The two men who sat down together for dinner had made quite a transition. A few years earlier they had shared a Danville law office where a $10 fee was quite welcome. On March 4, 1861, the former circuit riding attorney and the robust lawyer, who had been his Vermilion County law partner, were seated at a dining table in the White House. Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States and he would soon appoint his dinner guest, Ward Hill Lamon, marshal of Washington City.
Lincoln had delivered his inaugural address earlier in the day and had warned the people of the seceded states, “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war.” He had pointed out he would stand by his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Union. In the evening, he was enjoying his first dinner with family and a few friends in the White House. It had been arranged by Harriet Lane, niece of outgoing bachelor President James Buchanan. Lane served as first lady for her uncle during his four-year term.
There were 17 people present at that first dinner. Among them, in addition to Lamon, was Elmer Ellsworth, the young soldier who had served as a law clerk to Lincoln in Springfield. He would become an early casualty in the Civil War. Lockwood Todd was also there; he was a cousin of Mary Lincoln, and would be one of many Todds who would receive favors from the newly elected president. It was not surprising Ward Hill Lamon was invited to share that first dinner with the president. Historian Willard L. King noted no one was closer to Lincoln than Lamon.
During the dinner a delegation of more than 500 people from New York called at the White House, and Lincoln excused himself and spoke briefly to the New Yorkers. It was something he would have to do numerous times in the coming days as people would gather at the White House. But the one individual he truly enjoyed spending time with was Lamon, the man he referred to as his “particular friend.”
Judge David Davis, who did more, perhaps, than any other man to see Lincoln elected president, noted, “Abe trusted Lamon more than any other man.” The president and Lamon became friends when they worked together in Danville, and Lincoln never withdrew his support for Lamon, but he was astute enough not to appoint him to any high post. He was well aware of his friend’s limitations. .
Historian Clint Clay Tilton noted no two men were “ever more unlike than Lincoln and Lamon.” Tilton observed, “One, the quiet teller of stories; the other, the boisterous singer of sentimental ballads and the so-called comic songs of the ‘50s; one, the joker whose pranks never went farther than to place the victim in a ridiculous position — the other whose sense of humor was not satisfied unless there was an element of danger to the recipient of his attention; one who delighted in a solitary evening wrestling with the problems of Euclid — the other ever ready to participate in a horse race, foot race, or wrestling match or to back his skill with real money in a friendly game of Old Sledge or Whist; one who only tasted intoxicants when by doing so it might cement a future political friend or attract a possible client — the other who bought his liquor by the gallon and served it out of a pitcher at the law office in the Old Barnum building.”
Lamon’s lifestyle was well known in Vermilion County. When the inaugural train with Lincoln and Lamon aboard stopped in Danville on its journey to Washington City, Mrs. P. W. B. Carothers remarked the stop was so brief it “did not give Hill time to get off to get a grog.” Carothers had been critical of Lamon while he was an attorney in Danville. Her husband published the Independent in the city and she wrote columns for the paper.
But Lincoln overlooked Lamon’s shortcomings and appointed him marshal of Washington City. He stood by Lamon when members of Congress attacked him for his job performance. He also endured the controversy Lamon created when he embarked on a questionable recruiting drive in the early months of the Civil War, garbed in a major general’s uniform. Lamon explained the uniform by declaring he expected his commission would soon be coming.
The two friends remained loyal to each other until the evening in 1865 when Lincoln’s life ended at the hands of an assassin. Had Lamon been present that night, the tragedy might have been averted. No one was more concerned with Lincoln’s safety than was Lamon.
Since that fateful day in April 1865, history has not been kind to Lamon, as historians pore over the letters, diaries, and records of his era. But one fact remains undisputed — he was Abraham Lincoln’s best friend. For Ward Hill Lamon, that may have been enough.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.