William Henry Johnson was born around 1835, site unknown. He began working for Abraham Lincoln, in Springfield, in early 1860. Johnson was a black man, who because his name was Johnson has defied modern attempts to trace his origins. He apparently did the work of an uneducated black man: took care of the Lincolns’ horse Old Bob, perhaps swept the law office or brushed Lincoln’s boots and coat, ran errands. Unlike the Irish girls, Kentucky men, Portuguese immigrants, and one or two other blacks who had worked for the Lincolns, Johnson became personally close enough to them to ‘stick.’ When the Lincolns rode the train to Washington, D.C., in February 1861, Johnson rode with them, the only non-official person to make this move. Conceivably there was an element of political statement in Lincoln’s having asked this young man to join him in his journey to the presidency, but, equally likely, Lincoln liked and trusted him.
There is no portrait of Johnson, as there is of Mary Lincoln’s far better known employee and friend Elizabeth Keckly. Indeed, the celebrity of Lizzie Keckly stems as much from her skill and her closeness to Mary Lincoln as from her half-dozen portraits, because we ‘know’ about people through their image, and seek more interior information about them to match the exterior sample. Johnson does appear, fair to assume, in the August 8, 1860, campaign-parade photograph by William Shaw (150 years ago this summer) depicting a Republican parade before the Lincoln home. Perhaps 250 people are seen at this marvelous political-social event, including a streetful of white people and two dozen black people gathered either in Lincoln’s yard or in the foreground. Lincoln stands out in a white suit by his door. For any who think that blacks did not support the crypto-racist, slavery-condoning, Kentucky-born lawyer that year, look at the dozens of blacks standing close by his house, Johnson among them, somewhere.
The documents at the ALPLM attesting to Johnson’s presence in Washington, D.C., are two: on Mar. 11, 1862, Lincoln wrote him a check for $5.00; and soon Lincoln wrote this, among a small succession of job recommendations:
“The bearer of this card, William Johnson (colored), came with me from Illinois, and is a worthy man, as I believe. A. Lincoln Oct. 24, 1862”
Johnson, barred by lighter-skinned mulatto staffers from his intended employment at the Executive Mansion because of his dark skin, had to find work elsewhere. Lincoln helped him get clerk and messenger jobs at the Treasury and Navy Depts. – traditional employers of blacks – and continued to welcome him to the private quarters to trim the president’s beard, brush his coat, tell him what people around town were saying. While Lincoln prepared a now-famous speech, he wrote to the Treasury, to excuse Johnson from work, “William goes with me to Gettysburg.” And so the valet stood in the room at the Wills House as the orator finished his remarks for the cemetery dedication the next day. Both men contracted smallpox in Gettysburg — Lincoln the mild form known as varioloid, recovering after several days; Johnson the serious kind, dying in Washington in January 1864.
Without family or money, Johnson faced a common grave, except that Lincoln paid for his burial at Arlington National Cemetery – Robert E. Lee’s former estate, presumably dotted with the graves of unfree blacks – and for a monument reading ‘William H. Johnson, Citizen.’ How a man treats another man in private may tell us far more than his public utterances about groups.