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Abraham Lincoln Signed Check to “William Johnson (Colored)”—Who Accompanied the President to Antietam and Gettysburg
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Johnson accompanied Lincoln from Springfield to Washington, D.C., served as the President’s valet, and traveled with him to Antietam (25 days before this check) and a year later to Gettysburg.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Partially Printed Document Signed, Riggs & Co. Bank check, October 27, 1862, Washington, D.C. 1 p., 7½ x 2¾ in. Filled out and signed by Lincoln as president, payable to “William Johnson (Colored)” for $5.

Inventory #27740       Price: $180,000

William Henry Johnson (ca. 1833-1864) was a free black servant who accompanied the president-elect, while under threat of assassination, on his journey from Springfield to Washington, D.C. In February 1861, a journalist described Johnson as “a like mulatto, although not exactly the most prominent” and “yet a very useful member of the party. The untiring vigilance with which he took care of the Presidential party is entitled to high credit.”[1] Lincoln’s identification of Johnson as “Colored” would allow him to cash the check without additional difficulty.

Upon arrival in the capital, Lincoln found employment for Johnson stoking the furnace of the Executive Mansion, but the other African-American White House workers “objected to his dark complexion so vehemently that Lincoln had to find him another post.”[2] Lincoln unsuccessfully tried to secure a position for Johnson with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.[3] On November 29, 1861, the president wrote to Secretary of the Treasury 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 [I] shall really be obliged.”[4]

Chase hired Johnson as a porter at the Treasury Department with an annual salary of $600, and Johnson continued to serve Lincoln in a private capacity. Johnson shaved and helped Lincoln dress each morning. In addition to barber, butler, groomer, fire-keeper, bootblack, and valet, Johnson served as a driver, errand runner, and even bodyguard. Lincoln trusted him to convey messages and at times significant sums of money.[5]

Johnson accompanied Lincoln, as valet and bodyguard, to the Antietam battlefield on October 2, 1862 – two weeks after the declared victory finally allowed Lincoln to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It is interesting to speculate whether this check, dated 25 days later, was related to that trip.

Johnson’s most consequential trip was accompanying Lincoln to Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. There was a smallpox epidemic in Washington, D.C. at the time. Mary Lincoln did not accompany her husband to Gettysburg on November 18 because their son Tad had varioloid. That morning, Lincoln made sure his indispensable man was with him, sending a brief note to Johnson’s supervisor at the Department of Treasury: “William goes with me to Gettysburg.”[6]

During the train ride, Lincoln looked “sallow, sunken-eyed, thin, careworn.”[7] At the ceremony, he was described by reporters as “listless,” “sweating,” and “discouraged.” On the return trip, Lincoln went to bed in the Presidential train car with a bad headache. Johnson kept him cool, bathing his forehead in cold water.[8] Upon returning to the White House, Lincoln was diagnosed with “varioloid,” a mild form of smallpox. Recent research suggests his case was more serious, and the “mild” diagnoses might have been meant to reassure Mary Lincoln and the public.[9] The President was quarantined and bedridden for three weeks. Soon after, Johnson contracted the disease.

In January 1864, a regular correspondent for The Chicago Tribune came upon Lincoln counting out greenbacks. The President explained, “This sir, is something out of my usual line; but 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 small pox. He did not catch it from me, however; at least I think not. 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, as you newspaper men say. I am now dividing the money and putting by a portion labelled, in an envelope, with my own hands, according to his wish.” The correspondent added, “No one who witnessed the transaction could fail to appreciate the goodness of heart which would prompt a man who is borne down by the weight of cares unparalleled in the world’s history, to turn aside for a time to succor one of the humblest of his fellow creatures in sickness and sorrow.”[10]

Johnson died in the latter half of January. On January 28, President Lincoln requested that Solomon Johnson be appointed in William Johnson’s place at the Treasury Department. Lincoln purchased William’s coffin, sent money to his family, and paid off half of a $150 loan he had endorsed. In 1863, Johnson sought to borrow $150 from the First National Bank of Washington “to finish my little house.” The cashier, William J. Huntington, asked for a “responsible indorser,” and Johnson suggested President Lincoln. Huntington agreed. As the first of two $75 loans fell due, Huntington looked for Johnson at the Treasury Department and learned that he had died. Later, Huntington later met with Lincoln and offered to void the notes. Lincoln insisted on paying, and Huntington proposed that Lincoln pay one of the notes and the bank would cancel the other as their policy was to devote a portion of their profits to charity. Lincoln agreed. The cashier, when he gave the notes to Lincoln, said, “After this, Mr. President, you can never deny that you indorse the negro.” Laughing, Lincoln replied, “That’s a fact! But I don’t intend to deny it.”[11]  Johnson may have been buried in a grave in what became Arlington National Cemetery.[12]

Only two other Lincoln checks to African Americans have appeared at auction in the last 40 years, both also for $5. In 1984, a check Lincoln wrote to a “Colored man, with 1 leg” sold at Sotheby's for $16,000, a huge price given that Lincoln’s original signature had been cut away, with a replacement signature patched in later.) In 2005, a check to “Lucy (colored woman)” sold for $55,200. Any Lincoln Presidential period Riggs & Co. checks are rare.

More on Lincoln’s case of Variola (Smallpox)
By the 1860s, inoculation for smallpox was fairly common. The mortality rate for those who contracted smallpox was still around 30%. It was so highly contagious that Union soldiers were inoculated upon entering the Army. The variola variant was as contagious as smallpox, but not as deadly or disfiguring. Variola’s symptoms include aches, fevers, and general malaise common to many other ailments, but a rash or blotches that form blisters and scabs become its most distinguishing feature within days.

Lincoln had never been inoculated and was exposed to literally thousands of people who thronged to the White House to see him. While some scholars claim Lincoln was clearly ill when he left for Gettysburg, most believe he was incubating the illness, but it didn’t fully manifest until his return to Washington. Lincoln, having accepted the invitation, kept the commitment. At the least, he was not feeling well, and he returned definitely ill, feverish, and complaining of body aches. He took to his bed. His valet, William Johnson, was also ailing and immediately sent to his rooms. The White House physician was summoned. Within a few days, the telltale rash and pustules began to form.

There is some speculation that Lincoln had full-blown smallpox. Perhaps only the milder form was admitted to lessen the anxiety of the public (and of Mary Lincoln). However, both John G. Nicolay and John Hay,the President’s private secretaries, feared that Lincoln might die. According to assistant White House secretary William Stoddard, all members of the White House household, staff, and family (i.e., Mary and Tad) who had never been inoculated, immediately were.

The President remained in his rooms for several weeks after he returned from Gettysburg, and strict quarantine procedures were enforced. Normally besieged by people who wanted offices or favors or clemency, or merely to shake his hand, Lincoln quipped to his doctor, “now I have something that I can give to everybody.”  He did not return to his office until shortly before Christmas. By then, scabs from his rash and blisters had abated, and he did not appear to have any visible facial scarring. 

According to Lincoln himself, however, there was definitely an outbreak of smallpox in Washington in late 1863 through early 1864. He sent a wire to his son Robert, at Harvard, warning him and his friends not to come to the Capital because of the outbreak. By that time, the President was fine.

[1] The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1861, 8:1. See also “Personal Sketches of the Members of the Suite of the President Elect—What They Are, and What They Are Likely to Be,” The New-York Herald, February 20, 1861, 1:5.

[2] Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 2 vols. (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2008), 2:252; John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln (1942; reprint, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2018), 127-134.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Salmon P. Chase, November 29, 1861, RG 56, Treasury Department, Personnel Records, National Archives, Washington, DC.

[5] Roy P. Basler, “Did President Lincoln Give the Smallpox to William H. Johnson?” Huntington Library Quarterly 35 (May 1972): 279–284.

[6] Abraham Lincoln to S. Yorke At Lee, November 18, 1863, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

[7] Donald R. Hopkins, The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 279.

[9] Arnold S. Goldman and Frank C. Schmalstieg, “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Illness,” Journal of Medical Biography 15 (May 2007): 104–110.

[10] Chicago Daily Tribune, January 19, 1864, 2:3.

[11] Samuel Wilkeson, “How Mr. Lincoln Indorsed the Negro,” The Janesville Gazette (WI), July 23, 1867, 3:2.

[12] Basler, “Did President Lincoln,” 284. See Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian Page, “Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Johnson,” Disunion blog, February 1, 2012, The New York Times, for doubts about Basler’s attribution of the grave to this William H. Johnson.”

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