Employees & Staff: William Slade

White House staff member whose family was close to the Lincolns. Presidential aide William Duffield Neill described William Slade as "a faithful man, prudent and dignified. He was an elder in the Presbyterian Church for colored people on Fifteenth Street, near the President's mansion."1

The daughter of William Slade later recalled that she had “stayed many nights in the White House with her parents when storms came up and they could not get home. She and her brothers played with Tad, and he often came and played with them in their home on Massachusetts Avenue, between 4th and 6th Streets, N.W.”2 According to biographer John E. Washington, “Many times when Slade had had the opportunity of spending his nights at home with his family, he would put his three children – Katherine (Nibbie), Andrew, and Jessie in his carriage (which he used in traveling back and forth to the White House and also for taking him from place to place with the messages of President Lincoln) and taken them to the White House where they would spend the entire day playing with Tad in the basement, in the White House grounds, or in any other part of the house that the little son of the President wanted to use.”3 Occasionally Miss ‘Nibbie’ Slade often claimed that her father sometimes knew about the President’s plans before his secretaries did. Her father said that Lincoln had a peculiar manner of doing things. Often while reading or sitting alone, he would tear off a little piece of paper and write something on it and put it away in his desk, or in his vest or pants pockets, and continue his reading. Often Slade discovered these precious pieces of paper and saved them for the President,” wrote John E. Washington.4

Historian Catherine Clinton wrote that “Slade was not just the keeper of the keys, but took charge of supervising all the black workers in the Executive Mansion, as well as the arrangements for all public and private functions involving food and service. It was no accident that Hannah brooks, a cousin of Slade’s, secured a posoition sewing for Mrs. Lincoln.”5 Slade played a key role in both the White House and likely at the Soldier’s Home, where he was one of the few servants in attendance. According to Washington, Slade “was of medium height, olive in complexion, with light eyes and straight chestnut-brown hair and wore a little goatee. He had a wonderful disposition, never became excited, always could see the bright side of things, even when Lincoln was downcast and needed a cheering, hopeful friend. Slade was a great story teller. He was known for his collection of jokes and wisecracks, and I have often heard it said that ‘he had some that could make a horse laugh.’ Not only did Slade serve as confidential messenger for the Lincoln family, but he also acted as valet for the President, took complete charge of the colored help, made arrangements for all public and private functions (from the standpoint of food and serving), kept a set of keys of the White House and knew every diplomat, general, and statesman. He had his own private room, bought all of the food and at evenings when the Lincolns had only a few friends to dinner or a party, he would plan and assist the waiter in serving them. Being a caterer himself he often made special dishes for these occasions. Week in, week out, from morn till night, his services were in constant demand by his employer.”6

After President Lincoln's assassination, according to Washington, “Slade had everything ready, including garments for clothing the body. The suit worn by Lincoln at his last inaugural was selected. As valet and steward, it was Slade’s duty and privilege to serve his employer to the last. After he had finished washing and dressing the remains and being present during the final trimming of the hair, he clipped off a lock for himself and family.”7 Slade’s wife Katherine, was given the dress Mary Todd Lincoln wore to the theater when President Lincoln was shot.8

Lincoln aide Edward Duffield Neill recalled that Vice President Andrew Johnson visited Mr. Lincoln on the afternoon before he was assassinated. On the day after the assassination, Slade "came to me and said he was very unhappy, and asked me if I had noticed as I crossed the hall to the President's room on Friday afternoon that he was listening to the Vice-President, and nodding assent as he conversed. I told him I had observed him. He then said: 'It is what I said to Mr. Johnson that makes me feel miserable.' The Vice-president had expressed his respect for Mr. Lincoln, but said he thought if he were President he would not it too easy for the rebels, and that having African blood in his veins, he had nodded assent, and expressed the wish that at some future day he might be President."9

Slade was appointed as White House steward by President Johnson but died before Johnson left office.


Footnotes

    1. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 612.
    2. John E. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, p. 105
    3. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, pp. 108-109.
    4. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, p. 111.
    5. Catherine Clinton, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, p. 160.
    6. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, p. 108.
    7. Washington, They Knew Lincoln, p. 110.
    8. Clinton, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, p. 252.
    9. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 612.

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