Every day, tourists travel from across the United States to Williamsburg, Virginia. Many come to visit Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown. Others come to visit family at the College of William and Mary or for the beer and rollercoasters of Busch Gardens. As people attend the living history events or eat in the colonial taverns, they do so probably unaware that only a short distance away, just one street over the Capitol Building, occurred a scene that exemplified the meaning of a “Brother Against Brother” war.
Following the Battle of Williamsburg in May, 1862, the buildings of the old city were filled with wounded from either side. In one was Captain John “Gimlet” Lea of the 5th North Carolina Infantry, shot through the leg. Laying there wounded, Lea was found by one of his former West Point classmates, now a Union lieutenant, George Armstrong Custer. Custer would write of the experience:
When we first saw each other, he shed tears and threw his arms around my neck and we talked of old times and asked each other hundreds of questions…I carried his meals to him, gave him stockings…and some money…This he did not take but I forced it on him. He burst into tears and said it was more than he could stand…His last words to me were “God bless you old boy!” The bystanders looked with surprise when we were talking and afterwards asked if the prisoner were my brother.
Lea would be taken to Bassett Hall to recover. The home had been built between 1753 and 1766 and took its name from Burwell Bassett, a nephew of Martha Washington, who purchased it in 1800. At the time of the Civil War, the dwelling was owned by Goodrich Durfey. While Lea recuperated at the Durfey home, and as fate would have it, he fell in love with one of Mr. Durfey’s daughters, Margaret. The two would be engaged and set a wedding date of later that summer in August.
The reunion with Lea after Williamsburg made quite an impression on Custer. When the Army of the Potomac withdrew back through Williamsburg following the Seven Days Battles, Custer, now a brevet captain serving on George McClellan’s staff, sought for and received permission to locate Gimlet Lea. Custer found him at Bassett Hall. After visiting for an evening, Custer returned to camp and received permission to visit Lea again. When he arrived again at Bassett Hall, Lea informed Custer that he was to be married to Margaret and requested that Custer join the wedding party as a groomsman.
Following the ceremony, Custer remained at Bassett Hall for another two weeks. He would look back on the time fondly:
Every evening was spent in the parlor. We were all fond of cards and took great interest in playing. When doing so, Lea and I were the only players, while the ladies were spectators. He won every time, he representing the South, I the North.
Bassett Hall still stands today, a reminder that the bonds of friendship and brotherhood stretch far beyond the battlefield.