Friday, March 8, 2024

President Abraham Lincoln's Personal Valet, William Henry Johnson, a free Negro.

William Henry Johnson (c1835-1864), a free Negro, played a multifaceted role in the life of President Abraham Lincoln. While most remembered as Lincoln's valet, Johnson's service encompassed much more.

Details about Johnson's early life are scarce, but historical estimates place his birth around 1835. We know that Johnson's path first crossed Lincoln's in Springfield, Illinois, where he began working as Lincoln's barber and valet around 1860. Johnson proved to be a trusted and valuable household member, attending to Lincoln's grooming needs and likely running errands.

This trust became even more crucial when Abraham Lincoln secured the presidency. In 1861, as Lincoln prepared for his inauguration in Washington D.C., the nation was embroiled in the Civil War. An assassination plot loomed, prompting a secret journey to the capital. Johnson, demonstrating his loyalty, accompanied Lincoln on this perilous trip.

Once in Washington, Johnson's duties expanded beyond barbering and valeting. The White House staff, particularly other servants, held prejudiced views and often ostracized Johnson due to his darker complexion. Lincoln valued Johnson's dedication and entrusted him with various tasks despite this. Johnson became a butler and firekeeper and even helped Lincoln with errands and messages. He was, in essence, Lincoln's right-hand man, a constant presence attending to the President's needs.

Johnson's role extended beyond the White House. When Lincoln delivered the famed Gettysburg Address, Johnson was by his side on November 19, 1863. Their bond remained strong throughout the war, and Lincoln even intervened to secure Johnson a position in the Treasury Department, likely because Johnson faced prejudice from some White House staff.

This loyalty proved to be a two-way street. In November 1863, Lincoln fell ill with smallpox. Johnson, ever devoted, tirelessly nursed the President back to health. Tragically, Johnson himself contracted smallpox and succumbed to it on January 28, 1864. 

Lincoln had William Henry Johnson buried on the Arlington Mansion grounds, now Arlington National Cemetery, and personally paid all the expenses for his funeral services.
William Henry Johnson's life story transcends the simple title of "valet."  He was a trusted confidante, a bodyguard, and a friend to Abraham Lincoln during a period of immense national upheaval. Despite facing prejudice, Johnson's dedication and service left a lasting mark on the President and offered a glimpse into the complex dynamics of the White House during the Civil War.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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