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Friday, December 7, 2012

Walnut Grove

Walnut Grove

     Built in the early 1840s, Walnut Grove remains-like Oakley-one of the few antebellum plantation houses still standing in Spotsylvania. Located on Foremost Run in the southwestern corner of the county, Walnut Grove is an excellent example of the craftsmanship of master builder William A. Jennings. Much of the information included in today's post comes from the current owners of Walnut Grove and their write-up for the National Register of Historic Homes. In the detail of J.F. Gilmer's 1863 map shown below, Walnut Grove is located at the lower left of the image where "N. Johnson" is indicated. All images in my blog are clickable for larger viewing.

Southwestern Spotsylvania, 1863

     Jonathan Johnson (called "Nathan" by his friends and relations) was a son in law of Richard Estes, my third great grandfather. Nathan married Frances Estes about 1820. Coincidentally, his brother Marshall Johnson married Frances' sister Sarah Estes. While Sarah and Marshall successfully raised six children, Nathan and Frances remained childless.
     Nathan Johnson was a man of refined tastes who enjoyed the good life and was able to amass a small fortune during his lifetime. He was well known for raising some of the finest livestock in the region. Nathan was also active in local and state Democratic politics. In 1840 he was appointed commissioner of the Andrew's Tavern voting district. On election days Democrats would assemble at Nathan's house and then march to the polls with fife and drum playing and flags and streamers flying. Nathan Johnson was also appointed a delegate to the gubernatorial convention in Petersburg in 1858.
     For decades Nathan performed many useful legal services for my ancestors. My great great grandfather Absalom Row, owner of two Virginia law books and justice of the peace in Spotsylvania for twenty years, neglected to have his name witnessed on his will. Nathan and Sanford Chancellor testified in court as to the authenticity of that signature after Absalom's death. Nathan Johnson acted as legal guardian for Absalom's son, George W.E. Row, representing his interests in the legacy left to him by Nathan's brother in law Richard Estes, who died in Missouri. And Nathan spent the last ten years of his life toiling away as administrator of the complicated estate of his sister in law Mary Estes Carter, who died at Greenfield in 1863. The image below from the inventory and appraisement of Mary Carter's estate comes from the archives of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

From the estate papers of Mary Estes Carter

     A slave owner and lifelong Democrat, Nathan Johnson was an unambiguous supporter of succession and the southern cause. Most of his nephews saw action in the Confederate army. Like his neighbors Nathan did what he could to help the war effort, selling hay and grain to the quartermaster officers. He also provided the services of his slave, named Major, "as laborer on the public defenses at and near Richmond" as seen on this receipt for $32 from Captain J. B. Stanard, chief engineer for building those fortifications.

Captain Stanard receipt to Jonathan Johnson, 1863

     During the fighting that occurred at nearby Trevilian Station in 1864, elements of Sheridan's cavalry camped at Walnut Grove. As was their standard practice Union soldiers stole food hidden under the beds and confiscated valuables from the house as well as Nathan's prized livestock. These enterprising soldiers in blue also found a book in the barn in which Nathan had hidden $800-1,000.
     A niece of Nathan and Frances, Kate Kale ( about whose family I have previously written), was staying with the Johnsons during this episode. She described this incident in a letter to her first cousin-and my great great aunt-Nan Row. Kate wrote that a Union soldier struck a servant named Jane for refusing to open a cellar door. Jane hit the soldier back with some onions that happened to be handy. Despite all this unpleasantness Walnut Grove survived the war pretty much intact.

From the inventory of Jonathan Johnson's estate

     Unlike many of his neighbors, Nathan Johnson was able to remain a wealthy man until his death in 1873. The inventory and appraisement of his estate shows that he had over $30,000 in cash and coin in the house. He left his $200 gold watch to Kate Kale. The image above is courtesy of the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

     During the 1950s and 1960s Spotsylvania historian Roger Mansfield exchanged many letters with my great aunt, Mabel Row Wakeman. They addressed each other as "Cousin" since they had discovered that Roger's great grandmother-Sarah Estes Johnson-was the sister of Mabel's grandmother Nancy Estes Row. Roger took an interest in my family's history and wrote a monograph on Greenfield in 1960. That same year Roger also wrote a piece about what life would have been like at "Walnut Hill" during Christmas time in 1860. So, in the spirit of the holidays I present Roger's semi-fictional account of the Johnsons of Walnut Grove, given to Mabel 52 years ago.



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