Friday, March 16, 2012

William H. Johnson - Citizen

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

And who exactly was William H. Johnson...this "citizen" of whom I speak?

There are no known likenesses of him and little information. We do know that Johnson was a black man born around 1835 in an unknown locale. He was Abraham Lincoln's personal valet and barber, that he worked for Lincoln in Springfield...accompanying him to Washington City in 1861, and that he worked also as a messenger for the Department of the Treasury.

We can learn something of his character from Lincoln's papers. In March 1861, he wrote this personal letter of recommendation: "Whom it may concern. William Johnson, a colored boy, and bearer of this, has been with me about twelve months; and has been, so far, as I believe, honest, faithful, sober, industrious, and handy as a servant. A. LINCOLN." On November 29, 1861, Lincoln wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase: "You remember kindly asking me, some time ago whether I really desired you to find a place for William Johnson, a colored boy who came from Illinois with me. If you can find him the place shall really be obliged. Yours truly A. LINCOLN."

Words of praise from the executive office. A handy recommendation - if you can get it. But what became of Lincoln's honest, faithful, sober, and industrious servant? In November 1863, Johnson accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg. A smallpox epidemic had been doing its work in Washington, affecting Lincoln's son Tad and apparently Lincoln himself - who began suffering from a mild case as he returned from Gettysburg soon after delivering his now famous address. Johnson attended his employer as a valet might and contracted the disease himself, succumbing soon after - the exact date of Johnson's death is unknown. Did Lincoln unknowingly infect his valet? Perhaps.

The story ends on a bold note. Lincoln paid for Johnson's burial at Arlington Cemetery in January 1864. On his headstone, Lincoln had engraved one word under Johnson's name - CITIZEN. This was indeed a strong statement in Emancipation Proclamation (which noted nothing about citizenship) but long before amendments were added to the Constitution providing for universal citizenship. Was this gesture a reflection of how Lincoln understood  "a new birth of freedom"? So it seems.




  1. Not to be a buzzkill, but there's also the possibility that Johnson was identified as such on his stone because he was buried in a military cemetary and had no unit or rank. "Citizen" was commonly used in the 1860s as a term for a civilian.

  2. What amount of pay did Mr. Johnson receive for his services to Abraham Lincoln ?

  3. Perhaps - but not for a black man in 1864. Lincoln personally ordered the inscription. I believe (as do others) that the "citizen" was intentionally done to make a point about the direction of the war.

  4. I am not certain - but I believe that he received $600 per year from the Treasury Department.