Ward Hill Lamon used brawn, bluster and brass knuckles to keep the president safe.
Abraham Lincoln counted many acquaintances but precious few close to intimates. Among that handful of stalwart allies, big, bluff Ward Hill Lamon became and would always remain, in Lincoln’s own words, his “particular friend.” Though largely forgotten by history—until Salvador Litvak made him the hero of his 2013 independent film Saving Lincoln—Lamon was much more than friend alone: He was Lincoln’s occasional law partner, political associate, appointee, emissary, bodyguard, companion and eventually biographer. Editor A.K. McClure testified that “Lincoln’s trust in Lamon was beautiful.” Born in Winchester, Va., in 1828, Lamon relocated to Illinois at age 19 and settled in Danville, where “Hill,” as he became known, took up the law. He met Lincoln in 1847 or 1848. Lincoln and Lamon were soon partnering on circuit law cases and remained legal associates until Lamon won election as a public prosecutor in 1856. When Lincoln ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1854 and 1858, Lamon was one of his most ardent supporters.
Lamon used humor as well as his own bulk to keep his friend safe in the 1860 presidential campaign. On election day, for example, when Lincoln had to plow through a throng to reach the polls, it was Lamon who cleared his path. Like most of Lincoln’s friends, Lamon had his eye on a plum diplomatic assignment. Instead, Lincoln took him aside and said: “Hill…I want you to go along with me…it looks as if we might have war. In that case, I want you with me. In fact, I must have you….” Lamon had little choice but to stay by his side.
On February 11, 1861, Lincoln boarded a train in Springfield bound for his inaugural, accompanied by friends, staff, family and also, in response to recent threats of violence, a formidable retinue of bodyguards—including Lamon. It was easy to understand why. Lincoln’s private secretary, John G. Nicolay, remembered Lincoln’s friend as “a man of extraordinary size and herculean strength.” As Lamon modestly admitted, “I may not be mighty in Counsel, but might be useful in a fight.”
Lamon revealed other talents as well on that long journey. A gifted singer and musician, he entertained other passengers along the route with comic and maudlin songs alike, often while lubricated—some detractors complained—by strong spirits. The president-elect particularly liked rollicking frontier ditties like “Blue-Tailed Fly,” often calling on Lamon to perform them.
When Lincoln’s other friends left the inaugural caravan in Indianapolis, they took Lamon aside and bluntly told him: “We intrust the sacred life of Mr. Lincoln to your keeping; and if you don’t protect it, never return to Illinois, for we will murder you on sight.” Lamon reportedly thought the warning was proffered jovially, but he had no doubt that if he failed in his mission, they “would have made good some part of their threat.” Subsequently, Lamon took his role as “First Protector” even more seriously. His resolve was never more dramatically tested than when he helped the president-elect escape what became known as the “Baltimore Plot.”
When Lincoln reached Philadelphia on February 21, 1861, he received word that pro- slavery, pro-secession fanatics planned to murder him when he changed trains later that week in Baltimore. Reluctantly, Lincoln agreed to take diversionary action. He would bring along only one companion on his secret journey—Hill Lamon—who was armed with “a brace of fine pistols, a huge bowie knife, a black-jack, and a pair of brass knuckles.” In Baltimore, wearing a soft plug hat and a shawl, Lincoln was all but unrecognizable as he changed trains and headed farther south to Washington. He arrived in the capital safely and without incident, Lamon still at his side. But when newspapers learned of his clandestine midnight passage, they attacked Lincoln viciously, accusing him of cowardice. For a time the president-elect took out his frustrations on his well-meaning bodyguard. He bitterly complained to Lamon that “the way we skulked into this city” was “a source of shame and regret to me; for it did look so cowardly,” adding that Lamon was “an idiot that ought to be put in a strait jacket for your apprehensions of my personal danger from assassination.”
Once inaugurated, however, Lincoln rewarded Lamon with the post of U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia, in charge of Washington’s federal law -enforcement apparatus and local prison. His reign as marshal was not always smooth. Critics accused him of corruption and complained that he was entirely too enthusiastic about enforcing the controversial Fugitive Slave Law. None of those controversies, however, did much to diminish his close ties to the president.
War fever temporarily gripped Lamon after First Bull Run, and for the last six months of 1861 he commanded a brigade of anti-secession Union soldiers from Virginia. But from 1862 through much of 1865, Lamon seldom permitted himself to stray far from Lincoln’s side.
In October 1862, the marshal memorably accompanied the commander-in-chief on a visit to Army of the Potomac headquarters in Maryland. Lincoln’s primary mission was to prod the perennially hesitant George B. McClellan to follow up his recent Antietam victory with a new thrust against Robert E. Lee. McClellan showed his usual reluctance to commit to further action. Dismayed by the sight of so many soldiers’ graves nearby, Lincoln at one point asked Lamon to serenade him with a sad song—a seemingly benign request that political enemies twisted to the president’s disadvantage. Rumors spread that an appallingly insensitive Lincoln had requested a ribald tune called “Picayune Butler” to be played on a battlefield still littered with dead bodies.
Lamon was infuriated. As he put it: “Mr. Lincoln was as incapable of insulting the dead in the manner credited to him in the Antietam episode, as he was of committing mean and unmanly outrages against the living.” But when Lamon proposed refuting the charge, the president demurred, insisting: “[T]here has already been too much said about this falsehood. Let the thing alone. If I have not established character enough to give the lie to this charge, I can only say that I am mistaken in my own estimate of myself. In politics, every man must skin his own skunk.”
During Lincoln’s 1864 reelection campaign, however, the “skunk” made another malodorous appearance. The anti-Republican New York World not only revived the libelous rumors, but also spearheaded publication of a vicious cartoon showing Lincoln callously calling for “ ‘Picayune Butler’ or something else that’s funny,” as horrified wounded troops look on.
The renewed charge proved too much even for the president, who finally agreed a reply was in order. Lamon composed a draft, but the president rejected it, telling his friend: “[I]t is too belligerent in tone. You are at times too fond of a fight….Let me try my hand at it.” Lincoln proceeded to compose a calm but detailed third-person explanation, designed to be distributed to the newspapers over Lamon’s signature. “The incident, this memorandum testified, had occurred not during, but after, the Antietam visit, en route to another headquarters. On the way, and on no part of the battle-ground, and on what suggestion I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song…which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much….After it was over, some one of the party, (I do not think it was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things of which Picayune Butler was one….Neither Gen. McClellan [by then running against Lincoln for the presidency] or any one else made any objection to the singing; the place was not on the battle field, the time was sixteen days after the battle, no dead body was seen during the whole time the president was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not been rained on since it was made.” Lamon signed the document as asked, but in the end, Lincoln never made it public. Merely composing the letter had relieved him. Even without issuing the denial, Lincoln trounced McClellan in the 1864 election.
Ward Hill Lamon’s most memorable moment as U.S. marshal came on November 19, 1863, when he served as official host of the ceremonies dedicating the new national soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg. It is Lamon who sits right next to Lincoln in the one and only photograph taken of the speakers’ platform that day. It was Lamon who introduced Lincoln to the vast audience. And it was to Lamon that the president supposedly confided after he delivered the masterpiece that would become known simply as the Gettysburg Address: “Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a fat failure, and the people are disappointed….I tell you, Hill, that speech fell on the audience like a wet blanket.” For generations, scholars have expressed skepticism about this recollection, arguing that Lincoln never would have admitted such disappointment. Yet the colorful language Lamon recounted—including frontier expressions like “won’t scour” and “wet blanket”—do mark the sentiments as Lincolnian. In truth, Lamon’s version of Lincoln’s chagrin over his performance at Gettysburg deserves renewed attention and respect.
Back in Washington, Lamon became more visible than ever as Lincoln’s perennial protector. Presidential secretary John Hay remembered that one night, Lamon “took a glass of whiskey, and then, refusing my offer of a bed, went out and rolled himself up in his cloak, lay down at the President’s door, passing the night in that attitude of touching and dumb fidelity, with a small arsenal of pistols and bowie knives around him. In the morning he went away leaving my blankets at my door, before I or the President was awake.” For his part, Lincoln dismissed Lamon’s warnings that he was in danger, joking of his self-appointed protector, “[T]his boy is a monomaniac on the subject of my safety. I can hear him or hear of his being around at all times of the night to prevent somebody from murdering me. He thinks I shall be killed, and we think he is going crazy.” As he told Lamon: “Hill, your apprehension of harm to me from some hidden enemy is downright foolishness.”
After Lee surrendered, however, even Lamon came to believe Lincoln was safe. He therefore acquiesced when the president sent him to Richmond on April 11 to make inquiries about how to bring Virginia back into the Union. Just three days later, Lincoln was assassinated. It was said that the president’s “particular friend” never forgave himself for leaving the capital when, as it turned out, it counted most.
But Lamon’s “association” with Lincoln did not end there. Lamon hastened back to Washington and took charge of the civilian aspects of the president’s funeral. Resigning as D.C. marshal, he then sought appointment as governor of Colorado Territory. But the new president, Andrew Johnson, turned him down.
Lamon subsequently resumed his law career in Washington. He was no writer, but he could not long resist the temptation to join many of the martyred president’s former associates in penning a potentially profitable memoir. For “research” purposes, he paid $4,000 to Lincoln’s old Springfield law partner, William H. Herndon, to secure copies of his interviews with Lincoln’s old friends and neighbors.
Lamon’s book was actually ghost-written by the son of his Washington law partner. The Life of Abraham Lincoln; From His Birth to His Inauguration as President, which appeared in 1872, was the first biography to raise questions about Lincoln’s religious orthodoxy and report his occasionally racy sense of humor. Other friends, committed to ushering Lincoln to national sainthood, denounced the project. Robert Lowell, for one, called Lamon “a vulgar man” who “vulgarized a noble subject.” Robert T. Lincoln, the late president’s son, refused to open Lamon’s book, but was sufficiently outraged about its contents to prevent Lamon from ever getting another federal job. In the end, the original Lamon biography sold fewer than 2,000 copies (ironically making original editions highly collectible today).
Lamon died in 1893, but his daughter Dorothy made certain that his legacy—and his lively recollections—would live on. In 1895 she edited (some allege over edited) a new book titled Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847- 1865 by Ward Hill Lamon. Today it remains a disputed classic.
Stir up jealousy, controversy and antipathy Lamon certainly did. But as John P. Usher, Lincoln’s secretary of the Interior, once said to the president’s “particular friend”: “I venture to say, there is none now living other than yourself in whom he so much confided, and to whom he gave free expression of his feelings toward others, his trials and troubles in conducting his great office. You were with him, I know, more than anyone.” Readers may be advised to peruse his writings with the proverbial grain of salt. But no diet of Lincolniana can be completely nourishing without reading Ward Hill Lamon.
Harold Holzer is Roger Hertog Fellow at the NewYork Historical Society. His next book is Lincoln and the Power of the Press.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.