Faithful and Lovable servants of President Abraham Lincoln

William Henry Johnson (March 4, 1833 – Jan 28, 1864) was a free African American and the Personal Valet of Abraham Lincoln. Having first worked for Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, William Henry Johnson accompanied the President-Elect to Washington, D.C for his first inauguration (1861)  Once there, he was employed in various jobs, part-time as President’s Valet and barber, and later, following strife with others on the White House staff, as a messenger for the Treasury Department at 600 dollars per year. He traveled with Lincoln in November 1863 to Gettysburg Pennsylvania, where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.

Personal Life of William Johnson

Johnson’s mother was an enslaved woman. He had a growing family while living in Washington, D.C Dick Hart, part President of the Abraham Lincoln Association and historian who focuses on black history in Springfield, has been unsuccessful in finding any information about William Henry Johnson in Springfield.

Integrity and Faithfulness of William Johnson

Abraham Lincoln employed William Henry Johnson as a valet and driver in Springfield, Illinois during the time of the 1860, United States Presidential elections. Lincoln hosted an event for the Republican Presidential nomination notification Committee on May 19, 1860, at their house in Springfield, Illinois, Johnson announced people as they entered the house and directed them to the parlor to meet Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln brought William Henry Johnson with him to the “White House” for his first inauguration. During the train trip, Johnson was a worthy man of integrity and faithfulness. Johnson worked for Abraham Lincoln as a barber, valet, handyman, messenger, and bodyguard. The President said to him “although not exactly the most prominent is yet the most useful, members of the Presidential Party Lincoln trusted him to convey messages and at times significant sums of money.

Employment change for William Johnson by Abraham Lincoln

William Johnson was treated miserably by other White House servants, because they were not welcoming of newcomers, did not want a change in the established pecking order among staff, disliked that he was a particularly dark-skinned African – American. Until that point, all servants of the White House were light-skinned, It was clear within the first week, an employment change was needed for Johnson. Abraham Lincoln first wrote to the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, but a suitable position was not found. In the meantime, Johnson continued his position, running errands somedays that would take him out of the mansion for part or all of the day. 

At Abraham Lincoln’s request, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P.Chase gave him a job in November or December 1861, first as a laborer and soon after as a messenger, before working at the Treasury each workday morning Johnson went to the White House and shaved and dressed Abraham Lincoln which provided extra income. Lincoln’s constant interest in William Johnson shows us even more than do some of his greatest public deeds and much-heralded acts, the great heart of this man. He had induced William Henry Johnson to leave Springfield and accompany him to Washington on a most perilous journey and thereafter never ceased to be interested in him but continued to assist him in every manner possible.

In 1862, Johnson accompanied Abraham Lincoln to the Antietam Battlefield after the battle and the Confederate Army had left the area, he went with Abraham Lincoln on other trips.

Henry William Johnson’s death

In 1863, November Johnson traveled with Abraham Lincoln to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address while traveling Lincoln experienced symptoms of the onset of smallpox. At that time, an epidemic was spreading through Washington, D.C and Lincoln’s son Tad Lincoln had smallpox. Johnson tended to Lincoln and became quite ill by January 12, 1864, when he was admitted to a hospital. William Henry Johnson died within the next couple of weeks.

Lincoln also arranged and paid for William Henry Johnson to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his grave was believed to be in sec.27, one of the most famous areas of the Cemetery, where he is buried among 1500 United States, colored Troops who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and more than 4000 enslaved people.

President Abraham Lincoln “sent money to his family, retired his mortgage and paid off half of another loan he had. He tried to pay it all, but the banker insisted on canceling half the debt.

 When William Henry Johnson died in January 1864, President Abraham Lincoln used his own funds for Johnson’s funeral costs. 

William Henry Johnson served as President Abraham Lincoln’s groomer, bodyguard, Fire-keeper, driver, Bootblack, Barber, Butler, Valet, and Errand runner.

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