Hill, your apprehension of harm to me from some hidden enemy is downright foolishness. For a long time you have been trying to keep somebody-the Lord knows who-from killing me.
-Abraham Lincoln to Ward Hill Lamon, early 1865
As God is my judge, I believe if I had been in the city,
it would not have happened and had it, I know, that the
assassin would not have escaped the town. –Ward Hill Lamon
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln hit Ward Hill Lamon hard. He had been a friend and colleague of Lincoln’s for almost twenty years, despite the fact that Lincoln was eighteen years his senior. Before leaving for Richmond on April 11, 1865, Lamon begged the president to go out as little as possible, and in particular not to attend the theater while he was not there to guard him. Lincoln’s death plagued Lamon for the rest of his life.
The relationship between Ward Hill Lamon and Abraham Lincoln began in 1847 when they both served on Illinois’s Eighth Circuit Court. Lamon said of Lincoln, “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…” They soon became law partners and established an office in Danville, Illinois. The partnership endured until 1857, when Lamon moved to Bloomington, Illinois, and became the county’s district attorney. He assisted Lincoln with his 1858 Senate race, which he lost, and then with his presidential campaign in 1860. And, at Lincoln’s insistence, Lamon followed his friend to Washington when Lincoln became the sixteenth President of the United States in 1861. Journalist Clint Clay Tilton wrote of the pair, “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 on the Virginian and the latter responded with a devotion and loyalty that would inspire a classic on friendship.”
During his various campaigns, Lamon appointed himself Lincoln’s “unofficial” bodyguard. He continued to regard himself as such after the move to Washington, especially since he had no specific appointment at the time. Following the inauguration, Lincoln rewarded his friend’s loyalty and appointed him the U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. In this role, Lincoln depended on Lamon to uphold and enforce the hated Fugitive Slave Law, and for that Lamon endured abuse and criticism from both Republican Congressmen and private citizens. Lamon tried to resign more than once for causing Lincoln embarrassment among his fellow politicians, who condemned Lamon for everything from the way he ran the jail to refusing to act as hangman, but Lincoln always refused to accept his resignation.
In May, 1861, Lamon received one of his most difficult assignments when President Lincoln ordered him to arrest Chief Justice Roger Taney. Taney had declared Lincoln’s suspension of the constitutional right of habeas corpus to be illegal, a great embarrassment to Lincoln that also heightened the tension between the executive and judicial branches of government. Lincoln, at the urging of his advisors, issued a warrant for Taney’s arrest. Lincoln personally handed the order of arrest to Lamon with instructions to “use his own discretion about making the arrest unless he should receive further orders.” Lamon declined to serve the arrest warrant and never regretted his decision.
Lamon served Lincoln faithfully throughout the war. Their biggest disagreements were over Lincoln’s security. Lincoln never cared about his own security or believed himself in any danger, which compelled Lamon to worry for him. On April 11, 1865, Lincoln sent Lamon to Richmond on business related to Virginia’s return to statehood. On the night of April 14, against Lamon’s suggestion, President and Mrs. Lincoln attended a presentation of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, where the President was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next morning.
Lamon resigned from his position as U.S. Marshal two months after Lincoln’s assassination. He returned to his law practice, and in 1872 published a controversial book titled The Life of Abraham Lincoln from his Birth to his Inauguration as President, ghost written by Chauncey F. Black. The book was so contentious that Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the late president, bought as many copies as he could find and destroyed them all. Recently another book was discovered among Lamon’s papers at The Huntington Library in California. The Life of Abraham Lincoln as President, the only book truly written by Ward Hill Lamon, and edited by Bob O’Connor, was published in 2011, 130 years after it was written.
Lamon, Ward Hill. The Life of Abraham Lincoln as President. West Conshohocken: Mont Clair Press, 2011.
“Ward Hill Lamon (1828-1893),” http://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/inside.asp?pageID=44&subjectID=3
Calhoun, Frederick. The Lawmen: United States Marshals and their Deputies: 1789-1989. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.