The dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 19, 1863, is one of the most famous occasions in United States history. While we celebrated the dedication’s 150th anniversary and Abraham Lincoln’s delivering of the two-minute “Gettysburg Address”, the man who helped organize the event, and who was the master of ceremonies has been largely forgotten.
Ward Hill Lamon. Was, however, a local man, born in Summit Point, he lived in Bunker Hill and Martinsburg.
Known by his friends as “Hill,” Lamon had been a lawyer on the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Illinois in 1850 where he moved in 1848 at 18. He was Lincoln’s law partner in Danville, Ill., from 1852 to 1856 and the Federal Marshal for the District of Columbia. He served as Lincoln’s personal bodyguard in Washington throughout his presidency.
Lamon got a letter from David Wills of Gettysburg dated Oct. 30, 1863 saying that “We have agreed upon you as the proper person and therefore extend to you an invitation to act as marshal of the procession of that day.” Wills, a lawyer, had been assigned the task of organizing the dedication by Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtain.
Wills had invited Harvard College President and famed orator Edward Everett to be the keynote speaker and had asked President Lincoln to give short remarks for the cemetery dedication.
Lincoln urged Lamon to accept Wills’ invitation. Lamon responded to Wills in a letter dated Nov. 5 indicating he agreed to be present.
Lamon arrived in Gettysburg early to make preparations. He worked with Wills; Maj. Gen. George Cadwalader and the War Department; Gen. George Stoneman, chief of the Cavalry Bureau; and Col. Anson Stager, superintendent of Military Telegraph, on preparations for the event. Lamon sent telegrams to the governors of each state asking them to send representatives to the event. Twenty states agreed to be represented and would send delegations.
Lamon borrowed horses and carriages for the dignitaries. He appointed about 30 assistant marshals to work with him before and during the dedication ceremony. He added extra security for the president’s visit. He assigned the marching order to those who were to be involved in the procession to the cemetery.
The President arrived at the train station on Wednesday evening and stayed at the Wills House in the center of town.
On the morning of the event, a Thursday, the procession moved forward like a long snake, making its way down Baltimore Street toward the cemetery. The color guard led the procession. Two bands, the 5th New York Artillery band and the 2nd U.S. Artillery Band, played as they marched.
Lamon rode a horse and wore a white sash indicating his status as the marshal-in-chief. Directly behind him, the president rode on a horse. He was dressed all in black except for white gloves and was wearing his tall hat with a mourning band around it in remembrance of his son, Willie. The hat band certainly was appropriate for the solemn occasion.
As master of ceremonies at the cemetery, Lamon signaled each group or individual when it was time to play a song or recite a prayer.
Everett spoke for almost two hours, comparing the battle at Gettysburg to seemingly every battle in the history of the world. He was cheered at the conclusion. Lamon joked later that they cheered because he was finished.
Then Lamon introduced the president by saying simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.” The president then spoke the immortal words of what we now know as the Gettysburg Address.
His remarks were so short that the photographer on the scene complained later that he hadn’t even had time to duck under the hood of his camera before Mr. Lincoln finished. He took one photograph afterward that has survived, with both Lincoln and Lamon shown.
By 3 p.m., the procession had moved back to the square, following the reverse direction of the earlier march. At 6:30 p.m., soldiers escorted the president and his party back to the train station for their return trip to Washington.
Lamon remained in Gettysburg until the following Monday, finishing reports and meeting with local officials and event marshals. “We made it a point to tender our gratitude to the citizens of Gettysburg for their acts of courtesy and kindness during our stay,” he said.
Later, Lamon quoted Lincoln as saying, “Lamon, that speech won’t scour! It is a failure, and people are disappointed.” Lamon said Lincoln told him he thought his remarks had been too short and that he had made a mistake.
The marshal-in-Cchief also reported that Secretary of State William Seward had complained about the president’s remarks, saying they were not equal to what he had expected.
Everett joined the detractors, Lamon said, telling him right after the ceremony, “I am sorry to say that it does not impress me as one of his great speeches.”
One day later, Everett contradicted what Lamon reported by telling others he had been impressed by Lincoln’s remarks and that he had told Lincoln, “Ah, Mr. President, how gladly would I give my hundred pages to be the author of your 20 lines.”
Historians today would take exception to the criticism. Several have branded the Gettysburg Address as one of perhaps three of the greatest speeches of all time. Lincoln was quite mistaken when he said “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…”
Organizing the event at Gettysburg was Ward Hill Lamon’s most important assignment up to that time. However, with Lincoln’s death, he accepted an even greater challenge. He was named marshal-in-chief of the Lincoln funeral and the Lincoln train returning the president’s body to Springfield, Ill.
– Bob O’Connor writes from Charles Town