The Lawyers: William W. Orme (1832-1866)

William W. Orme, law partner of Leonard Swett in Bloomington, Illinois. Orphaned at 13, Orme never lacked for ambition and made influential friends. He was one of the band of Lincoln’s political and legal friends who worked for his presidential nomination in Chicago in May 1860. That band included Eighth Judicial District Judge David Davis, also of Bloomington. Orme, Swett and Davis were among the most prominent members of the “Bloomington faction” of Illinois Republican politics. Orme was close to Davis and worked with Swett to get the judge appointed to the Supreme Court.

Orme became a Union army officer in August 1862. Early in the month, President Lincoln wrote General-in-Chief Henry Halleck: “Gen. Halleck, please see the bearer, Mr. Swett, who will tell you truth only about Wm. W. Orme, whom I also know, to be one of the most active, competent, and best men in the world.”1 On August 20, 1862, Orme became a colonel of the newly recruited Ninety-fourth Illinois Infantry.

President Lincoln had reason to be further annoyed by Judge Davis, who pressed for and got Lincoln’s approval for Orme’s elevation to brigadier general after Orme’s distinguished service in the Battle of Prairie Grove on December 7, 1862. It may be this appointment that Davis referred to in an 1866 interview with William H. Herndon. According to Herndon’s notes: “I wanted Orm appointed – Lincoln saw me Coming – Said – There’s Davis he bothers one nearly to death – I applied for Orm. Lincoln said he would appoint him – said the list Contained Orms name – asked Lincoln to let me see it: he said Davis you have no faith. I said Lincoln I am a cautious man and want to see for my self. Let me see your list. I read it and saw they were out[.] They were out. Told Lincoln so – and Said By G-d I’d go and see who did it & Knife him – He sent it over and had it Corrected– ”2 Orme got his promotion in January 1863.

Then, Davis asked Lincoln to grant Orme a leave to handle the estate of his father-in-law, Lieutenant Colonel William McCullough, who died in battle in December 1862. Davis wrote Swett that President Lincoln grew “much annoyed” and declared “that the whole thing was full of trouble on account of the constant pressure on that account – that if leave was granted to Orme, he would have to grant leave to others.”3 Davis acknowledged that “pressure upon Lincoln for offices & promotions is as great as ever – He sometimes get very impatient – If ever a man sh[ou]d by sympathized with it is Lincoln–”4 Nevertheless, the leave was granted on January 22. Orme’s brother Joseph was killed in military action during the same time period.

The McCullough family was made famous by a letter of condolence that Lincoln wrote on December 23, 1862, to Fanny McCullough, whose father had been the well-respected sheriff of the McLean County and clerk of the circuit court in Bloomington:
“It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer, and holier sort than you have known before.”5

Orme himself was married to Nannie McCullough. When the long-serving clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court died in mid-1863, Davis wrote Orme: “Mr. Carroll of Washington is dead – His place is valuable & applicants press for his place.” Davis later confessed that “candidates are thick as blackberries” and it was doubtful that Orme would get the job. He didn’t.6

Orme himself fell ill with tuberculosis in 1863. As a result, he was relieved of his command and named as the commandant of Camp Douglas Prison. Orme’s friends continue to look out for his welfare. Indeed, the Bloomington faction never tired of looking out for each other. On September 6, 1864, Swett and other colleagues wrote President Lincoln: “We the undersigned hereby recommend William W. Orme of Bloomington Illinois as a suitable man to be appointed an agent of the Government to get out Cotton for the United States. We know him to be a man of strict integrity and honor. We would recommend that he be stationed at or near Vicksburgh Miss.”7 On September 16, Lincoln wrote Secretary of the Treasury William P. Fessenden to request that Orme be appointed “Special Agent.” Lincoln wrote: “If it is compatable for William M. [sic] Orme, to be appointed to the Vicksburg agency under the new rules, in addition to the appointment you have already given him, I shall be obliged to have it done.”8

On February 10, 1865, Orme reported to President Lincoln regarding plantations that had been vacated by their owners: “ I take the earliest opportunity of sending you a copy of the Regulations, Local rules, and military orders in reference to the cultivation of abandoned and other plantations in the Mississippi Valley.–

If these Regulations are carried out in their true spirit, by the various military commanders, great results may be expected, as well, from the yield of cotton, as, from the tendency of the plan to restore peace and quiet among the people.
Many persons heretofore friendly to the Rebellion now concede its certain failure and look only to matters of their personal interest.– By the proposed plan of cultivation it is made their direct personal interest to restore and preserve quiet and order in their respective neighborhoods.
The people of this valley are in absolute want of family and plantation supplies; they ask only the merest necessaries of life; — supplies, which (if they reached the armed insurgents) could do the Enemy no possible permanent good.
A large proportion of the people in the valley anxiously desire a return to peace and good order that they may pursue their ordinary avocations. Their impoverished condition not only necessitates Economy in the use of, but compels them to protect and hide from the Enemy, such supplies as may be allowed them.–
The peaceful cultivation of a large quantity of land, the production of at least 300000 bales of cotton, the quiet settlement of the people engaged in this industry, and the restoration to a great degree of their former confidence and business intercourse with one another, and the revenue to the government derived from the products, are very important though not the only results of a successful working of the plans proposed.
The large number of Freedmen in this Valley are to be looked after, and their interests not to be neglected. That they may learn the lesson of individual responsibility, that they may have a true understanding of their freedom — of the rights as well as corresponding duties of a free-man, that they may comprehend the meaning of the Divine lesson “The laborer is worthy of his hire” –, that they may have confidence in the Employer, and that the interest of Employer and Employed may become mutual, that the Freed people shall be Employed, and the former master aid the former slave in fitting himself for his new position, are the main features of the whole system.
My conviction is that the true interests of the government in this Valley will be best subserved by the policy indicated in these Regulations and orders.
In order to carry out this policy we require military officers who are not only firm in the discharge of their military duties, but who are able by their past acts to command the good will and confidence of the people.–
The Department of the Mississippi is a very important command connected with the carrying out of the proposed plan. The present commander of that Department is not such an officer as in my opinion is now required.– Well known to the people of the Valley he is almost unanimously disliked.
By unnecessarily harsh and discourteous treatment he has made Enemies where he needed friends; his past record is in opposition to the planting interest and however radical a change he might now make in his course, he could not regain that confidence and Esteem of the people necessary to a full success of the policy indicated.
With my best wishes for your continued health and for success in all your arduous labors and patriotic Efforts.9

On December 1864, Orme asked that his brother-in-law, Private William Cullough, be reassigned, arguing, “He is a feeble boy and totally unfit for military service, and should never have been mustered in.”10 In February 1865, President Lincoln wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Will the Sec. of War please do one or the other, for Gen. Orme as requested.”11 Young McCullough was not reassigned; he was discharged in July, 1865. Orme himself survived only a year longer – dying in Bloomington at 34.


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 353 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry W. Halleck, August 2, 1862)..
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 347..
  3. Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Editors, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Letter from David Davis to Leonard Swett, January 23, 1863)..
  4. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 168..
  5. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 16-17 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough, December 23, 1862)..
  6. David Mayer Silver, Lincoln’s Supreme Court, p. 103. .
  7. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Leonard Swett et al to Abraham Lincoln, Tuesday, September 6, 1864)..
  8. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 7 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to William P. Fessenden, September 23, 1864). .
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from William Orme to Abraham Lincoln, February 10, 1865)..
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from William W. Orme to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, December 1, 1864)..
  11. CWAL, Volume VIII, p. 307 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Edwin M. Stanton, February 19, 1865)..