We wanted to learn more about James Johnston, the D.C. lawyer, writer and lecturer whose essay on the Washington family’s ties to the Confederacy first appeared in The New York Times last month.
In addition to his law practice, where his work includes telecommunications, intellectual property and appellate litigation, he’s written more than 80 newspaper and magazine articles on topics including law, history, art, terrorism and books. Besides the Times, he’s also been published in The Washington Post, Legal Times of Washington, American Lawyer and the Maryland Historical Society Magazine.
He’s also the author of two books: “From Slave Ship to Harvard,” which traces six generations of an extraordinary African-American family, and “The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough,” which looks at the life of a woman who worked in Richmond, Va., throughout the Civil War.
Johnston also fielded five questions from the Spirit’s Christine Snyder.
Q. In the buildup to the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, a surge of interest in this period of history was predicted. Do you find that to be happening? What sparked your own interest?
A. The Civil War captures people’s attention because it had a huge impact on this country, and Americans can easily visit the sites of the battles. The sesquicentennial has served to focus this interest but it has always been there. The New York Times’ Disunion series, for which I wrote the article that accompanies this Q.-and-A., takes a clever approach by often publishing articles about something 150 years to the day that it happened. Since it affected almost every family in America one way or other, i.e., their ancestors either fought in it or were freed by it, the war is an important part of our shared history. For this reason, I’ve written two books and several articles that touched on the Civil War.
Q. How did your piece in The New York Times come to be?
A. Several years ago, I gave a talk at Claymont outside Charles Town on the Beall family, which I researched for one of my books. Two Washington descendants who live in Charles Town, Betsy Wells and Walter Washington, were also there and gave a talk on the Washington family. It was an eye-opener. I knew that George Washington didn’t have children, but it never occurred to me that his brothers and half-brothers did. I was fascinated by Betsy’s and Walter’s talk. I stayed in touch with them, collected their stories, and did my own research.
Q. Your essay mentioned the many family members of the first president buried in the cemetery at Charles Town’s Zion Episcopal Church. Did your research bring you to this area? Do you have any plans to make the Confederate Washingtons the subject of a book at some point?
A. I’ve been to Charles Town a number of times since the talk at Claymont. I’ve visited two other Washington homes, Harewood and Beallair. Betsy Wells showed me the graveyard at Zion with all those tombstones with Washington names. I gathered more information than I was able to fit into The New York Times article. The next step is to publish a considerably longer article on Lincoln and the Washingtons. Then I’ll see if there is interest in a book.
Q. All these years later, we’re still learning new things about the Civil War – or coming upon new ways of looking at issues from that period. Are there aspects of that time that are on your to-do list, topics you’d like to delve into?
A. Oh yes. I am especially interested in the post-war period. Did they do it right? For example, the South was devastated and yet the government did very little to rebuild. As a result, economically, the South’s main product was cotton, which meant those who had been slaves either had to move to the North or stay where they were on the cotton plantations. I don’t think that was a good solution. [The United States] did things quite differently with Germany after World War II.
Q. Anything else that I should have asked you but have neglected to?
A. I’d like to note how much undiscovered history I’ve found in Charles Town and surrounding areas, like Berryville, Winchester (Virginia) and Shepherdstown. And then there is the preserved, old architecture.
Charles Town may be the most famous place you never heard of. Its history would provide good fodder for writers.