At his side on Nov. 19, 1863, helping take care of him was one of the most important yet historically overlooked people in Lincoln’s life — William H. Johnson, a 30-year-old Black man the president had brought with him from Illinois to be his personal valet.
In today’s political lexicon, Johnson would be called a body man, there for every need the president might have, both personal and official. A body man’s proximity to the president places him inches from history on a daily basis.
But when the president contracts a dangerous infectious disease, a body man is just a breath away from potential death.
Last week, following President Trump’s diagnosis of covid-19, a growing number of White House staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus. One of them was Trump’s body man, Nicholas Luna. While it is not known whether Trump gave Luna the virus — or vice versa — more than 150 years ago a similar potential exchange of a deadly pathogen apparently occurred between Lincoln and Johnson.
On the train that day, Lincoln was suffering from the early effects of smallpox, which had been spreading rapidly through Washington. That night, after arriving at the White House, Lincoln was bed ridden, suffering from head and neck pain, as well as a general malaise, according to “The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History,” by infectious disease expert Donald R. Hopkins. A rash appeared a few days later.
Lincoln was in constant need of someone to hold a cold towel to his feverish head.
“That William provided the towel and waited on Lincoln’s needs is most certain,” wrote noted Lincoln historian Roy Basler in a journal article titled, “Did President Lincoln Give the Smallpox to William H. Johnson?”
The relationship between Lincoln and Johnson was not one of commander in chief and servant.
“To put it plainly,” Basler wrote, “Abraham Lincoln treated William Johnson as a man rather than as a servant, and besides such personal duties as barbering and caring for the President's wardrobe, Johnson undertook missions of trust, carrying private messages and on occasion considerable sums of money.”
They met in Illinois. Johnson’s mother had been enslaved, according to historians, but it’s not clear whether Johnson ever was or how he came to work with the future president. When Lincoln made the trip by train to Washington for his inauguration, Johnson was in his traveling party.
“Although not exactly the most prominent, (Johnson) is the most useful member of the presidential party,” the New York Herald reported in recounting Lincoln’s journey.
Lincoln wanted Johnson to work at the White House, but the permanent servants there rejected him. They didn’t want him to impact “the pecking order,” Basler wrote. But there was another reason: The White House servants were light-skinned; Johnson was dark-skinned.
“The difference of color between him and the other servants is the cause of the separation,” Lincoln wrote in a letter trying to find him other jobs in government. Johnson eventually landed at the Treasury Department as a laborer, but Lincoln personally paid him to come to the White House each morning to shave him.
Johnson’s boss also let him accompany Lincoln on important trips, such as the one to Gettysburg in 1863.
Lincoln recovered in a few weeks. Johnson did not. As he lay in bed suffering, Lincoln took care of his various debts. Johnson died in January. History will never know if Lincoln infected Johnson. “At least I think not,” the president told a newspaper reporter. Hopkins, the infectious disease specialist, concluded that Lincoln probably did.
Whatever the case, Lincoln took care of the man who took care of him.
The president “sent money to his family, retired his mortgage, and paid off half of another loan he had cosigned for him,” historian James B. Conroy wrote. “He had tried to pay it all, but the banker insisted on canceling half the debt.
Conroy said the banker told Lincoln, “After this, you can never deny that you endorse the Negro.” Lincoln laughed. “That’s a fact,” he said, “but I don’t intend to deny it.”
Lincoln also arranged and paid for Johnson to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
His grave is believed to be in Section 27, one of the most famous areas of the cemetery, where he is buried among 1,500 United States Colored Troops who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War and more than 4,000 enslaved people.
“William H Johnson,” his headstone reads. “Citizen.”
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