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Friday, February 11, 2011

Lincoln's Bodyguard, Col. Ward Hill Lamon

Ward Hill Lamon, photographed by Matthew Brady.

In the months before his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln embarked on an 1800-mile speaking tour accompanied by a few friends, among them Col. Ward Hill Lamon, a tall, barrel-chested man of enormous brute strength. Born in Virginia, Lamon had been Lincoln’s law partner in Illinois and was intensely loyal to him.

During Lincoln’s appearance in Buffalo, a member of his entourage, Major David Hunter, had his shoulder dislocated when the crowd broke through the police line and almost overwhelmed the presidential party. Later, looking at Hunter's arm in a sling, Colonel Lamon remarked, “Well, Major, if you had had the good sense to stick close to me, you would not have met with that ugly accident. Yesterday the crowd at Pittsburg were hemming us in on all sides, eager to catch a glimpse of the President, and the situation was becoming dangerous, when I seized Mr. Lincoln by the arm, and drawing my bowie-knife, and waving it around me in a circle, cried, ‘Just smell of that!’”

Hunter wrote: "Suiting the action to the word the Colonel snatched at a tow string around his neck and quickly brought to light one of the most formidable knives it has been my pleasure to encounter in a somewhat wide experience in different parts of the world. There is no doubt that Mr. Lincoln owed his freedom from bodily harm, on that and some other occasions, to the quickness and courage of his staunch friend Ward Lamon."

Lincoln was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1861, when detective Allan Pinkerton warned him of an assassination plot and advised him to return to Washington in secrecy that night. At the time, the president and his company were dining with Governor Allan G. Curtin and a circle of friends. Deciding that only one man should accompany him, so as not to attract attention, Lincoln chose Lamon. Before they left the room Governor Curtin asked Colonel Lamon whether he was armed, and from under his coat Lamon pulled a brace of pistols, a large bowie knife, a blackjack, and a pair of brass knuckles. Curtin declared, “You'll do.”

Pinkerton, who joined the two on the train, was shocked when Lamon offered the president a pistol and bowie knife. “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,” said Pinkerton.

Lamon had many enemies in Washington, D.C., some who considered him a dangerous buffoon and others who suspected him of harboring Southern sympathies. Lincoln trusted him implicitly, and appointed him United States Marshal for the District. On one occasion Lamon was walking with Lincoln when a man professing to be a supporter grabbed the president’s hand and shook it with a grip that caused him to cry out in pain. It was not the first time a Confederate sympathizer had played this trick and Lamon reacted by punching the man in the head and knocking him unconscious.  Lincoln admonished him, “Hereafter, when you have occasion to strike a man, don't hit him with your fist! Strike him with a club or crowbar or something that won't kill him.”

On election night, November 8, 1864, Lamon was so concerned about Lincoln’s safety that he “lay down at the President's door, passing the night in that attitude of touching and dumb fidelity, with a small arsenal of pistols and Bowie knives around him.”

On December 10, 1864, Lamon wrote to Lincoln, reminding him that he was in constant danger and urging him to take better precautions as to his safety. He noted, “Tonight, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with [Senator] Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city.”

On April 13, 1865, Lincoln sent Lamon on a mission to Richmond. Before he left, he had a meeting with the president. “I wanted him to promise me that he would not go out after night while I was gone, particularly to the theatre,” Lamon later recalled.

Lincoln laughed off the warning. He was assassinated the following evening.

“As God is my judge," Lamon said later, "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.”


  1. How do you kill a king? First, you remove (or incapacitate) his (palace) guard(s). That is exactly what happen what was done with Lincoln and (in a different way) with Kennedy.

  2. "When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with [Senator] Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city."
    That's a good one.