Published Sunday, October 07, 2012
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
William Henry Herndon was Abraham Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield, Ill. – and later his biographer.
He also was probably related distantly to the Herndon family who settled in Coweta County in 1800s. Herndon was born on Christmas Day in 1818 in Greensburg, Ky. His family moved to Illinois when he was a toddler, settling in Springfield a few years later.
In the 1840s, he went into law practice with Lincoln. Their law office is a tourist attraction today – a short walk from the Old State Capitol, which also has been restored as a museum.
The two attorneys rented offices in a large building built by Seth Tinsley. The two remained in practice together until Lincoln’s death, although Lincoln did not actively participate in the practice after leaving the Illinois capital for Washington in 1861.
It is believed that Herndon was anticipating Lincoln returning to the law practice after his years in the White House. Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth in 1865 ended those plans.
Lincoln and Herndon both were Whigs who joined the emerging Republican Party. Herndon was staunchly opposed to slavery – more so than his law partner. Herndon sometimes painted himself as a prod to Lincoln’s conscience with regard to manumission.
Soon after Lincoln’s death, Herndon began research for a biography that would tell the story of the man he knew, rather than the iconic figure Lincoln had become.
Although Herndon had never gotten along with Mary Todd Lincoln, he did interview her and her brother-in-law, Ninian Wirt Edwards. Edwards was a prominent Springfield attorney and son of an early Illinois governor. There may be a genealogical tie between Edwards’ family and the Carmichaels who were pioneers in Coweta County’s early days.
Herndon also interviewed several people who were associates of Lincoln during his days in New Salem. Two of Herndon’s cousins, John Rowan Herndon and James Herndon, built a log home and a store at New Salem. The store was eventually sold to Lincoln and William Berry.
Rowan Herndon was the brother-in-law of Mentor Graham, the schoolmaster in New Salem.
The 1889 biography, “Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life,” was written by Herndon with a collaborator, Jesse W. Weik. The three-volume set covered many topics that were generally not included in the almost hagiographic biographies typical on those days.
There were accounts of Lincoln’s courtships of Mary Owens and Ann Rutledge in New Salem.
The book was not a success financially or critically. Herndon’s finances had been unsteady since soon after the Civil War and continued to be until his death on March 18, 1891. He was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, where the Lincolns also are interred.
William Henry Herndon was the son of Archer Gray Herndon and Rebecca Johnson Herndon, the grandson of Virginia native William Herndon and Mary Bohannon Herndon, the great-grandson of William and Ann Drysdale Herndon and the great-great-grandson of Edward and Mary Elizabeth Waller Herndon.
Edward’s parents, William and Catherine Digges Herndon, came to Virginia from England.
The Herndon family has a number of prominent members including John Herndon “Johnny” Mercer, a Savannah songwriter known for such tunes as “Moon River.” Another well-known member of the clan was William Lewis Herndon, a 19th century naval hero whose daughter, Ellen, was the wife of Pres. Chester Arthur.
One branch of the family settled in Haralson, which straddles the Coweta-Meriwether line, in the 1800s. Many Herndon descendants still live in Coweta County.
In a 2008 interview, Virginia genealogist Jill Herndon said most people with a Herndon ancestor in America are kin to each other. “What works for you is that most of the Herndons are related,” Jill Herndon said. “This is not like tracking ‘Smith,’ not at all. It is a relatively finite universe.”