Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Battlefield Visit Sparks Controversy

Lincoln, Pinkerton, and McClernand

The cannons were now silent. The cries of dying men had faded and the bodies were all buried. The bloodiest day in American history was already two weeks in the past.

The president wanted to see the field with his own eyes. He awoke at sunrise and walked to a nearby hilltop. He saw thousands of men wearing blue uniforms. “This is General McClellan’s bodyguard,” he said.

Lincoln was frustrated. He needed to speak with his general, but first he must see the troops. After he reviewed Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps, the president was told his next stop would be Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Corps, who was stationed about three miles in the distance. The president dismounted his horse and stepped into an ambulance, along with a group of officers and aides.

Ward Hill Lamon had accompanied the president from Washington to the battlefield and now he sat beside the president in the ambulance.

The president liked Lamon. He was an old friend from the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois. He had helped secure the Republican nomination for Lincoln in 1860. Lamon liked to tell people that the president-elect had written him just after the election. “Our friends have already asked me to send you as consul to Paris,” Lincoln reportedly wrote, “but it looks as if we might have war. In that case I want you here with me…If there is to be a fight, I want you to help me to do my share of it, as you have done in the past. You must go, and go to stay.”

It was settled. Lincoln appointed Lamon Marshall of the District of Columbia. His duties as Marshall included acting as warden of the prison, master of ceremonies at official receptions at the White House and, by personal choice, he became the unofficial bodyguard of the president.

Lamon clashed with almost everyone in Washington, but he remained loyal to the president. Absolutely loyal.

As the wagon bumped across the battlefield, Lincoln had a request for Lamon:

On the way, and on no part of the battleground, and on what suggestion I do not remember, the President asked me to sing the little sad song, that follows, which he had often heard me sing, and had always seemed to like very much. I sang them. After it was over, some one of the party, (I do not think it was the President) asked me to sing something else; and I sang two or three little comic things of which Picayune Butler was one.

The ambulance reached its destination and the president reviewed the rest of the troops.

The president met with Gen. McClellan that evening and posed for a half-dozen group pictures.

Lincoln ran for reelection two years later. His opponent was none other than Gen. McClellan. A nasty story began to make the rounds. A Philadelphia newspaper printed a curious letter from a citizen. It was addressed to Lamon:

Ward H. Lamon: Philadelphia, Sept. 10, 1864.

Dear Sir,---Enclosed is an extract from the New York `World' of Sept. 9, 1864:---

ONE of MR. LINCOLN'S JOKES.---The second verse of our campaign song published on this page was probably suggested by an incident which occurred on the battle-field of Antietam a few days after the fight. While the President was driving over the field in an ambulance, accompanied by Marshal Lamon, General McClellan, and another officer, heavy details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead. The ambulance had just reached the neighborhood of the old stone bridge, where the dead were piled highest, when Mr. Lincoln, suddenly slapping Marshal Lamon on the knee, exclaimed: ``Come, Lamon, give us that song about Picayune Butler; McClellan has never heard it,'' ``Not now, if you please,'' said General McClellan, with a shudder; ``I would prefer to hear it some other place and time.''

This story has been repeated in the New York `World' almost daily for the last three months. Until now it would have been useless to demand its authority. By this article it limits the inquiry to three persons as its authority,---Marshal Lamon, another officer, and General McClellan. That it is a damaging story, if believed, cannot be disputed. That it is believed by some, or that they pretend to believe it, is evident by the accompanying verse from the doggerel, in which allusion is made to it:---

Abe may crack his jolly jokes

O'er bloody fields of stricken battle, While yet the ebbing life-tide smokes From men that die like butchered cattle; He, ere yet the guns grow cold, To pimps and pets may crack his stories,' etc.

I wish to ask you, sir, in behalf of others as well as myself, whether any such occurrence took place; or if it did not take place, please to state who that `other officer' was, if there was any such, in the ambulance in which the President `was driving over the field [of Antietam] whilst details of men were engaged in the task of burying the dead.' You will confer a great favor by an immediate reply.

Most respectfully your obedient servant,


Though Lincoln and Lamon never published a reply to these accusations, they did draft a response, which can be read HERE.

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