Brothers at Bassett Hall

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.

10 Responses to Brothers at Bassett Hall

  1. Thank you for sharing this moving story. It reminds me of when Custer went to Belle Grove plantation to see his dying Confederate friend Ramseur after the Cedar Grove battle. As a Michigander i am always interested in hearing Custer stories.

  2. Colonial Williamsburg has some interesting events to commemorate the Sesquicentennial.

    Fridays at 7, 7:20, 7:40, 8:20, 8:40, and 9 p.m.
    Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area
    Tickets are $12 for adults and youths (ages 6–17), $6 for children under 6.
    Please call 1-800-447-8679 to make reservations.

    The old colonial capital of Williamsburg played an important part in the American Civil War. In addition to serving as headquarters for the Confederate Army and later for the Union Army, it experienced a tragic battle on its doorstep. Join in a one-hour outdoor walking tour of the major Civil War sites of the town, meet people who were here, and learn more about Williamsburg’s role in this heartrending period of America’s history. Recommended for ages 13 and up.

    1. Thanks! It is privately owned. You can walk the grounds but there is no access to the house or outbuildings.

      1. Dan-

        Actually, Bassett Hall is open to the public! It is part of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the benefactor of the Restoration, made it his Williamsburg residence in the ’30s and ’40s, so it is furnished with all of their belongings. It is open for guided tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You need either a Colonial Williamsburg Pass or a Museum Pass to tour. Bassett Hall does not sell any tickets, so you have to buy a pass at one of their ticket selling sites, like their Visitor Center.

  3. Daniel –

    Is it true that the Confederate prisoner in this famous photo with GA Custer is actually John Lea — and not JB Washington?

    I read somewhere that the the photo has been mislabeled as being JB Washington, unless Custer had run-ins with two former friends during the Peninsula Campaign, which I guess could be the case. However, if the individual is indeed Lea, the photo was probably taken in the yard of Bassett Hall. Any thoughts?

  4. Todd-thank you for the response.The individual with Custer in the referenced photograph is indeed James Washington, great grand-nephew of our first President. He was a former classmate of Custer’s at West Point and was captured at Seven Pines. Upon his capture, he would be taken to McCllelan’s headquarters and there he asked to see Custer. In fact, Washington was allowed to stay with Custer in the Union camp for several days following the battle. The photograph ended up being published in Harpers Weekly. The Washington family never forgot Custer’s kindness and Libbie Custer recorded in her diary that the family presented her husband with one of a set of buttons from a coat owned by George Washington as a token of their thanks and respect.
    Any question as to who is in the photograph with Custer was put to rest with Glenwood Swanwon’s superb book “G.A. Custer: His Life and Times”.

  5. Sandy,
    Many thanks for the information. I will definitely try to swing by the next time I am in the area. The times I have been have not been on the days that you mentioned.

    Again, thank you.

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