Thursday, October 18, 2012

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

A couple weeks ago I wrote about a family who lived in my neck of the woods during the Civil War.  John R. Johnston purchased the 198-acre property known as "Benvenue" in 1858.  Within a few years, sectional tensions began to mount in Northern Virginia.  Johnston voted for the Ordinance of Secession in May 1861, but was anything but a Southern firebrand.  He explained to his wife that he felt pressured to vote for secession because he feared what would happen to him if he were viewed as pro-Union.  As the contending armies mobilized, Johnston largely kept to himself and tried to avoid the conflict swirling about him.  Like so many other civilians in Fairfax County, however, Johnston would soon get caught in the tempest of war.

Since the start of September 1861, the Union division of Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith had been encamped on the Virginia side of the Chain Bridge, only a few miles from Johnston's farm.  On October 9, 1861, Smith pushed his men westward through Langley and occupied the area around Lewinsville.  The Pennsylvania Reserves under Gen. George A. McCall crossed the river at Chain Bridge on the same day and marched to Langley.  Johnston's property sat right in the middle of the Union Army's advance.
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (courtesy of Old Pictures)
Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock commanded a brigade in Smith's division.*  As Hancock's men set up their camp, Johnston's home was seized for use as a hospital.  On October 10, Alfred Castleman, the surgeon of the 5th Wisconsin, noted in his diary:
We have had much trouble and vexation to-day in establishing medical headquarters for the regiments of our brigade, but after much ordering of us and changing of orders, we are at last to take charge of the stone house of Mr. Jno. N. Johnson, in which, and in the tents we are able to pitch, we hope to make comfortable all the sick of our brigade.  (Castleman 41-42.)**
J. Harry Thompson, the surgeon of the 43rd New York, later recalled:
The house of Mr. John R. Johnston was taken as a hospital and devoted with all its furniture, beds, bedding, carpets, linens, towling, kitchen and other utensils and all the material usually appertaining to a household to the care of the sick and wounded of General Hancock's brigade and in fact of Gen. Wm. F. Smith's division. . . . (J.H. Thompson Test., Johnston SCC file, 68.)

Alfred Castleman, surgeon of the 5th Wisconsin (courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)
A soldier-correspondent from the 49th Pennsylvania mentioned Johnston's house in a letter to his hometown paper:  "We occupy a fine country residence for Hospital purposes, which affords accommodation for 75 patients."  (Lancaster Daily Express, Dec. 17, 1861.)***   According to some sources, male nurses lived in a board and batten cottage behind the stone house.  (Hatch 87; Herrick 18.)  This building still stands today on the Benvenue property along Churchill Road in McLean. 

Around the same time the Union Army was converting his home into a field hospital, Johnston saw his farmland occupied by thousands of Union soldiers.  The Bucktails of McCall's division were some of the first men to arrive.  (S. Merchant Test., Johnston SCC File, 43-44.)  Their encampment formed a portion of the Pennsylvania Reserves' Camp Pierpont.  The 5th Wisconsin and 43rd New York from Hancock's brigade also established their camp at Benvenue.  (J.D. Crocker Test., Johnston SCC File, 28; S.J. Merchant Test., Johnston SCC File, 43-44; J.H. Thompson Test., Johnston SCC File, 62.)  The 6th Maine and 49th Pennsylvania -- the other two regiments in Hancock's brigade -- may likewise have encamped on Johnston's farm, although the evidence is less certain.  (J.D. Crocker Test., Johnston SCC File, 28; S.J. Merchant Test., Johnston SCC File, 43-44.)****  The regimental camps of Hancock's brigade belonged to Camp Griffin of Smith's division.

Sometime in October 1861 Johnston moved his wife and three children to the safety and security of Georgetown, D.C.  (M. Johnston Test., Johnston SCC File, 13.)  The exact timing is uncertain given contradictory accounts in the Southern Claims Commission (SCC) file.  Surgeon Thompson indicates that Johnston's wife and children went to Georgetown only after their house was taken for use as a hospital.  (J.H. Thompson Test., Johnston SCC File, 63.)   According to testimony from a neighbor, however, Marcia Johnston only learned that the Union Army was advancing during the course of her flight to Georgetown.  (J. Burke Test., Johnston SCC File, 38.)  In any event, her husband remained behind on the farm.  The Union Army permitted him to travel "at his pleasure" to Georgetown, and Johnston visited his family about once every two weeks.  (M. Johnston Test., Johnston SCC File, 16.)*****

The presence of so many Union soldiers had a devastating impact on Johnston's farm.  Potatoes and cabbage disappeared not long after the troops arrived.  Looking for an alternative to salt pork and hardtack, the solders also shot and skinned all of Johnston's pigs.  Teams of soldiers cut down acres of timber and ripped apart fencing.  They hauled the wood away by the wagon load for use in campfires and the construction of huts.  The soldiers also took all of Johnston's hay and corn to feed to their horses and mules.

The old stone farmhouse likewise sustained damage.  Thompson remembered that by the time Hancock's brigade left several months later, the house was "to all intents and purposes, practically destroyed."  (J.H. Thompson Test., Johnston SCC File, 68.)  The soldiers even left inscriptions on the attic rafters that are still visible to this day.

For all the destruction going on around him, Johnston apparently remained on good terms with the Union soldiers.  His wife remembered that "[s]oon as the Union troops came, he became their friend and they treated him kindly."  (M. Johnston Test., Johnston SCC File, 19.)  Union officers even traveled to Georgetown with Johnston.  Castleman considered Johnston "a loyalist."  (Castleman 42.)  The surgeon made the doubtful claim that "every article [Johnston] had to dispose of was bought and paid for, at high prices, by the soldiers."  (Castleman 42.)  In fact, Johnston was told to get receipts for the property if he wanted to get paid, and his farm manager later testified that Johnston was not paid compensation at the time.  (S.J. Merchant Test., Johnston SCC File, 43.)

Johnston gained some name recognition on the Northern homefront.  A rise on the backside of his farm was known as "Johnston's Hill."  The Union soldiers encamped near Langley and Lewinsville, including the Pennsylvania Reserves and the Vermont Brigade, often held military reviews and parades on the flat ground in front of the hill.******  The name "Johnston's Hill" appeared frequently in news stories about the camps.  In one account, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin reviewed the Pennsylvania Reserves at Johnston's Hill following their victory at Dranesville in December 1861.  (Phila. Press, Dec. 30, 1861.)

The Union soldiers remained on Johnston's farm throughout the winter of 1861-62.  On March 10, 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan set the Army of the Potomac in motion upon receiving intelligence that the Confederates had evacuated their position around Centreville.  The Pennsylvania Reserves and Smith's Division struck camp and joined the army's general movement to the west.

Johnston surely breathed a sigh of relief as tens of thousands of Federal troops marched away from his farm and neighborhood.  Other Union soldiers would later pass through the area or perform picket duty there, but Johnston never again saw massive encampments like those he experienced during the first winter of the war.  In early September 1862, units from Gen. Franz Sigel's corps took hay and potatoes from Johnston's farm and provided him with the receipts to prove it.  (Receipt, Co. K, 1st Ohio Light Artillery & Receipt, 68th N.Y., Johnston SCC File, 3-4.)

In November 1862 Johnston finally went to Georgetown to join his family.  He died three weeks later, on December 11, at the young age of thirty-five.  (The cause of death is unknown.)  Johnston was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.  Johnston's widow only returned to Benvenue in the summer of 1865, where she saw first-hand the dramatic impact that the war had on her family's farm.

Several years after the Civil War, Marcia Johnston filed a claim with the SCC in the amount of $5,754.  She even claimed $120 for rent of Benvenue as a hospital between October 1861 and March 1862.  Unfortunately, the Commissioners found "no sufficient justification" for Johnston's vote in support of secession despite evidence of his loyalty, and the claim was denied.  (Johnston SCC File, 73.)

Johnston's tale resonates with me on a personal level.  After all, I live on the very land that used to belong to his farm, and Benvenue is a short walk away.  But Johnston's story also has a relevance that extends beyond the immediate community of McLean.  Civilians in Fairfax County and elsewhere in Northern Virginia (or elsewhere in the South, for that matter) saw their lives transformed directly by the presence of the armies.  Johnston was one of those ordinary citizens who suffered through extraordinary times.  As a young man, he had purchased a new farm near Langley and set out to improve his lot.  Johnston surely had hopes and dreams for the future.  A few short years later, the forces of war descended on Johnston's property, disrupted his livelihood, deprived him of privacy, and upended his family life.  We are reminded that war was hell of a different kind for civilians, but hell nonetheless.


*Hancock's brigade originally consisted of the 5th Wisconsin, 43rd New York, 47th Pennsylvania, and 49th Pennsylvania.  At some point in the fall of 1861, the 47th Pennsylvania was replaced by the 6th Maine.  (Jordan 36-37; McClellan 455.)

**Castleman misspelled Johnston's name and also used the wrong middle initial.

***A special thanks to John Hennessy, who sent me a copy of this article. 

****Jonathan D. Crocker, one of Johnston's neighbors, testified to the SCC that aside from the 5th Wisconsin, "a Penna. and a New York regiment were camped" on Johnston's farm, along with "some batteries."  According to Crocker, all of these units were from Hancock's brigade.  Other testimony confirms that the New York regiment was likely the 43rd New York.  The Pennsylvania Regiment could have been the 49th Pennsylvania, or less likely, the 47th Pennsylvania before its transfer to another brigade in Smith's division.  Samuel J. Merchant, Johnston's farm manager, testified that aside from the Bucktails and the 43rd New York, the "9th Penna." and "a Maine regiment" camped on the Johnston farm.  He later referred to the "9th Penna." and the "5th Maine" as part of Hancock's brigade.  The "9th Penna." likely means the 49th Pennsylvania; the 9th Pennsylvania was not part of Hancock's brigade.  An alternative theory is that the 9th Penna. was the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves of McCall's division.  Moreover, there was no 5th Maine under Hancock. Instead, Merchant must have meant the 6th Maine or even the 5th Wisconsin.  Merchant's testimony was taken in 1877, so his recollection of the exact regiments may have been flawed due to the passage of time.

*****It is unclear whether Johnston resided in the main house on his property or in some other structure.

******Johnston's Hill is located along and to the east of the upper part of Pine Hill Road in McLean.  The parade ground was roughly located on the site of the present-day Madison of McLean townhouse community along Madison McLean Dr. off of Rt. 123. (See here for a map.)  I plan to explore the story of the parade ground in a future post.


Alfred L. Castleman, The Army of the Potomac, Behind the Scenes: A Diary of Unwritten History (1863); Winslow R. Hatch, Old Roads and New Insights: Adventures in Discovery (1985); Carole L. Herrick, Images of America: McLean (2011); Historical Marker Database, "Benvenue;" "John Richards Johnston," at; David M. Jordan, Winfield Scott Hancock: A Soldier's Life (1988); Lancaster Daily Express, Dec. 17, 1861; George B. McClellan, Report on the Organization and Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (1864); Phila. Press, Dec. 14, 1861; Phila. Press, Dec. 30, 1861; Southern Claims Commission File for Marcia Johnston, #22121, available at ("Johnston SCC File"); J.R. Sypher, History of the Pennsylvania Reserves Corps (1865); Wisconsin Historical Society, "Alfred Lewis Castleman," Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Vince said...

Very interesting story. The 49th Pennsylvania soldier-correspondent you mention is "J.F.H.," who was Surgeon John F. Huber, about whom I believe we corresponded over Facebook a few months back. Here's his account of setting up shop at Benvenue in October 1861:

"On Saturday, we were ordered to take the field to relieve the pickets, who reported a difficulty with the enemy; but when we arrived, the rebels had retired. We then returned, and striking tents, marched several miles, near Bailey's Cross Roads and Falls Church, where we are now encamped, in a young orchard belonging to an officer now in the secesh army. His residence is the head quarters of General Hancock, formerly from Penna., to whose brigade we are attached."

Ron Baumgarten said...

Vince—Glad you liked the post. I indeed remember our Facebook conversation about Huber and the 49th Pa. Thanks for pointing out this passage to me again; you have provided another clue as to the location of the 49th Pa.’s camp. A couple years ago I wrote a post on the Union Army’s occupation of Lewinsville and Langley. The N.Y. Times on October 11, 1861 reported that “Gen. HANCOCK is at Dr. MACKALL's.” ( The Mackalls were a prominent local family and known secessionists. Dr. Richard C. Mackall, a dentist, had a farm right across the way from Benvenue. (The farm is visible on the map from Part I of my series on Benvenue.) When the Union Army came, his property was taken, and he was arrested, although later released through Hancock's apparent intervention. Mackall’s brother was William W. Mackall, a Confederate general now buried in McLean. (He was the subject of a prior post.) The excerpt you provided indicates that the 49th Pa. was likely camped on Dr. Mackall’s land. I’d venture to guess that the camp may have spilled over to Johnston’s adjacent farm. However, I think the paper confused Dr. Mackall with his brother as I don’t think Dr. Mackall was a Confederate officer.