Lincoln’s Friends from Illinois

Abraham Lincoln and Ward Lamon (seated)
at Army of Potomac headquarters, 1862. 
In the stunned silence following the President’s unexpectedly brief comments dedicating the national cemetery at Gettysburg, a downcast Abraham Lincoln returned to his seat and dejectedly recalled a prairie idiom for ineffectiveness. “That speech won’t scour,” Lincoln said. “It is a flat failure.”

But the President’s perspective was not shared by the man sitting next to him on the stage, who looked over the crowd and saw not disappointment but awe at the majestic words just spoken. Seeking to reassure his friend that his speech had been anything but a failure, Ward Lamon, a longtime Lincoln associate from Illinois, thus became the first of millions to argue that Lincoln had in fact delivered the greatest Presidential speech in American history.

In this moment, Lincoln found himself once again leaning on one of his trusted inner circle of Illinoisans for support during the most difficult days our nation has ever known.

Taking office in 1861 Abraham Lincoln did not find a legion of White House staffers ready to assist him with every element of national policy. Instead he had a small group of White House custodians and an even smaller group of clerks and assistants. As the war dragged on and the duties of the Presidency expanded, Congress grudgingly allowed Lincoln to add more staff, but for the most part they were men seconded to the White House from other government departments. As much as possible Lincoln filled these positions with trusted aides from Illinois.

Ward Lamon was one of these Illinoisans. A lawyer from Danville, Lamon and Lincoln had crossed paths often while riding the 8th Judicial Circuit in Central Illinois, and they became friends in the 1850s. During Lincoln’s campaign for the Presidency in 1860, Lamon was an enthusiastic volunteer. One of his jobs involved printing up counterfeit tickets to the Chicago nominating convention so that Lincoln’s campaign managers could stack the hall with Lincoln supporters.

Ward Lamon
After Lincoln won the election and found himself faced with an endless series of death threats, the formidable Lamon became his self-appointed bodyguard. After accompanying Lincoln on a harrowing journey through Baltimore, where the most credible of the threatened assassination plots was unfolding, Lamon and the President safely reached Washington. Lincoln appointed his friend to be the District of Columbia’s federal marshal. Lincoln also dispatched Lamon to Charleston in March of 1861 to visit with the commanding officer at Fort Sumter and the Governor of South Carolina in a doomed mission to forestall the outbreak of civil war.

Lamon did not give up his post as Lincoln’s protector, however. At times he was even known to sleep on the floor outside Lincoln’s bedroom in the White House. Once when a man on a Washington street had seized the President’s arm in the course of angrily confronting him, Lamon threw a punch and dropped the assailant into the mud. Lincoln admonished his large friend, “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.”

Sadly, the trip to Charleston was not the only time Lincoln would send Lamon out of Washington on an assignment. On April 14, 1865, Lamon was in the recently-captured city of Richmond, where he received the news of Lincoln’s assassination that night at Ford’s Theater.

After the war Lamon would return to Illinois to resume his law practice and write a biography of his friend Lincoln which was published in 1872. He died in 1893.

Another of Lincoln’s Illinois associates was John Nicolay, who would accompany him to Washington and serve as his personal secretary. Nicolay had been born in Germany and immigrated to Pike County, Illinois in the 1830s. He became a newspaper publisher and worked for the Illinois Secretary of State, where he first met Abraham Lincoln. He soon found himself working in the second-floor office in the state capitol building which housed Lincoln’s campaign headquarters.

John Nicolay
Lincoln’s first act as President was to hire Nicolay as his secretary (for $75 a month), and he would serve faithfully in that role through 1865. Nicolay drew the unenviable task of screening Lincoln’s visitors, which often included the many determined office-seekers who were besieging the President. This was a difficult job for which Nicolay had just the right personality.

“People who do not like him – because they cannot use him, perhaps – say he is sour and crusty, and it is a grand good thing, then, that he is. If you will sit in that chair a month or so, you will see what has become of any easy good-nature you sat down with,” William O. Stoddard, who worked in the White House with Nicolay would later write. “The President showed his good judgment of men when he put Mr. Nicolay just where he is, with a kind and amount of authority which it is not easy to describe.”

Nicolay became a trusted sounding board for the President and was often the first to know his feelings about the seemingly unending series of reverses faced by the Union Army through the early years of the war. He got along well with the President, but not as well with the First Lady.

With the arrival of his second term, Lincoln appointed Nicolay to a consulship in Paris. He was away on a vacation when Lincoln was killed. Completing his term in France, Nicolay returned to the United States and went back into the newspaper business. He was later named Marshal of the U.S. Supreme Court and helped found the Literary Society of Washington. His health in decline, he died in 1901, but never ceased to admire his former boss.

“While I can confirm everything the books say about his greatness, I can also personally bear witness that he was at the same time one of the kindest, most humane and best men that ever lived,” Nicolay said in 1898. “He was always gentle and never severe, always anxious to praise and never to blame, always eager to reward and slow to punish….he continued always to be the same plain, kind, unassuming, good man as when he lived in his father’s cabin or sat in the quiet of his Springfield law office.”

The youngest of Lincoln’s Illinoisans would serve as his personal secretary and then go on to be a secretary of a different sort. John Hay began his career in Springfield learning the law from his uncle, a colleague of Lincoln’s. Hay was only 20 when he went to work in his uncle Milton’s office, located next door to Lincoln’s office in Springfield. He joined the Lincoln campaign for the Presidency after the convention, in part to help Nicolay keep up with the overwhelming amount of correspondence which was coming in.

Abraham Lincoln and his secretaries
John Nicolay (left) and John Hay (right) 
Hay completed his legal training and was admitted to the bar a week before Lincoln left Springfield for Washington, but instead of going to work in a law office, he joined Lincoln on the train to the nation’s capital. There he would bunk with Nicolay in a small room in the White House and serve as Lincoln’s secretary for the entirety of his first term. Technically he was not a member of the White House staff, since there were only funds for a single secretary. Hay was officially on the payroll of the Department of the Interior while he worked for the President.

Lincoln relied heavily on Hay. As the nation sank deeper into the war and the casualty lists grew longer and longer, Lincoln threw himself into his work at all hours of the day and night. Hay was at his beck and call at all times, sometimes putting in as much as 20 hours of work in a day. When Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862, Hay became almost a surrogate son to the grieving President.

As with Lamon, Lincoln often employed Hay in the field. Lincoln commissioned Hay a major in the Union Army and sent him to Florida in 1864 to try and induce a sufficient number of the residents there to take a loyalty oath to the Union. The goal was to allow the state to be partially re-admitted to the Union in time for its friendly voters to weigh in on the 1864 election. He did not succeed. Another mission saw Hay travel to Niagara Falls, Canada, to meet with Confederate emissaries to discuss peace, but this mission also fell short.

With the coming of Lincoln’s second term in March 1865, Hay, like Nicolay, was appointed to a diplomatic post in Paris. But before Hay could leave for France Lincoln was assassinated. Hay was at the President’s bedside when he died.

John Hay signs the Treaty of Paris, 1899 
Hay did eventually go to Paris, the first of a long series of diplomatic posts which he would hold over the next decades. His career culminated in his appointment in 1898 by President William McKinley as Secretary of State. He held that post through the remainder of the McKinley administration and into the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. He played a key role in setting American foreign policy at the turn of the 20th century, including the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the maneuverings which led to the construction of the Panama Canal in 1903.

John Hay, the last of Lincoln’s inner circle of Illinoisans, died on July 1, 1905.

Together these three Illinoisans served Abraham Lincoln though the greatest trials the nation ever faced. And each of them lived the remainder of their lives determined to ensure that Lincoln’s legacy would endure as the greatest President in American history.