Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Johnston Family and Benvenue: A Story of Civilians and the War in Northern Virginia, Part I

This blog has covered a lot of ground on the Civil War history of present-day McLean, Virginia.  Many of my posts have focused on the two sprawling Union Army encampments located there from October 1861 to March 1862.  In one of my earliest posts on Camps Griffin and Pierpont, I discussed the 18th-century stone house known as "Benvenue," located right down the street from my own home.  The brigade of Windfield Scott Hancock took over the dwelling for use as a hospital in the fall of 1861.  I decided to research more about the hospital and stumbled upon a wealth of material on the owner of Benvenue and his family.  Their tale offers a glimpse at just how severely the war impacted civilians in and around the area which comprises modern-day McLean.

In 1858, John R. Johnston purchased the 198-acre Benvenue property from the estate of the late Commodore Thomas ap Catsby Jones.  Johnston paid $9,500 for the farm, which sat along the road from Langley to Lewinsville in Fairfax County.  (The American Farmer, 121.)  The new owner moved his wife and children to the property and began farming.*  Johnston employed Samuel Merchant to manage Benvenue.  Merchant, who had known Johnston for about 20 years, lived with the family on the farm.  (S. Merchant Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 51.)

Johnston began making improvements to the land, including the construction of wooden fences.  By 1861, he had around 150 acres under cultivation.  (J. Crocker Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 26.)  Johnston grew corn and hay, as well as garden vegetables like potatoes and cabbage.  He also raised cows and hogs on the farm. 

The Benvenue house (c. 1757) along present-day Churchill Road in McLean. The modern-day road roughly follows Benvenue's driveway.  Commodore Jones took the name "Benvenue" from a plantation in Louisiana where he recovered from his wounds following the 1814 Battle of New Orleans. The house now sits on private property.

Detail from an 1862 Union Army map of Northeastern Virginia showing the location of the Johnston farm on the road from Langley and Lewinsville (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Note the misspelling of Johnston's name.  Benvenue sat around four miles from the Chain Bridge over the Potomac River.  Fairfax County has published an 1860 map of land ownership overlaid on a 1981 map of the county.  (See here.)  Johnston's property can be seen on grid squares 30-2 and 21-4.  The Benvenue farm sat on land that is now occupied by the McLean Community Center, Dolley Madison Library, and several residential neighborhoods, including my own housing development.
Only a few years after the Johnstons moved to Benvenue, regional tensions mounted between North and South.  In April 1861, the Virginia Secession Convention approved an Ordinance of Secession and submitted it to a popular referendum.  On May 23, Johnston and his neighbors headed to the polls in Lewinsville to vote on the question of secession.  Johnston and 38 others cast their votes in favor of secession, but in the end, a majority of residents (86 votes) rejected the Ordinance.  Out of the fourteen precincts in Fairfax County, Lewinsville was one of only three to vote against secession.  State-wide, the Ordinance passed by an overwhelming majority.  Virginia left the Union and joined the nascent Confederate States of America.

Johnston's wife, Marcia, later testified before the Southern Claims Commission (SCC) that her husband was a loyal Union man.   She explained that Johnston only voted for the Ordinance "because of the pressure of the times" and that "[h]e often expressed to me his regrets for having done so."  (M. Johnston testimony, Johnston SCC File, 19.)  In fact, Marcia claimed that "[a]t the time he voted it did not appear that Union people would be protected, and he voted for the Ordinance for fear of the consequences that might follow if he did not."  (M. Johnston Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 19.)  

Some of Johnston's neighbors likewise testified to his loyalty, as did J. Harry Thompson, a surgeon from the 43rd New York who was encamped on Johnston's farm.  Thompson recalled speaking with Johnston about his vote to approve the Ordinance.  Johnston told the surgeon that he had voted for secession "under strong family pressure, but that he believed it was all wrong and that it would result in the destruction of the South. . . ."  (J.H. Thompson Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 63.)  The farmer had apparently "tried to convince his brothers against it but was unsuccessful."  (J.H. Thompson Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 63.)  

As the Union and Confederate armies mobilized in the months before Bull Run, tensions mounted in Northern Virginia.  Johnston tried to avoid trouble and carry on as usual.  His neighbor, George F.M. Walters, remembered that Johnston was a "quiet man" who "did not take an active part in either side." (G.F.M. Walters Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 32.)  Early in the war, Johnston's brother, who had enlisted with the Confederate forces, visited Johnston at his farm with several other soldiers.  Johnston ordered them away and "told his brother he never wanted him to come there again -- that he wanted nothing to do with such men." (G.F.M. Walters Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 31-32; see also J. Burke Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 38-39.) 

Jonathan Crocker, a farmer in Lewinsville, recalled that Marcia had the reputation "of a strong Union woman," although Walters wasn't sure he "ever heard Mrs. Johnston's sentiments spoken of." (J. Crocker Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 25; G.F.M. Walters Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 33.) Originally from Georgetown, D.C., Marcia had three first cousins in the Union Army. Early in the war, Confederate soldiers arrested Crocker's 72 year-old father. According to testimony before the SCC, Marcia tried to secure the release of Crocker's father, but to no avail. (J. Crocker Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 25.) His father later died in Culpeper while still in Confederate hands.

Of course, we may never know exactly how the Johnstons felt on the question of secession and Unionism.  Southerners who filed claims with the SCC were motivated in part by financial self-interest.  They also had an incentive to select witnesses who were most likely to back their statements of loyalty to the Union.  All of these considerations mean that SCC testimony does not always reflect the complete truth.  John Johnston's vote for the Ordinance certainly raises some suspicions, although it is not unrealistic to think that Johnston faced peer pressure from his brothers and some of his neighbors to support secession and that he feared what might happen to his family if he went against the tide.  Once the fighting began, he just wanted to be left alone.

Johnston, however, could only do so much to keep his wife and children away from civil war.  By September 1861, the Union Army began to probe towards Lewinsville, right past Johnston's front door.  On September 11, and again on September 25, the armies clashed in and around the small village.  Johnston surely feared for his family's safety as he heard the boom of artillery and the crack of musket fire from his farmhouse.  But the most dramatic impact of the war was yet to come.


*The precise date of the move is uncertain.  In her testimony to the Southern Claims Commission, John's widow, Marcia Johnston, noted that the family came to Benvenue two years before the start of the war, or in 1859.  (M. Johnston Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 21.)  A neighbor, Jonathan Crocker, recalled that the Johnstons arrived there "some two or three years before the war."  (J. Crocker Testimony, Johnston SCC File, 23.)  Given that the property was purchased in 1858, either Marcia remembered the wrong date, or the Johnstons moved to Benvenue some time after the land deal. 

*According to SCC and 1860 Federal Census records, Johnston and his wife likely had two small children at the time they moved to Benvenue.  A son, George, was born around 1856, and a daughter, Eliza, was born around 1858.  The couple had another son, John, who was born at Benvenue in 1860.  He died at age four.


1860 U.S. Census Schedule for Fairfax County, Va., available at; The American Farmer: A Monthly Magazine of Agriculture and Horticulture, Vol. XIV (1858); Brian A. Conley, Fractured Land: Fairfax County's Role in the Vote for Secession, May 23, 1861 (2001); Winslow R. Hatch, Old Roads and New Insights: Adventures in Discovery (1985); Carole L. Herrick, Images of America: McLean (2011); Historical Marker Database, "Benvenue;" Southern Claims Commission File for Marcia Johnston, #22121, available at ("Johnston SCC File").


Anonymous said...

The name is "Winfield Scott Hancock," not Windfield.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks for your attention to detail. You remind me of the problem with nit-picking Civil War buffs. This post is nearly 10 years old, and you point out a typo in a post replete with evidentiary support. See why I don't blog anymore?