The Lawyers: Ward Hill Lamon (1828-1893)

Ward Hill Lamon

Ward Hill Lamon

“I was introduced to Mr. Lincoln by the Hon. John T. Stuart, for some years his partner at Springfield. After a comical survey of my fashionable toggery, – my swallow-tail coat, white neck-cloth, and ruffled shirt (an astonishing outfit for a young limb of the law in that settlement), – Mr. Lincoln said: ‘And so you are a cousin of our friend John J. Brown; he told me you were coming. Going to try your hand at the law, are you? I should know at a glance that you were a Virginian; but I don’t think you would succeed at splitting rails. That was my occupation at your age, and I don’t think I have taken as much pleasure in anything else from that day to this.”1

The two men later became partners in Danville. “This partnership was the culmination of a friendship that began in 1848 when Mr. Lincoln made his first trip over the entire Eighth Circuit,” wrote journalist Clint Clay Tilton in a monograph on Lamon’s life. “No two men ever were more unlike than Lincoln and Lamon, but each recognized some quality in the other that was a perfect foil. Lincoln trusted and depended upon the Virginian and the latter responded with a devotion and loyalty that would inspire a classic on friendship.”2

According to Lincoln legal scholar Albert A. Woldman, “Whenever Judge Davis and the circuit riders reached Danville, Lamon felt it his duty to act as host to the travelers. After completion of court business, when the cavalcade had assembled in Lincoln’s or in the judge’s hotel room, the Danville lawyer would bring in a pitcher of whiskey and bid his guests make merry. Lincoln never drank intoxicants but otherwise joined in the jollification. When the whiskey had made Lamon ‘mellow’ enough, he would strike up some nonsensical tune on his banjo, sing ballads, and be the life of the party.”3

The Lincoln-Lamon partnership endured until 1857, when Lamon took up residence in Bloomington as the county’s district attorney. “Although Mr. Lincoln was my senior by eighteen years, in one important particular I certainly was in a marvelous degree his acknowledged superior. One of the first things I learned after getting fairly under way as a lawyer was to charge well for legal services, – a branch of the practice that Mr. Lincoln never could learn,” recalled Lamon later. “He at length left that branch of the business wholly to me; and to my tender mercy clients were turned over, to be slaughtered according to my popular and more advanced ideas of the dignity of our profession.”4 Even Judge David Davis had to upbraid Lincoln for his low legal charges: “Lincoln….You are impoverishing this bar by your picayune charges of fees. You are now almost as poor as Lazarus and if you don’t make people pay you more for your services you will die as poor as Job’s turkey.”5

The legal and personal pairing of Lamon and Lincoln looked strange even to friends. Certainly, Lamon’s vanity, self-importance and ego were in sharp contrast to Mr. Lincoln’s humility. Lamon was hard-drinking and hard-fighting – as careful of his appearance as Mr. Lincoln was negligent of his. “But it can easily be understood why the frequently melancholy Lincoln longed for the companionship and gaety supplied by this dashing, boisterous, jolly good fellow,” wrote Woldman in Lawyer Lincoln. “This Danville attorney never rose to great heights at the bar. Fellow practitioners held him in rather low esteem as a lawyer…Lincoln, however, closed his eyes to all of Lamon’s imperfections and clung tenaciously to their companionship.” Like him or not, it was hard to ignore the impose, barrel-chested figure of Lamon.

Lamon took part in both the 1858 Senate and the 1860 presidential campaigns. Lamon recalled: “In 1858, when Mr. Lincoln and Judge Douglas were candidates for the United States Senate, and were making their celebrated campaign in Illinois, General McClellan was Superintendent of the Illinois Central Railroad, and favored the election of Judge Douglas. At all points on the road where meetings between the two great politicians were held, either a special train or a special care was furnished to Judge Douglas; but Mr. Lincoln, when he failed to get transportation on the regular trains in time to meet his appointments, was reduced to the necessity of going as freight. There being orders from headquarters to permit no passenger to travel on freight trains, Mr. Lincoln’s persuasive powers were often brought into requisition. The favor was granted or refused according to the politics of the conductor.” 6

Lamon wrote: “On one occasion, in going to meet an appointment in the southern part of the State, – that section of Illinois called Egypt, – Mr. Lincoln and I, with other friends, were traveling in the ‘caboose’ of a freight train, when we were switched off the main track to allow a special train to pass in which Mr. Lincoln’s more aristocratic rival was being conveyed. The passing train was decorated with banners and flags, and carried a band of music which was playing ‘hail to the Chief.’ As the train whistled past, Mr. Lincoln broke out in a fit of laughter and said, ‘Boys, the gentleman in that car evidently smelt no royalty in our carriage.'”7

Two years later, Lamon played an important role in one of the critical events of the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago – the printing and distribution of extra, counterfeit tickets for Illinois Republicans which allowed Lincoln supporters to outscream those for William H. Seward – many of whom failed to gained admission to the convention hall.

Lamon left for Washington with Mr. Lincoln in February 1861 without a specific appointment. He had visions of being appointed Minister to Paris. “You never had a warmer friend; I know that I never did,” fellow Bloomington lawyer David Davis wrote to President Lincoln in recommending Lamon as consul in Paris.8

Lamon took his potential diplomatic duties seriously. “He plunged into work, closed his personal affairs and cleared the court docket in preparation for a resignation,” wrote Clinton Clay Tilton. Judge David Davis wrote: “I feel sorry for Hill Lamon and yet….when he was in Bloomington with his negro boy, Bob, I made up my mind that his head was turned and that he would hereafter do no good. He makes himself ridiculous.”9 Lamon said that “as soon as we realized how serious was the state of political affairs, Davis, seconded by Lincoln himself, persuaded me to remain near the President’s person to protect him from Danger.”10

“Some days before his departure for Washington, he wrote to me at Bloomington that he desired to see me at once. I went to Springfield, and Mr. Lincoln said to me: ‘Hill, on the 11th I go to Washington, and I want you to go along with me. Our friends have already asked me to send you as Consul to Paris. You know I would cheerfully give you anything for which our friends may ask or which you may desire, but it looks as if we might have war. In that, I must have you. So get yourself ready and come along. It will be handy to have you around. If there is to be a fight, I want you to help me to do my share of it, as you have done in times past. You must go, and go to stay.'”sup>11

There was to be no trip to Paris. Instead, Lamon was appointed U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia and he in turn appointed his brother Robert as deputy marshal. Ward Hill Lamon left with Mr. Lincoln on the train to Washington. At the insistence of Mrs. Lincoln, he was given the job of accompanying Mr. Lincoln on his surreptitious arrival in Washington on February 23. Intelligence reports had convinced Mr. Lincoln that he should abandon his large traveling party in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and make a stealthy trip through Philadelphia and Baltimore – accompanied only by Lamon and detective Allan Pinkerton. Lamon’s bulk, as usual, was not matched by either sensitivity or subtlety. “Mr. Lamon offered Mr. Lincoln a Revolver and Bowie Knife and I at once protested saying that I would not for the world have it said that Mr. Lincoln had to enter the National Capitol Armed” reported Pinkerton. “Mr. Lincoln said that he wanted no arms that he had no fears and that he felt satisfied that all my plans would work right.”12

News of the trip was soon distorted to suggest that Mr. Lincoln’s travel had been somehow cowardly. Pinkerton had wanted complete secrecy while Lamon wanted to telegraph the Chicago Journal “that he (Lamon) had arrived with Lincoln.” Pinkerton stressed this should not be done and was considerably annoyed when he later found the liquor-loving Lamon in deep in booze and conversation with a reporter from the New York Herald. “I saw that Hanscomb was ‘pumping’ Lamon, and I motioned Lamon to me, and at once very angrily accused Lamon of telling Hanscomb about me, and who I was.” Pinkerton said he swore and threatened to tell Mr. Lincoln immediately – which Lamon begged him not to do. “I informed Mr. [Norman] Judd of the foolish conduct of Mr. Lamon and he promised to attend to the fool on his arrival in Washington,” Pinkerton wrote.13

Once in the White House, Mr. Lincoln said to Lamon: “You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President. I am President of one part of this divided country at least; but look at me! I wish I had never been born! It is a white elephant on my hands, and hard to manage. With a fire in my front and rear; having to contend with the jealousies of military commanders and not receiving that cordial co-operation and support from Congress which could reasonably be expected; with an active and formidable enemy in the field threatening the very life-blood of the government – my position is anything but a bed of roses.”14

Neither man’s life was really a bed of roses. “Lincoln’s trust in Lamon was beautiful,” wrote Alexander K. McClure. Mr. Lincoln called him “my particular friend.”15 But that trust was not necessarily shared by generals and congressman who condemned his management of the District of Columbia jail and enforcement of fugitive slave laws. Lamon was a “foreign satrap,” according to Iowa Senator James Grimes “The President of the United States saw fit, in the plenitude of his wisdom, to import to this District from the State of Illinois Mr. Ward H. Lamon, and to appoint him the marshal,” complained Grimes in a Senate speech.16

According to Lamon, “The President gave me private instructions to execute the laws until Congress modified or repealed them. ‘In doing this,’ Mr. Lincoln said, ‘you will receive much adverse criticism and a good deal of downright abuse from members of Congress. This is certain to come, but it will be not so much intended for you as for me; as our friend Senator [John P.] Hale, the other day, said in the Senate, ‘We must not stroke too high nor too low, but we must strike between wind and water: the marshal is the man to hit.’ And I say, we shall have to stand it whatever they send.'”17 Conflicts with other government authorities led Lamon to submit his resignation at least once, but the President declined to dismiss him – but he could not stop Congress from limiting Lamon’s compensation.

Lamon had a talent for collecting enemies – some of whose animosity was turned into an article printed in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere after the Civil War. But Lamon maintained that Mr. Lincoln’s loyalty was not affected by the frequent complaints that were made against him. Lamon noted that “several delegations of my personal enemies retailed these identical slanders to the ear of President Lincoln himself. Mr. Wilson, Mr. [John] Hale, Mr. Grimes or Mr. [Elihu] Washburne might tell Mr. [Horace] White with what contempt and disgust they were received. With disdain and indignation he repulsed all the efforts of that powerful and malignant conspiracy to defraud me of my good name as an officer and a man. Some of my maligners are not likely to forget the brief and pithy sentences in which the President expressed these sentiments.”18 According to Lamon: “Mr. Lincoln found it impossible to betray his friend for the single reason that he had been loaded with the falsehoods of a vile fraction, which had only for the moment ceased its treacherous warfare upon him to begin it upon me. And when, in the fear that my continuance in place might embarrass him, I tendered my resignation, he again and again refused to accept it, with the assurance that when I laid down my office it should not be with his consent. Solely in deference to his views I held it, though unprofitable and unpleasant to me, until after his death, when I improved the first opportunity to retire.”19

One particular incident caused them both much unpleasant publicity during the 1864 presidential campaign. Lamon accompanied President Lincoln to the Antietam Battlefield in October 1862. Nearly two years later in September 1864, the New York World published a distorted report of the trip which infuriated Lamon: “One of Mr. Lincoln’s Jokes – The second verse of our campaign song published on this page was probably suggested by an incident which occured on the battle-field of Antietam a few days after the fight. While the President was driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer, heavy details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead. The ambulance had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: ‘Come, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler; McClellan has never heard it,’ ‘Not now, if you please,’ said General [George B.] McClellan, with a shudder; ‘I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.'”20 To assuage Lamon’s fury, President Lincoln wrote a memo on the event under Lamon’s name – but declined to have it published:

The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years, and has often heard me sing little ditties. The battle of Antietam was fought on the 17th. day of September 1862. On the first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the President, with some others including myself, started from Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper’s Ferry at noon of that day. In a short while Gen. McClellan came from his Head Quarters near the battle ground, joined the President, and with him, reviewed the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon; and, at night, returned to his Head Quarters, leaving the President at Harper’s Ferry. On the morning of the second, the President, with Gen. [Edwin V.] Sumner, reviewed the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights, and at about noon, started to Gen. McClellan’s Head Quarters, reaching there only in time to see very little before night. On the morning of the third all started on a review of the three corps, and the Cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam battle ground. After getting through Gen. Burnsides Corps, at the suggestion of Gen. McClellan, he and the President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance or ambulances to go to Gen. Fitz. John Porters’s Corps, which was two or three miles distant. I am not sure whether the President and Gen. Mc. were in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some others were in the same with the President. On the way, and on no part of the battleground, and on what suggestion I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song, that follows, which he often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much. I sang them. After it was over, some one of the party, (I do not think was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things of which Picayune Butler was one. Porter’s Corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle ground was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in succession the Cavalry, and [William] Franklin’s Corps were reviewed, and the President and party returned to Gen. McClellan’s Head Quarters at the end of a very hard, hot, and dusty day’s work. Next day, the 4th. the President and Gen. Mc. visited such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including the now lamented Gen. Richardson; then proceed[ed] to and examined the South-Mountain battle ground, at which point they parted, Gen. McClellan returning to his Camp, and the President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, Gen Hartsuff, who lay wounded at Frederick Town. This is the whole story of the singing and it’s surroundings. Neither Gen. McClellan 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.21

Lamon later wrote: “No one knew Mr. Lincoln better, none loved him more than I. My friendship did not begin with his official career. I was near him in private life; I was near him in all the darkest hours of the late struggle; I was near him when the first rational hope of peace dawned upon the land. In truth, I might say without offense to the people of his State and mine, that I retained his confidence unshaken as he retained my affections unbroken, until his own life was offered up the last great sacrifice to domestic discord, on the very threshold of peace, and in the actual blaze and glory of the nation’s triumph.”22

After the War, Lamon used William Herndon’s notes to have a biography of Mr. Lincoln ghostwritten by Chauncey Black, a young Democrat notably unsympathetic to the President. Many friends of Mr. Lincoln and Lamon were scandalized by the book, including its allegations of Mr. Lincoln’s lack of orthodox religious belief. Lamon defended himself: “I may say that my friendship for Mr. Lincoln was of no recent hot-house growth. Unlike that of many who have made me the subject of hostile criticism, it antedates the beginning of his presidential term and the dawn of his political triumphs. I had the good fortune to be in intimate association with his private life when it was humble and obscure, and I was near him too in the darkest hour of his executive responsibility, until, indeed, the first rays of God-given peace broke upon the land. I can say, with truth that none can assail, that I retained his confidence unshaken as he retained my affections unbroken until his life was offered up as a crowning sacrifice to domestic discord at the very threshold of his and the nation’s triumph.”23

Robert Todd Lincoln and many friends of President Lincoln took offense at the biography. Several mutual friends such as David Davis and Jesse Fell pushed to have the most offensive passages removed before publication. Years later, when Lamon sought appointment to the office of Postmaster of Denver, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln forcefully objected and Lamon paid the price of his indiscretion. In a later book, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, that was edited by his daughter, Lamon wrote: “It was my good fortune to have know Mr. Lincoln long and well, – so long and so intimately that as the shadows lengthen and the years recede I am more and more impressed by the rugged grandeur and nobility of his character, his strength of intellect, and his singular purity of heart. Surely I am the last man on earth to say or do aught in derogation of his matchless worth, or to tarnish the fair fame of him who was, during eighteen of the most eventful years of my life, a constant, considerate, and never-failing friend.”24


  1. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 14-15.
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 111 (Clint Clay Tilton, paper for Historical Society of McLean County).
  3. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 102-103.
  4. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 17.
  5. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 16.
  6. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 22.
  7. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 22.
  8. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 175.
  9. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 111 (Clint Clay Tilton, paper for Historical Society of McLean County).
  10. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 179.
  11. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 28-29.
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 290 (Report of Allen Pinkerton , February 22, 1861).
  13. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 293 (Report of Allan Pinkerton, February 23, 1861).
  14. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 182-183 (Recollections of Abraham Lincoln).
  15. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 487.
  16. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years, p. 350.
  17. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 255.
  18. Ward Hill Lamon, Ward H. Lamon and the Chicago Tribune, p. 4.
  19. Ward Hill Lamon, Ward H. Lamon and the Chicago Tribune, p. 4.
  20. New York World, September 9, 1865, .
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 548-550 (ca. September 12, 1864).
  22. Ward Hill Lamon, Ward H. Lamon and the Chicago Tribune, p. 6-7.
  23. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 336-337.
  24. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 170.