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The Friendship Between Lincoln and Johnson: A Hidden Chapter in American History

A Little-Known Story of Lincoln and William Johnson

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous and revered presidents in American history. His leadership during the Civil War, his emancipation of the slaves, and his assassination are well-known and widely studied. But there is a lesser-known aspect of his life that reveals a lot about his character and his humanity: his friendship with William Johnson, a free black man who served as his personal valet and barber.

A Little-Known Story of Lincoln and William Johnson


In this article, we will explore the remarkable story of Lincoln and Johnson, who met in Illinois and traveled together to Washington D.C., where they faced racism, prejudice, and danger. We will also learn about the tragic death of Johnson and how Lincoln mourned and honored him. Finally, we will reflect on the legacy of Johnson and what his story can teach us about Lincoln and ourselves.

Who was William Johnson?

William Henry Johnson was born in 1835 in North Carolina. He was the son of a white man and a black woman, who were both slaves. He was freed by his father when he was a child and moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he worked as a barber. He was a literate, intelligent, and ambitious young man who dreamed of becoming a lawyer.

How did he meet Lincoln?

Johnson met Lincoln in 1860, when Lincoln was running for president. Lincoln needed a barber for his campaign tour and hired Johnson, who impressed him with his skills and personality. Johnson also became Lincoln's personal valet, helping him with his clothes, luggage, and other needs. Lincoln liked Johnson so much that he decided to take him to Washington D.C. as part of his entourage.

What was their relationship like?

Lincoln and Johnson had a close and respectful relationship. They shared a room at the White House and often conversed about politics, law, and life. Lincoln treated Johnson as an equal and trusted him with his secrets. He also paid him a generous salary and gave him gifts. Johnson admired Lincoln and was loyal and devoted to him. He also protected him from threats and insults.

The Journey to Washington

The challenges they faced

The journey to Washington was not easy for Lincoln and Johnson. They had to travel through hostile territory, where they encountered angry mobs, assassination plots, and racial discrimination. They had to disguise themselves, change trains, and avoid crowds. They also had to endure the humiliation of being separated by law because of their race. For example, in Baltimore, Johnson had to ride in a different car from Lincoln because blacks were not allowed to travel with whites.

The bond they forged

The journey to Washington also strengthened the bond between Lincoln and Johnson. They supported each other through the hardships and dangers they faced. They also shared jokes, stories, and laughter to lighten the mood. They became more than employer and employee; they became friends.

The role Johnson played in Lincoln's life

Johnson played an important role in Lincoln's life as president. He helped him with his daily tasks, such as shaving, dressing, and organizing his papers. He also accompanied him on his visits to the troops, hospitals, and theaters. He was a source of comfort and companionship for Lincoln, who often felt lonely and depressed. He was also a witness to history, as he saw firsthand the events that shaped the nation.

The Death of Johnson

How did he die?

Johnson died in 1864, at the age of 29. He contracted smallpox, a deadly disease that was spreading in Washington. He was taken to a hospital for blacks, where he received little care and attention. He suffered for two weeks before he passed away.

How did Lincoln react?

Lincoln was devastated by the death of Johnson. He visited him several times at the hospital and tried to comfort him. He also paid for his medical expenses and funeral costs. He wrote a letter to Johnson's family, expressing his sorrow and gratitude. He said, "I feel it a duty to express to you my sincere regret for the death of your son William, who had been in my employment as a messenger and servant for some time."

How did he honor his memory?

Lincoln honored Johnson's memory by burying him in a cemetery near his own tomb in Springfield. He also gave him a military funeral, with a flag-draped coffin and a guard of honor. He also inscribed his name on his tombstone, along with the words "Citizen". He wanted to recognize Johnson as a person, not as a slave or a servant.

The Legacy of Johnson

How is he remembered today?

Johnson is remembered today as one of the unsung heroes of American history. His story is told in books, documentaries, and museums. His grave is visited by tourists and scholars who want to pay tribute to him. His name is also engraved on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C., along with thousands of other black soldiers and civilians who served the Union cause.

What can we learn from his story?

Johnson's story can teach us many things about Lincoln and ourselves. It can teach us about Lincoln's compassion, generosity, and humility. It can also teach us about his courage, vision, and leadership. It can show us that he was not only a great president, but also a great human being.

Johnson's story can also teach us about ourselves. It can teach us about the value of friendship, loyalty, and service. It can also teach us about the importance of diversity, equality, and justice. It can show us that we are all connected by our common humanity.


In conclusion, the story of Lincoln and Johnson is a little-known but fascinating chapter in American history. It reveals a lot about the character and humanity of one of the most famous and revered presidents in history. It also reveals a lot about ourselves and our society. It is a story that deserves to be remembered and celebrated.


  • Q: When did Lincoln and Johnson meet?

  • A: They met in 1860, when Lincoln was running for president.

  • Q: What was Johnson's occupation?

  • A: He was a barber and a personal valet for Lincoln.

  • Q: How did Johnson die?

  • A: He died of smallpox in 1864.

  • Q: How did Lincoln honor Johnson's memory?

  • A: He buried him near his own tomb and gave him a military funeral.

  • Q: Where is Johnson buried?

  • A: He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.



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