Lincoln Cottage Exhibit on Lincoln and Immigrants in the Civil War Era

Learn about Lincoln's interactions with immigrants at D.C. historic site.


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The summer of 1864 was one of the bloodiest in American history. Against a background of the horrible battles of the last year of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his family were moving to their summer home on a hill overlooking the city. Next to his cottage refuge was an army hospital and the nations first national military cemetery. The cost of war was visible to him every day of his presidency, even at his summer retreat.

Lincoln Cottage
Lincoln Cottage

Union soldiers were camped on the grounds outside Lincoln’s window. Disabled soldiers from different wars lived in the Soldiers’ Home across the path. A military cemetery behind the cottage was filling with the dead from the raging Civil War. As Americans by birth and Americans by choice fought to keep the country together and to end slavery, Lincoln’s thoughts turned to immigration as a way to restore the country’s vitality.

On July 4, 1864, President Lincoln signed into law “An Act to Encourage Immigration.” Historian Jason Silverman says that this act as “the first, last, and only major law in American history to encourage immigration.” According to Professor Silverman, “Abraham Lincoln viewed immigration as crucial to the destiny of the United States and he welcomed immigrants to the shores of the United States as their new home.”

President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C. is a newly opened historic site. It has a special exhibit examining Lincoln’s engagement with America’s immigrants during the Civil War Era. The American by Belief Exhibit, open until October 2017, highlights Lincoln’s little-known immigration policies, as well as his broader vision of the role of immigrants and immigration in the country’s future. His encounters with Jewish, Irish, and German immigrants are recounted, as are immigrants’ roles in the Civil War. An important section of the exhibit uses Lincoln’s principles as a framework for viewing modern issues like the plight of child refugees from Central America, Muslim immigration, and human trafficking.

Americans by Belief exhibit looks at Lincoln and Immigrants.
American by Belief exhibit looks at Lincoln and Immigrants.

Perhaps the most moving part of this compact exhibit is a wall with dozens of handwritten notes in which visitors discussed their own families’ immigration stories. Immigrants who had been born in Romania, Ireland, El Salvador, Mexico, and Guatemala had left notes there the week I visited. Lincoln had died a century before any of these writers had come to America, yet his vision of a vibrant and diverse nation still resonated through their stories.

Professor Jason Silverman was the historian whose research made this gem of an exhibit possible. As the author last year of the scholarly study Lincoln and the Immigrant, he authored the first scholarly study of the president’s immigration policies. It may be hard to believe, but until 2015 there had not been such a book ever written.1

Part of the exhibit on Lincoln and immigration.
Part of the exhibit on Lincoln and immigration looks at modern refugees.

Anyone visiting President Lincoln’s Cottage will see more than an exhibit on immigration. The site focuses on the summer cottage Lincoln stayed in each year of the war and the ideas and values Lincoln put forward there. In addition to his 1864 immigration law, other revolutionary policies were born there. In the summer of 1862, Lincoln wrote his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in this hilltop cottage.

The porch Lincoln sat on the summer he wrote the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.
The porch Lincoln sat on the summer he wrote the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

The site also tells the story of the immigrants and African Americans who surrounded President Lincoln and his family at the cottage. These included his senior secretary, John Nicolay, a German immigrant, his trusted black butler William Slade, and runaway slave cook Mary Dines. After the war, Dines recalled that President Lincoln “stopped many times” at her contraband camp for freedpeople where he talked with former slaves. On one of his visits, she saw the president wiping “the tears off of his face with his bare hands” when he listened to their songs of slavery and freedom.2

The cottage is on the grounds of what was then called the Soldiers’ Home, an asylum set up for aged and wounded veterans. Here, the impact of immigrants on the Civil War Era military was inescapable. According to historian Matthew Pinsker, “Over 65% of the wartime residents at the Soldiers’ Home had been born outside the United States…Many of the immigrant soldiers found themselves separated from their families as they faced the catastrophe of physical disability. They were thus compelled to seek institutional support” from the government that they had served.3

A third of the disabled men at the Soldiers’ home were born in Ireland and a sixth were from Germany.4

The tour guides at the cottage invite visitors to talk with one another about what happened there between 1861 and 1865, but also about how current political debates reflect the issues Lincoln had to deal with. Our guide had us discussing slavery in 1861 and human trafficking in 2016, Lincoln’s view of racial equality and abolition at the end of the Civil War and modern movements like Black Lives Matter. Our guide, Joan, is a public historian who did an amazing job of creating a safe space for the dozen of us, strangers to one another, to talk about potentially divisive issues of race, rights, and the underpinnings of democracy.

Our guide Joan is a public historian who encouraged us to discuss the issues that Lincoln confronted and their implications today.
Our guide Joan is a public historian who encouraged us to discuss the issues that Lincoln confronted and their implications today.

I was particularly impressed by the last room in the tour, where I found out that the cottage hosts a student conference each year to stimulate young people to work to end modern slavery and human trafficking.

The Lincoln Cottage does a fine job of incorporating the story of immigrants into what might, in other hands, have been just another house tour.

lincoln arriving
Lincoln arriving at his refuge.

Resource: President Lincoln’s Cottage

Note: The immigration exhibit is open until October 2017. Tickets may be purchased for tours of the Lincoln Cottage online. The exhibit was made possible, in part, through the support of the American Immigration Council.


  1. Lincoln and the Immigrant by Jason Silverman published by Southern Illinois University Press (2015).

2. Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home by Matthew Pinsker Published by Oxford University Press (2003) p. 68.

3. Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home by Matthew Pinsker Published by Oxford University Press (2003) pp. 172-173.

4. Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home by Matthew Pinsker Published by Oxford University Press (2003) p. 173.


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Patrick Young blogs daily for Long Island Wins. He is the Downstate Advocacy Director of the New York Immigration Coalition and Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra School of Law. He served as the Director of Legal Services and Program at Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN) for three decades before retiring in 2019. Pat is also a student of immigration history and the author of The Immigrants' Civil War.

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