Ward Hill Lamon Really Messes Things Up

Monday, March 25, 1861

Lincoln’s friend and former law associate, Ward Hill Lamon, was in Charleston to attend to some matters concerning the postal service. At least, that was his public mission. His actual mission (so it seems) was to ascertain the provisions remaining at Fort Sumter.1

There’s some previously discussed speculation as to why he was even there in the first place. In his memoirs, published after the war, Lamon gave his own, self-serving account of why he was sent, but still, the facts can be seen through his pomp and gusto.

Governor Pickens was staying in the same hotel as Lamon, who requested an interview. Pickens agreed. They were to meet after breakfast.

In his memoirs, Lamon goes on and on about how word spread quickly of his arrival. The Daily Dispatch flatly disagreed.

When he and the governor finally sat down, according to Lamon, he (Lamon) said whatever it was that Lincoln wanted him to say (nobody seems clear exactly what this was) and then they talked of the state of the times. Again, according to Lamon, the governor said that, though he didn’t want violence, violence would come if Lincoln didn’t completely let the South secede. “Let your President attempt to reinforce Sumter,” said the Governor, “and the tocsin of war will be sounded from every hill-top and valley in the South.”

Lamon then asked permission to see Fort Sumter. Pickens agreed, giving him a written pass and a body guard, Col. Duryea.

The Daily Dispatch was able to provide some more information (though, it certainly may not be true). “He asked Gov. Pickens for a body-guard,” wrote the anonymous reporter, “he had received two letters since he had arrived in the city stating that he would be assassinated. The fact was, that no man in the city knew that he was the man until after he had applied for the guard. The clerks in the office at the hotel swear that no letter came through the office for the ‘Kurnel,’ and that the hotel-keepers themselves knew not who he was until after he was put under guard.”

Duryea accompanied Lamon under a flag of truce to the gates of Fort Sumter.

Lamon met with Major Anderson for an hour. It was Anderson’s impression that the entire point of his message – the entire point of Lamon’s trip to Charleston – was to tell Anderson that he and his men would soon be evacuating the fort. Sumter was to be handed over to South Carolina and Lamon was there to make it happen.

Also, a sort of touchy subject was brought up. Anderson apparently told Lamon that he had placed mines and explosive booby traps in the water and around Sumter.

Lamon, of course, never wrote a word about his interview with Anderson, even after the War.

Once he was finished at Sumter, Lamon returned to Charleston and spoke again with Governor Pickens (Lamon’s account never mentions this, either), asking Pickens if it would be alright to use a United States Navy vessel to collect Anderson and his men. Pickens thought that might be a bad idea and suggested a civilian steamship. As for the mines and traps, Lamon apparently misunderstood and told Pickens that if the fort was fired upon, Major Anderson would blow it up.

Lamon told both Anderson and Pickens that he would return in a few days to begin the withdrawal. Of course, while Lamon never had this sort of authority, Anderson and Pickens (and thus the men at Sumter and Charleston) thought that he did. Everybody expected that the crisis would soon be over.

This “Envoy Extraordinary” left Charleston by train that night at 8pm, ending his incredibly historical journey.2

  1. The Richmond Daily Dispatch, writing on the 30th and Abner Doubleday, writing fifteen years later. Both agree on the postal service ruse. []
  2. Footnoting this is crazy. I tried to give credit where credit was due in the writing itself. For a basic outline, I used Allegiance by David Detzer. For some additional info, I used the Official Records, Series I, Vol. 1, p222-223. The Daily Dispatch mentioned here was published on March 30, 1861. []
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4 thoughts on “Ward Hill Lamon Really Messes Things Up

  1. Ward Hill Lamon was no politician and not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. He alienated people in his own time and has annoyed historians ever since. However, the fact remains that Lincoln loved having this guy around. And if Lincoln loved him, that says a lot about Lamon’s character. He played the banjo, he told jokes, and I think Lincoln appreciated having a companion from the old days whom he could fully trust.

    Lamon gets a bad rap, but of all the figures close to Lincoln during the Civil War (Seward, Stanton, Sumner, other cabinet members, etc) he seems to have been the one Lincoln liked the most on a personal level. Yes, he is easy to poke fun at, but should we judge him harshly when Lincoln himself did not?


    1. You are correct on all counts. Lincoln loved Lamon. He seemed like a great guy all around. I know a few folks like him. They’re always a joy to hang out with. And while they’re full of fun, I don’t think I’d select them to head up an important and secretive diplomatic mission. πŸ™‚

  2. I doubt I’m the first to ever consider this, but I am the first to broach it here:

    Is it possible Lamon was intended to confuse things for Lincoln in case reinforcement were attempted? Perhaps he was intentionally misdirecting things? I’m guessing the next few days will tell. But if it isn’t a spoiler… has this ever been seriously proposed?

  3. Eric: I would never associate the words “secretive” and “diplomatic” with Lamon.

    Sean: Very interesting theory

    I am a screenwriter working on a movie called “Saving Lincoln.” The focus of the film is the relationship between Lincoln and Lamon. We plan to shoot this summer, and we’re about to start casting.

    I would love to hear your ideas on who should play Lincoln and Lamon! For more info on the movie, please check out our website http://www.savinglincoln.com.


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