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OP-ED: Healing a president, losing his life: William Henry Johnson, Lincoln’s aide

Matthew Jackson
York’s Calvin Weary as William Henry Johnson in the Discovery Channel film Gettysburg: The Speech That Saved America.

On Nov. 18, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was not feeling well. 

Our 16th president looked "sallow, sunken-eyed, thin, [and] careworn.”

The long, jostling train journey from Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania didn’t help. There, Lincoln was to help dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery with “a few appropriate remarks.” 

Our Civil War commander-in-chief likely was falling ill from a deadly virus, a form of smallpox. 

With Lincoln on his trip to and from Gettysburg was William Henry Johnson, the president’s trusted African-American valet and multi-tasker.

A freedman, Johnson worked for the Lincolns in Springfield, Illinois. Throughout his tenure working for Lincoln, Johnson served as the president’s groomer, bodyguard, fire-keeper, driver, bootblack, barber, butler, valet and errand runner. 

On the morning of Nov. 18, Lincoln made sure Johnson was with him.

Lincoln sent a note to the Treasury Department, where Johnson worked in addition to the White House, that said, “William goes with me."

As they departed D.C., mortality and uncertainty must have been on their minds. Not only were they traveling to the site of the bloodiest battle of the war, which devastated and traumatized the small town of Gettysburg, but Lincoln's son Tad was diagnosed with smallpox that day. The virus’ epidemic was starting to spread throughout the capital, and the outcome of the war still hung in the balance. 

Johnson was the only known person of color on the presidential train to Gettysburg. 

From D.C., their Northern Central Railway train rumbled to Baltimore, then north over the Mason-Dixon Line to New Freedom and Glen Rock before stopping at Hanover Junction in Seven Valleys. There, Lincoln and his entourage boarded a Hanover Branch rail train. 

That engine chugged nine miles to Hanover, where Lincoln gave a brief speech, then another 14 miles west to the Gettysburg train station. From there, he walked to attorney David Wills’ house, where he stayed for the night. 

But Lincoln still had work to do that evening on his “few appropriate remarks” in his upstairs room. 

Johnson was right by his side, serving as messenger when the president needed services from their host.

Some historians surmise that Johnson, upstairs in the Wills house, was the first person to see and hear the final version of the Gettysburg Address.  

"Johnson was close by during the time Lincoln was upstairs (in the Wills House), undoubtedly taking care of the many details involved in an overnight presidential visit," notes historian Martin Johnson. "He almost certainly was one of the very few who witnessed Lincoln working on the speech that would proclaim a ‘new birth of freedom.'"

According to documentarian Ken Burns’ famous The Civil War, Lincoln, in his 10-sentence, two-minute, 269-word speech, “went on to embolden the Union cause with some of the most stirring words ever spoken.”

Over time, Lincoln’s speech became world famous. Part Greek eulogy and part transcendental vision quest, his poetic prose became heralded as a strong articulation of American national unity, devotion to principles, universal freedom and democracy.  Some call it our nation’s second Declaration of Independence. Longtime journalist Tom Brokaw calls it “America’s gospel.” 

But Lincoln had no way of knowing the impact.  Civil War historian Shelby Foote said Lincoln "felt that he had failed, that it was a poor speech, that the people didn’t like it.” 

On his return trip to D.C., the now melancholy Lincoln showed symptoms of variloid, a form of smallpox. Lincoln lay “in a relaxed position with a wet towel across his head.” 

Johnson served as Lincoln’s nurse the entire way to D.C., with their train not arriving until midnight. 

Unlike the trip to Gettysburg, Lincoln's return train did not stop anywhere for several reasons. Lincoln was tired, showing effects of the infection. He was depressed. It also was getting dark.  

After Lincoln returned to D.C., he eventually recovered. Soon after, however, Johnson fell ill. By January 12, 1864, Johnson was admitted to a hospital. He died that same month of smallpox.  A good possibility exists that William contracted the disease from Lincoln. 

Lincoln’s actions after Johnson’s death showed loyalty to, if not affection for his dutiful aide. Or did he feel guilt, too? 

In addition to a mortgage on Johnson’s home and debt, Lincoln paid for Johnson’s burial expenses. According to credible historians, but not without debate, William Henry Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, one of the first African-Americans buried there.  

Etched on the tombstone purported to be Johnson’s is the title “Citizen,” a status that eluded Johnson during his short lifetime (1835-1864). Granting full U.S. citizenship to African-Americans, the 14th Amendment was not passed until 1868. 

— Matthew Jackson writes from Hanover, where Lincoln stopped on his way to deliver the Gettysburg Address. A special thanks Dr. Marc Charisse for considerable help with this column.