Because of Mrs. Lincoln's unpredictable temper, there was a great deal of turnover among the White House staff during her husband's administration. Johnson initially worked in the Executive Mansion stoking the furnace, but he was made unwelcome, not by the First Lady, but by other white House workers: "the other black employees, all light-skinned, objected to his dark complexion so vehemently that Lincoln had to find him another post" (Burlingame, 2:252). This circumstance is confirmed by both the content and the date of the present letter, sent to the Secretary of the Navy just twelve days after Lincoln's inauguration. Indeed, even earlier, on 7 March 1861, Lincoln had written a general recommendation for Johnson "To whom it may concern," (now in the New York Public Library; Basler 4:277), describing him in terms similar to those used in his letter to Welles, but not explaining, as he did to Welles, why Johnson had left his employ:
"The bearer (William) is a servant who has been with me for some time & in whom I have confidence as to his integrity and faithfulness. He wishes to enter your service. The difference of color between him & the other servants is the cause of our separation. If you can give him employment you will confer a favor on Yours truly A. Lincoln."
Welles was evidently not able to offer Johnson a position, and on 29 November 1861, Lincoln wrote to another cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, on Johnson's behalf: "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 [I] shall really be obliged" (National Archives; Basler 5:33).
Johnson was was eventually hired as a porter at the Treasury Department, but Lincoln continued to monitor his progress; on 24 October 1862, he wrote another recommendation him: "The bearer of this, William Johnson (colored), came with me from Illinois; and is a worthy man as I believe" (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; Basler 5:474). Lincoln wrote at least two further memoranda regarding Johnson (17 December 1862, unlocated, Basler 6:8–9; 22 January 1863, New York State Library, Basler 6:69), both were evidently intended to help Johnson get a day off from his Treasury Department duties, although in the first note Lincoln was at pains to make clear that his request not "be construed as an order." Lincoln also wrote at least one personal check to Johnson, for $5.00 on 11 March 1862.
Lincoln may have sought time off for Johnson because the President occasionally hired him for short-term jobs and particularly for travel. Most significantly, Johnson accompanied Lincoln, as valet and bodyguard, to Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. This trip was particularly consequential for Johnson. The President developed varioloid, a mild version of smallpox, on his return from Washington, while Johnson himself contracted a fatal case of smallpox; he died in January 1864. It is possible that Johnson caught the disease from the President, although Lincoln himself did not believe that was the case.
Still, Lincoln's solicitude for William Johnson extended beyond the latter's death. The Chicago 'Tribune' of 19 January 1864 carried a story from its Washington correspondent describing how he came upon Lincoln counting out Johnson's pay, while explaining, "a President of the United States has a multiplicity of duties not specified in the Constitution or acts of Congress. This is one of them. The money belongs to a poor negro who is a porter in one of the departments and who is at present very bad with the smallpox. … He is now in hospital, and could not draw his pay because he could not sign his name. I have been at considerable trouble to overcome the difficulty and get it for him, and have at length succeeded in cutting red tape" (quoted in Burlingame, 2:578). Another newspaper reported that Lincoln purchased a coffin for Johnson and helped settle a loan he had taken from the First National Bank of Washington. When the arrangements had been concluded, the bank's cashier, William J. Huntington, said, "'After this, Mr. President, you can never deny that you indorse the negro.' 'That's a fact!' Lincoln exclaimed with a laugh; 'but I don't intend to deny it'" (quoted in Burlingame, 2:578–79).
While Lincoln's role as the "Great Emancipator" is recognized as his greatest achievement, this letter of recommendation for William Johnson—the only Lincoln letter wrote for or concerning Johnson not in an institutional collection—it is a rare emblem of his personal interaction with an individual black American.
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