On November 18, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was on his way home from delivering one of the most famous speeches in American history — the Gettysburg Address — when he suddenly started feeling unwell. He went to his drawing room to lie down with a wet towel across his head.
A 30-year-old Black man was at his side helping take care of him. William H. Johnson would serve as Lincoln’s nurse throughout their journey on the train back to D.C. Lincoln had asked Johnson to be his personal valet after the two had met in Illinois. He would become an important person in the 16th U.S. president’s life.
While on the train that day, historians said Lincoln was suffering from the early effects of smallpox. The dangerous disease had been spreading through Washington. Lincoln’s son Tad had even been diagnosed with smallpox the day Lincoln left for Gettysburg to give his speech. Upon his return to the White House from Gettysburg that night, Lincoln was “bed ridden, suffering from head and neck pain, as well as a general malaise,” as reported by The Washington Post. He soon had a rash. Through it all, Johnson was by his side holding a cold towel to the president’s feverish head.
Their relationship was more than that of a “president and servant”. According to historians, Lincoln never treated Johnson as a servant. Johnson did not only barber and care for the president’s wardrobe as his valet but also “undertook missions of trust, carrying private messages and on occasion considerable sums of money,” historian Roy Basler wrote.
It’s not clear how Johnson came to work with Lincoln but what is certain is that the two met in Illinois where Johnson’s mother had been enslaved. Johnson became the most useful member of the presidential party when Lincoln traveled to Washington for his inauguration as president. Lincoln made several attempts to get Johnson to work at the White House, but servants there did not like him largely because of the color of his skin. The White House servants were light-skinned while Johnson had dark skin.
Lincoln decided to look for a job for Johnson beyond the White House. He was able to get him one at the Treasury Department as a laborer, however, the president personally paid him to come to the White House every morning to shave him. Lincoln also often asked Johnson’s employer to allow him to come with him on trips, including the Gettysburg trip in 1863.
When they returned to the White House from that trip, Lincoln recovered after some weeks but Johnson soon fell ill. On January 12, 1864, he was admitted to a hospital and passed away that same month of smallpox. Historians believe that Johnson contracted the disease from the president. His death affected Lincoln. The president decided to take care of the debts of his personal valet. He retired Johnson’s mortgage, sent money to his family, and paid off half of another loan he had cosigned for him. Lincoln had wanted to pay everything, but the banker canceled the other half of the debt.
Lincoln also took care of the burial arrangements for Johnson and got him buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Many believe that Johnson’s grave is in Section 27, described as one of the most famous areas of the cemetery that contain the graves of some 1,500 United States Colored Troops who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and over 4,000 enslaved people, according to The Washington Post.
What is believed to be Johnson’s grave is marked with a headstone alongside his name and the title “citizen”.