Before the opening of the Metropolitan Museum's "Cast in Bronze" exhibition a week or so ago, the Met's Vice-President for Public Affairs, Harold Holzer, dropped in to the Yale Club Library to deliver a lecture on Abraham Lincoln to a standing-room-only audience. The author or editor of 30 books on Lincoln, Holzer was appointed the co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission by President Bill Clinton and awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush. Also recipient of the highest award for Lincoln scholarship, the Lincoln Medal, Holzer is justifiably proud of his achievements. "I went to the Capitol Rotunda last week," he told his Yale audience, "to celebrate officially the Lincoln Bicentennial, but first I stopped into Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to make sure that the $50 million for the arts in the stimulus bill wasn't dropped. I succeeded." Holzer went on to say that his prepared remarks for the occasion dealt with President Lincoln's determination to complete the Capitol Rotunda's construction while he was in office, despite a shortage of iron, which was needed for Union weapons, "but President Obama spoke first and pretty much said everything I was going to say, so I had to wing it!"
You would think that Lincoln is a well-worn subject, but Holzer always has a new Abrahamic anecdote up his sleeve and he took the Yalies collective breath away. "Lincoln's son Robert spent the 12 days leading up to his father's inaugural on a drunken spree," Holzer drily commented. The debauch created a problem, because Secretary of State designate William Seward dispatched his son with a note in code to Robert Lincoln describing a rumored assassination plot against the President-elect. The two men had to awake the Mexican War hero, General Winfield Scott, to decipher it.
Holzer switched subjects, "Did you know that President Lincoln had what today would be called a 'body man'? He was a black man from Illinois named William Johnson." Lincoln tried to get Johnson appointed to his White House staff, but his staffers refused to work with a black man. "Then," added Holzer, "the President tried to get Johnson an appointment with the Naval Department, which actually had African-American sailors, and was also rejected."
William Johnson went to work as the White House gardener and Lincoln elevated him, eventually, to the valet position. Holzer continued, "But that is not the story. Before he was to go to Gettysburg to give his famous address, Lincoln contracted smallpox, which severely scarred his skin. His wife Mary forbade him to travel, but Lincoln went to Gettysburg, taking William Johnson to nurse him. Two weeks later William Johnson died of smallpox, a contagion from the President." Lincoln buried his body man in what was to become Arlington National Cemetery, then the ancestral home of Robert E. Lee.
"Lincoln paid for the tombstone himself," Harold Holzer concluded," It's inscription read: "William Johnson Citizen."
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).