- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 30, 2002

No one knew Abraham Lincoln better, no one could better rescue him from spells of melancholy and no one served him more unselfishly than Ward Hill Lamon. Nor did Lincoln, for his part, think he had a better friend.
Lamon, whom Lincoln liked to call "Hill," was born in 1828, 19 years after Lincoln, in the Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia, not far from where Lincoln's family had lived before moving to Kentucky. Lamon moved in 1847 to Illinois to seek his fortune, soon met Lincoln there, studied law and became the future president's law partner in 1852.
Lincoln's better-known partner was William H. Herndon, with whom he shared offices in Springfield, while Lamon resided in Danville. Lincoln found the upright, utterly fearless, hard-drinking Lamon more fun. At 6 feet 2, Lamon was only 2 inches shorter than Lincoln, and heavier in build. For a number of years Lincoln and Lamon shared legal cases, good stories and sometimes a bed in small-town hotels, as lawyers and prosecutors followed Judge David Davis when he twice yearly traveled Illinois' vast Eighth Judicial Circuit, holding court in a dozen county seats. Herndon preferred to stay home in Springfield.
During the 1860 presidential campaign, Lamon worked hard and effectively for Lincoln. It was Lamon who during the 1860 Republican convention in Chicago had thousands of extra admission tickets printed and distributed to Lincoln followers, permitting them to flood into the hall and drown out the clamor for William H. Seward, whom many had favored to win the nomination.
It was Lamon whom Lincoln asked to accompany him east in February 1861 to his inauguration and to whom (along with detective Alan Pinkerton) Lincoln entrusted his safety on their dangerous passage through Baltimore to Washington.
It also was Lamon whom Lincoln sent to Charleston at the end of March 1861, when no one knew whether the Rebels would fire on Fort Sumter, to meet with both the commander of the fort, Maj. Robert Anderson, and South Carolina Gov. Francis W. Pickens. Lamon was undaunted by a hostile crowd in Charleston that might have lynched him but for a friendly Carolinian.
Historian Allan Nevins called Lamon a bumbler who misunderstood his instructions in suggesting to Pickens that Sumter would be evacuated; but at the time Lamon was sent south, Lincoln was considering evacuation of the fort. After Lamon returned from Charleston, and after his native state, Virginia, seceded from the Union, he was entrusted with the job of recruiting a brigade of loyal Virginians for the Union Army.
Lincoln appointed him the marshal of the District of Columbia in April 1861. This gave him ceremonial duties; Lamon was the one who led the procession to the new cemetery at Gettysburg in 1863 and introduced the president there and to whom Lincoln said, after his brief remarks, "Lamon, that speech won't scour. It is a flat failure."
Lamon also was the one who led the funeral procession up Pennsylvania Avenue on that tragic day in 1865 and accompanied the president's remains back to Springfield.
His duties were not only ceremonial. As marshal, Lamon who, as noted, had been born in Virginia and hated abolitionists tangled with officials in Washington over enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which had not been repealed. We may never know just how many jobs Lincoln gave Lamon; there is, for example, a curious pass Lincoln wrote out for Lamon in May 1862 that describes Lamon as his close friend who is "an excellent horseman, and, I think, will be most valuable for scouting purposes."
The question of Lamon's integrity remains hard to resolve. Congress took away from him the profitable management of the Washington jail; there were complaints that prisoners were being half-starved. Lamon was not alone among the president's men in trying to enrich himself during the war. He is said to have gambled on oil and quicksilver stocks (and to have gone broke doing so). He was of perhaps average integrity in a freewheeling time. He also was a convenient target for Lincoln's enemies in the Senate, who found it more difficult to attack the president directly.
Lamon unquestionably damaged Lincoln's own stature at least once, with a song. He had a good voice and a banjo, and from the time the two men had ridden the Illinois circuit together, Lincoln would often ask Lamon to sing something. Sometimes it was a sentimental piece called "Twenty Years Ago" that invariably reduced Lincoln to tears, after which Lamon would sing something lighter.
When the president visited Antietam after the 1862 battle, Lincoln asked Lamon to sing him "the little sad song." The battlefield scene was sad enough, but the song turned Lincoln sadder. He asked Lamon to sing something funny and Lamon sang a minstrel favorite called, "Picayune Butler." The report came out later that the president had "shamed the field of battle with a ribald song," but if indiscreet, it was not ribald.
Lamon's constant worry for the president's safety increased after Lincoln told him in 1863 that he had been shot at, riding out alone to the Soldiers Home in Washington. Until then, Lincoln had paid no heed to Lamon's pleas that the president ride with a military escort. The threats continued. On election night in 1864, Lamon rolled himself up in his cloak and slept on the floor outside the president's bedroom, armed with pistols and a bowie knife. No intruder invaded the White House that night, but Lamon continued to receive reports of possible assassination attempts.
In December 1864, he offered his resignation, after learning that Lincoln had gone to the theater accompanied only by Sen. Charles Sumner and the aged Prussian envoy, "neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city." The president rejected his resignation.
The Union Army took Richmond in April 1865, and Lincoln paid an immediate visit to the city, meeting with Confederate notables who had stayed when President Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet fled. But there was more to be done in Richmond, to ensure that Virginia functioned again within the Union. Soon after Lincoln returned to Washington, he ordered Lamon to Richmond to help push forward a state convention on reconstruction.
This came just after Lincoln, back from Richmond, had related to his wife and to Lamon his dream of seeing a president lying dead on a catafalque in the East Room. Lamon begged the president not to go out after nightfall while he was away in Richmond and certainly not to go to the theater.
"Well," Lincoln said, "I promise to do the best I can towards it. Goodbye. God bless you, Hill." They parted, and two days later Lincoln was dead.
Lamon was no Falstaff to the young Prince Henry, cast off by the monarch when he ascended the throne. He remained Lincoln's close friend and adviser to the end. It is difficult to find a figure such as Lamon in later administrations; he was closer to Lincoln than Col. Edward House to Woodrow Wilson, or Jody Powell to Jimmy Carter, or Edwin Meese to Ronald Reagan.
After Lincoln's assassination, Lamon practiced law together with Jeremiah Black, a former attorney general. He wanted to tell the world about the president he had known, and he engaged Black's son to ghostwrite a biography of Lincoln that appeared in 1872.
Lamon's book, "The Life of Abraham Lincoln: From His Birth to His Inauguration as President," lamented that there already had been a race to canonize the late president following which Lincoln had been deified. Lamon knew the Lincoln of the prairie years as well as the chief executive. He knew his shortcomings as well as his virtues, and his portrayal of the president was a frank one.
Mary Todd Lincoln, already seriously unbalanced, was enraged by Lamon's description of her marriage as a misfortune to both her and the president. The president's only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, also was angered, and in 1883 he prevented Lamon, who had moved to Colorado, from securing appointment as the Denver postmaster.
Lamon died in 1893, and two years later his daughter published his "Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1865." This presented a less frank picture of the president than his earlier book and was better received.
It was in this book that Lamon described the role played in Lincoln's life by dreams, premonitions and visions, which Lamon called "the strangest feature of his character."
Today, among the thousands of volumes of Lincolniana, one finds comment on every aspect of Lincoln's being: Freudian analysis of his dreams and frequent melancholy, detailed consideration of his religious views (Lamon insisted Lincoln rejected Christianity); much speculation as to whether his mother was an illegitimate child (Lamon reported Lincoln himself thought her illegitimate). There are commentaries that cut deeper into Lincoln than Lamon ever did but also, all too often, the approach that Lamon attacked: the deification of a human who, although the best man Lamon ever knew, was certainly ambitious and "a shrewd, and by no means unselfish politician."
Lamon himself was less perfect than Lincoln, but he was honest in portraying Lincoln's faults along with his virtues.
Peter Bridges served for 29 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, his last posting as ambassador to Somalia. His book, "Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel," was published earlier this year. Mr. Bridges lives in Northern Virginia.


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