WASHINGTON—As he seemed to sense when he gave his famous farewell address to his Springfield friends and neighbors, Abraham Lincoln left Illinois in early 1861 not so much to go to the White House as to go to war.
The great conflict commenced two months later, and Lincoln served from beginning to end as devotedly as any of the soldiers he sent to the battlefields. Shouldering a more immense burden than any of his predecessors, he was constantly in danger and even came under enemy fire.
Yet to see the American Civil War through the eyes of the president who led the nation through this most trying of crises, one need not travel far.
Lincoln seldom journeyed more than 100 miles from the nation's capital. Much of the time, he never got but a few blocks from the White House (then called simply President's House).
But he was intimately involved in the major events of that conflict, from grand strategy and the movement of huge armies to deciding the fate of individual soldiers accused of desertion and test firing new weapons.
The stresses, personal tragedies and recurring depression Lincoln suffered during the war were staggering, but he managed to cope with them by making an ordinary life for himself in the capital.
Though living and working at the seat of the well-protected federal government, Lincoln was always exposed to danger--as an assassin's bullet would tragically illustrate during an evening at Ford's Theatre in April 1865.
It was fear of an assassin that led to the embarrassing ignominy of Lincoln's arrival here on Feb. 23, 1861, for his first inaugural.
Indeed, anyone interested in reliving the Civil War as Lincoln experienced it should begin not in Washington but in the bustling city just 40 miles to the north. At a ceremonial stop in Philadelphia, word came of a plot to kill the president-elect as he came through Baltimore. Though he protested, Lincoln was separated from his family and official party, disguised with the addition of a deerstalker cap and heavy shawl and sneaked aboard an overnight train accompanied only by his personal bodyguard, Ward Lamon, and chief of security, famed detective Allan Pinkerton.
Little remains of the rail depot facilities used by Lincoln for his secret, dark-of-night transit of Baltimore, but the city's President Street Station on the east side of the city has recently been transformed into an excellent Civil War museum.
He eventually arrived in Washington shortly after 6 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1861, and was whisked to the Willard Hotel at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, the finest hostelry in the capital, where a political associate had taken out its best suite of rooms for Lincoln and his family.
Lincoln finished writing his inaugural address at the hotel. At noon on March 4, he departed from it for the carriage ride with outgoing President James Buchanan up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol.
The original Willard was replaced by the present Beaux-Arts building around the turn of the 20th Century. It fell into disrepair but has been lavishly restored to its earlier historic state.
The hotel has a small history display just inside its northeast entrance, where you will find a copy of the $773.75 bill Lincoln paid after he moved from the Willard to the White House.
Unlike Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other cities that have made an effort to restore and preserve their central historic districts, the District of Columbia has unfortunately allowed much of its Civil War-era flavor and architecture to vanish.
But a walking tour of locations that figured in Lincoln's presidential life gives one a fair idea of the smallness and character of the city in his time, and here and there one can still come upon significant old buildings.
Public tours of the White House have resumed with the relaxation of post-9/11 security measures. They are restricted to the first two public floors, so visitors won't be able to see the upstairs bedroom and desk where Lincoln worked on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Across the lawn at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW stood the War Department. Lincoln was a frequent visitor--especially when the first reports from major battles were coming in by telegraph. Just down 17th at F Street NW was the then-separate Navy Department. Both were long ago replaced by the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building.