An Unlikely Friend...
by James M. Cornelius, Ph.D., Curator, Lincoln Collection
Mr. Alan Korest of Naples, FL attended the 2011 Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation event at the Naples Yacht Club and expressed his interest in Lincoln and learning more about the Library and Museum programs. Mr. Korest states, “ When I had the pleasure of meeting with Carla Knorowski and Patricia Wager of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, I was reminded of the stunning impact of the Civil War on our country. Shortly thereafter, it occurred to me that it would be of great interest to see how its music might reflect the events of that period. Mr. Korest further explained, “ Music has always been a focal point for my interest and philanthropy as it can entertain, educate, elevate and heal with a power unlike any other.
Written by the President in October 1862, this recommendation for William Johnson was likely offered to help him gain part-time employment to augment his Treasury Department salary.
Little is known of Mr. Johnson. No photograph of him exists today, but he was believed to have been in his mid-twenties and may have possibly been a runaway slave who made his way to Springfield, Illinois. Whatever his history, we know that around March 1860 he met the future President and began doing odd jobs for Mr. Lincoln. In February 1861, he traveled with Mr. Lincoln and his official party to Washington to serve as his valet, or manservant—but an already complete White House staff shunned the darker-skinned Johnson, so the President was forced to secure him a position, eventually, within the Treasury Department. Despite this move, the President still periodically required his services, such as trimming his hair and beard, and helping to take care of his son “Tad” in early 1862-especially after the death of older brother Willie left Mrs. Lincoln inconsolable.
In November 1863, Johnson accompanied the President to Gettysburg, tending to the numerous minor details that needed to be resolved before the President spoke. Unfortunately, also like the President, he contracted in the town, or had already caught, a mild strain of smallpox known as varioloid. In the weeks following the famous speech, the President would recover from the illness, but William would not be as fortunate. He would eventually succumb in January 1864. While we will likely never know the full extent of their relationship, the President was certainly fond of William, whom he referred to as “honest, faithful, sober, industrious, and handy …” In a final act of friendship, the President took charge of Mr. Johnson’s affairs after his death and paid for his funeral and grave marker out of his own pocket.