact the battlefield medicine exhibit, this museum is not an easy place. The mortal suffering endemic to the injuries, diseases, and conditions shown is sobering, disquieting, and sometimes frightening. The museum’s work in showcasing a collection that has significantly advanced medical understanding and methods is peerless, but it is not an easy place to visit.
Once I was back outside in the humid, foggy air, I needed to go somewhere to recover my equanimity. I decided to head into Washington, D.C., and visit the place President Lincoln often found refuge and solace in during the Civil War—a cottage at the Soldiers Home (today the Armed Forces Retirement Home).
Located three miles north of the Capitol, President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument (President Lincoln’s Cottage for short) preserves the other house the Lincolns occupied during the Civil War. Many people don’t realize the Lincolns spent nearly 1/3 of their time in Washington at the cottage, but they did. The family first utilized the cottage as a place of solace after their son William died in the White House in 1862, and ended up spending most of the summers of 1862, 1863, and 1864 there. In fact, President Lincoln spent his last full day alive here, before heading back to Washington, D.C. for his rendezvous with destiny at Ford’s Theater the next evening.
By the time this cottage was turned into a national monument, other museums and sites had cornered nearly all the known furniture and items that belonged to the Lincolns, so President Lincoln’s Cottage takes a different tact. Rather than trying to obsessively outfit the rooms with period furniture (which is a very costly endeavour), they focused on educating the public about the ideas and ideals Lincoln wrestled with and tried to steer the Union war effort towards achieving. Chief among these is the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln drafted in this cottage.
Being an active retirement then and now home means the grounds are still as relatively quiet today as they were in Lincoln’s time. Today the occasional sound of a plane or car will remind you it’s the 21st century. For Lincoln, the distant sounds of cannon across the river in Virginia, the soldiers camped out on his lawn, and the wounded coming in meant he was reminded of the war everyday. Even so, he was able to relax and think, shielded from the multitudinous politicians that scoured the White House regularly. This gave him the opportunity to ponder what “liberty” and “freedom” really meant, and how to start incorporating those expanded ideas into American life.
This place is also a part of Mary Lincoln’s story that many people don’t know about. Yes, Mrs. Lincoln suffered from mental illness, and, unfortunately, her compulsive spending, outbursts, and emotionalism largely color history’s impression of her. This is unfortunate, because the woman was highly educated and undeniably compassionate. She would spend hours sitting and talking with the wounded soldiers, even writing letters for those who were illiterate or crippled. She refused to let the press report on her activities because she was afraid it would be used as ammunition against her husband, but it’s remarkable such a “fragile” woman could spend so many hours steadily relieving the suffering of wounded soldiers.
The modern Armed Forces Retirement Home is, of course, a gated and guarded community, but when you approach the gate, the guards will immediately sign you in and direct to the visitor’s center where you can sign up for a tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage. Admission for an adult is $15, but the fee is critical to maintaining the house. You see, while this is a national historical monument, the foundation gets no federal funding. They rely on volunteers, donations, and admission fees to maintain and continually improve the site while furthering scholarly research on the house itself and the Lincolns’ life here.
Both sites are worth a visit, and neither requires all day. The medical museum will take maybe two house at most, and the tour of President Lincoln’s cottage is about an hour and a half. That will leave you plenty of time to see both and then head off to other adventures.
I spent the rest of the late afternoon in downtown Washington, just watching the unending bustle of people winding their way through their lives. Even on a day that cloudy and fast becoming rainy, the streets of D.C. are never empty. Federal workers, tourists, students, and local private sector laborers people the sidewalks in an unending parade of humanity. Every one of those people has a story, and one doesn’t have to be a President of the United States for their story to be important.
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