The Battle of Antietam took place on September 17, 1862, but sixteen days later bodies, now in a terrible state of putrification, were still lying on the ground. Every battle since Bull Run had increased the number of casualties, and Antietam topped the charts of the death toll. One in every four men who fought there, was a casualty–killed, wounded, or captured. According to the National Park Service, this amounted to nearly 23,000 men.
President Lincoln had to go. His troops were in a bad way, and Father Abraham should tend to them. He did this many times during the war. If he couldn’t make it to a battlefront, he and his wife toured hospitals almost unceasingly. Part of what made his soldiers love him was this attention to detail.
Unfortunately, Lincoln did not get there until October 3. He knew what he might see, and smell, and hear. He prepared himself for this by travelling with a select group of friends. McClellan referred to them as “merely some Western officers,” but one man who came along was Lincoln’s best friend, Ward Hill Lamon.
Lamon had known Lincoln since the “old times” when both were lawyers on the Illinois 8th Circuit. Lamon had helped Lincoln get the Republican nomination, and had been on the Inaugural Express when the Baltimore Assassination Plot was revealed. Lamon was the first to offer to accompany Lincoln to Washington on another train, incognito. The only reason Pinkerton refused him was his height. Lamon was as tall as the President-elect, and usually garnered a high degree of visibility wherever he went. The secrecy of the mission could have been compromised.
After the inauguration Lincoln asked Lamon to stay in D. C. with him. He simply told his friend, “I need you.” Lamon stayed.
Among Ward Hill Lamon’s many charming attributes was his ability to play the banjo. He had played for years, and Lincoln loved to hear his particular “clawhammer” style, especially when he played “the old songs.” If Lincoln ever needed someone or something to keep him from being overwhelmed by what awaited him at Antietam, this was the time.
Lincoln asked for music more than once during his trip, and Ward Hill Lamon obliged. It is easy to imagine them in a tent, perhaps with an errant “Western” general such as McClernand sitting with them, and Lamon plucking softly a tune like “Twenty Years Ago.” or “Turkey In the Straw.”
We know now that Lincoln was getting ready to relieve McClellan of command, and he had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation, so if he could find a little relief from his stress and sadness, who would deny him?
As it turns out, a lot of people.
Slanderous editorial reports making fun of Lincoln’s apparent callousness were all over
the South, and in many Northern newspapers. A bitterly anti-Lincoln cartoon appeared in the New York World. Holding a plaid Scotch cap, Lincoln stands on the battlefield at Antietam, which is littered with Union dead and wounded. He instructs his friend Marshal Lamon, who stands with his back toward the viewer and his hand over his face, to “sing us ‘Picayune Butler,’ or something else that’s funny.”
The World kept up its harassment of the President for two years. Finally someone thought to ferret out the truth behind the cartoon and the story that “inspired” it:
“[To] 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.'”
“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,
“A. J. PERKINS.”
Appalled, Lamon responded:
The President has known me intimately for nearly twenty years, and has often heard me sing little ditties. The battle of Antietam was fought on the 17th. day of September 1862. On the first day of October, just two weeks after the battle, the President, with some others including myself, started from Washington to visit the Army, reaching Harper’s Ferry at noon of that day. In a short while Gen. McClellan came from his Head Quarters near the battle ground, joined the President, and with him, reviewed, the troops at Bolivar Heights that afternoon; and, at night, returned to his Head Quarters, leaving the President at Harper’s Ferry. On the morning of the second, the President, with Gen. Sumner, reviewed the troops respectively at Loudon Heights and Maryland Heights, and at about noon, started to Gen. McClellan’s Head Quarters, reaching there only in time to see very little before night. On the morning of the third all started on a review of the three corps, and the Cavalry, in the vicinity of the Antietam battle ground. After getting through with Gen. Burnsides Corps, at the suggestion of Gen. McClellan, he and the President left their horses to be led, and went into an ambulance or ambulances to go to Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Corps, which was two or three miles distant. I am not sure whether the President and Gen. Mc. were in the same ambulance, or in different ones; but myself and some others were in the same with the President. 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. Porter’s Corps was reached and reviewed; then the battle ground was passed over, and the most noted parts examined; then, in succession the Cavalry, and Franklin’s Corps were reviewed, and the President and party returned to Gen. McClellan’s Head Quarters at the end of a very hard, hot, and dusty day’s work. Next day, the 4th. the President and Gen. Mc. visited such of the wounded as still remained in the vicinity, including the now lamented Gen. Richardson; then proceed[ed] to and examined the South-Mountain battle ground, at which point they parted, Gen. McClellan returning to his Camp, and the President returning to Washington, seeing, on the way, Gen Hartsuff, who lay wounded at Frederick Town. This is the whole story of the singing and it’s surroundings. Neither Gen. McClellan or any one else made any objection to the singing; the place was not on the battle field, the time was sixteen days after the battle, no dead body was seen during the whole time the president was absent from Washington, nor even a grave that had not been rained on since it was made.
WARD H LAMON
In the 21st century, things have changed little. Mud is slung, grudges are carried, and newspapers (and news television) are as careless about their information as they have ever been. It is difficult to imagine anyone who would refuse Abraham Lincoln a moment of comfort in such a situation, and yet, were it Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama who was the subject of such trash, it would still make the news.
I can only hope that each of us has a Ward Hill Lamon among our friends who would set the record straight.