This is the month to observe the birthdays of famous American presidents.
We are midway between President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) and the birthday of President George Washington (Feb. 22) – the perfect time to note that one longtime Spokane resident knew President Lincoln personally. It had been his job to protect him during the Civil War.
His name was Frank Johnson, and he lies buried at Fairmount Memorial Park. While not many details are known about his time guarding Lincoln or whether he ever interacted with the president, it is noteworthy that he had an up-close connection with this famous leader. Much more is known about Johnson’s contributions to the development of this city and region.
Johnson was born in 1845 and emigrated from his native Holland to New York when he was 7 years old. He became an apprentice carpenter and then, at age 17, enlisted in Company M, 11th New York Volunteer Cavalry, to fight in the Civil War. His company was assigned bodyguard duties for the president. A newspaper account described the responsibilities of his unit, which included escorting the president, dispatching messages to the front during the war and patrolling Washington, D.C.
During the summer of 1862 “Mr. Lincoln took up his abode at the soldiers’ home, about five miles from the city, to and from which to the White House he had to be carefully escorted every day,” a task accomplished by Johnson’s company, the newspaper story reads.
There is nothing in the written record that speaks of interaction between the president and his protective guard, but it is clear that Johnson was among the ranks for 17 months before the regiment was dispatched to New Orleans. During his 34 months of service before mustering out at the end of the war, Johnson was involved in many major battles, including those at Baton Rouge (where he was shot), Gettysburg, Fairfax Court House and Germantown, Tenn., among others. He returned to Buffalo, N.Y., where he was married in 1872 to Louisa Luke, with whom he had three children – Margaret, Amelia and William. He continued to work as a carpenter and, deciding to seek opportunities in the western part of the country, traveled to Spokane in 1880 and was hired as foreman of general construction for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. He built the first railroad freight depot in Spokane and the first passenger depot in the town of Sprague.
When the government decided to build Fort Spokane at the confluence of the Columbia and Spokane rivers, Johnson was named general superintendent of construction and oversaw the work from 1882 to 1884. After inspecting Army posts all across the country, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reported that those built by Johnson were “the finest, considering the cost of their construction, of any in the United States.”
Having made the acquaintance with several Jesuits, Johnson built the first Catholic church in Spokane and the first building at Gonzaga College. His son joined him in Frank Johnson & Son building contractors, and they erected many buildings in the city, including the west wing of the original Sacred Heart Hospital, the Pacific Hotel, the Holley building, the Pantages Theater, as well as several homes, including that of J.J. Browne. In 1908 he built a large new office building for the Washington Water Power Company – the same year that he composed the song “Unfurl Old Glory to the Topmast Breeze,” according to historical records.
He served on the Spokane’s City Council, belonged to the Sedgwick Post No. 8 of the Grand Army of the Republic, Pioneer Society of Spokane and the Eagles. He held life membership in Elks Lodge No. 228 and, because of his patriotism expressed in song, also had membership in the Scott Keyes Memorial Association of the United States.
Johnson, who died in 1926, and his wife and son are buried at Fairmount. And while he was a large presence in this region as a builder and contractor and was acknowledged as a patriot and war hero, what he is largely remembered for is his time as a guard for Abraham Lincoln.
If anyone had standing to speak about President Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865, it would certainly have been the man who guarded the president during the Civil War.
But if he ever spoke about that terrible day, there is no record.