EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on Aug. 13, 2018 by the Ohio History Connection. Ashland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
Towards the end of 1863, as the Civil War tightened its hold on the United States, Ohio Governor David Tod began assembling a group of Ohio’s best soldiers for service on an undisclosed mission. He attempted to recruit one man from each of the state’s 88 counties (although, time was of the essence, so counties that were slow to report were replaced).
Finally the group was assembled, and on Dec. 17, 1863, the 7th Independent Company of Ohio Volunteer Cavalry were mustered in at Columbus, with a set term of three years of service.
The company then boarded the B&O Railroad en route to Washington D.C. Still unsure of their purpose, the men followed blindly with hopes that they might get a chance to show their courage and dedication to the Union.
Previous to the enlistment of the 7th Independent Calvary, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, had begun insisting that Lincoln employ some sort of presidential guard. After a few days in Washington D.C., the members of the 7th Independent Calvary learned that they had been assembled to serve as a mounted escort and guard force for President Lincoln.
Despite what seems today to be a great honor, the new Union Light Guard was originally very disappointed to hear of their new task.
One member of the Union Light Guard, Robert McBride, wrote that “There was bitter disappointment when the men found themselves condemned to that which they felt was a service of ‘inglorious inactivity,’ and earnest efforts were made by members of the company and by others in their behalf to have the company assigned to duty at the front, where it could share in the activities and dangers of real warfare.”
These efforts at reassignment were rebuffed by Edwin Stanton, who reminded the men that they were to obediently carry out the role assigned to them. After the war, the men again struggled as they “began to touch elbows with those who bore the scars of battle.”
At this point, McBride noted that, “it is probable that a majority of [the Union Light Guard] would have considered a blank page as the best record of their war service.”
It was hard to ignore the guilt that came from a relatively safe and quiet assignment during the war.
This frustration at the 'inglorious inactivity’ of the Union Light Guard is well demonstrated in the diary entries of John Francis Kellar. Kellar frequently noted how bored he became from this type of service, spending much time alone in his living quarters reading and writing letters home. Kellar was not assigned to direct service of the President and rarely got a chance to catch a glimpse of Lincoln.
Instead he served as a messenger, riding throughout the city, sometimes for hours at a time, to deliver handwritten notes and important information between government and military offices.
Conversely, because he was often stationed at the White House, Robert McBride had many opportunities to observe President Lincoln. This frequent contact with the president may have aided McBride in developing a pride in his service after the war.
This pride led McBride to record a history of the 7th Independent Calvary along with many of his personal observations in his publication titled Lincoln’s Body Guard: The Union Light Guard.
From his station at the iron gate at the end of the White House driveway on Pennsylvania Avenue, McBride could watch Lincoln on his routine trips to the War Department for news from the front (the president went each day upon waking and once again before retiring to bed at night). McBride noted that “there were lines in his face that do not appear in his portraits.”
Lincoln was often so distracted that he missed a salute from a member of his body guard, and he apologetically back tracked to return the honor. However, Lincoln did occasionally return in a lighter mood. McBride remembered watching for Lincoln’s disposition to judge what news he had received from the War Department and the current state of the Union cause.
McBride was also privy to some more private moments for President Lincoln. One night, in February of 1864, a fire alarm rang out over the White House grounds. The stables were on fire. Upon rushing to the scene, McBride saw Lincoln burst forth from the White House, running to the stables.
Lincoln asked those nearby if the horses had been removed, and learning that they had been left inside the burning structure, he began to open the stable doors himself. Lincoln’s guards had to force him back from the flames.
Later, McBride remembered Lincoln’s son Tad explaining why his father had been so emotional about the horses. Not long before this incident, the Lincolns’ son Willie had passed away. President Lincoln had been attempting to save a horse that had belonged to Willie.
Despite President Lincoln’s concern for his horses, the Union Light Guard had to put his safety first. They moved the president into the White House and posted sentinels around the grounds, fearing that someone had started the fire as a way to draw the president out and assassinate him.
McBride was working at the War Department on April 10, 1865, when news of a Confederate surrender reached the city of Washington D.C. A crowd appeared outside the War Department, and a few officials, including Vice President Andrew Johnson, gave speeches.
McBride followed the crowd to the White House, where President Lincoln declined to give a speech, wanting time to properly reflect on what he needed to say. However, according to McBride, Lincoln did declare, “there is one piece of music I have always liked. Heretofore it has not seemed the proper thing to use it in the North; but now, by virtue of my prerogative as President and Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I declare it contraband of war and lawful prize. I ask the band to play ‘Dixie.’”
Despite the assignment of a military bodyguard, President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. McBride was quick to note in his recollections that, as he put it, “to those familiar with the City of Washington during the time of the Civil War it was not surprising that Lincoln was assassinated. The surprising thing to them was that it was so long delayed.”
Despite his increase in security, Lincoln still moved around alone quite often, taking predictable trips between the White House, the War Department, and the Soldiers’ Home. On his way to and from the War Department, Lincoln moved through a portion of trees that obscured him from the view of his guard.
In addition to the Union Light Guard, a Pennsylvania company known as “Bucktails” were posted outside the White House. However, they were not allowed to stop or detain anyone who attempted to enter. Due to limitations like these, President Lincoln’s bodyguard was nowhere near as effective as today’s Secret Service.
Unfortunately for historians, John Francis Kellar did not write any great description of the assassination of President Lincoln in his diary. In fact, during the week that followed, he often recorded his own daily activities before writing about the grief pooling around him. Kellar’s diary was a place for him to briefly record day to day activities, and so the assassination was only one event on a list of many other little moments.
Despite Kellar’s frequent letters home, his family was often days behind the news of the nation, waiting for large headlines to make their way to Ohio. On April 18, 1865, four days after Lincoln was assassinated, one of Kellar’s relatives wrote to him, “I have heard today that the president is sick but this I think is [a] Copperhead lie for some of them seem to take greater delight in telling it.”
The Union Light Guard continued service to the new president until they were mustered out on Sept. 9, 1865. As a last duty to President Lincoln, members of the Union Light Guard escorted his body from his place of death at the Petersen House back to the White House.
Unfortunately, despite the assassination of President Lincoln, it would take two more Presidential deaths for the nation to get serious about protecting the chief executive. However, the Union Light Guard did what they could with the tools they had been given, protecting a president for one of the first times in history.