the research microsite

Publications: CW Journal: Past Issues: Autumn 2002

A Short History of Bassett Hall

Colonel Phillip Johnson built a modest house and outbuildings on his plantation at the edge of Williamsburg in the middle 1700s. But it is not Johnson Hall; it is Bassett Hall, named for a later owner, Burwell Bassett, a nephew of Martha Washington who purchased the property about 1800. Government service was part of the Bassett legacy, and Burwell Bassett served in the Virginia Legislature as well as in the United States Congress.

The property passed through several owners after Bassett. By the time of the Civil War, it was the home of Colonel Goodrich Durfey, whose family was living there during the Battle of Williamsburg in May of 1862. The Confederates lost and retreated west. As the federals occupied the town, they took charge of the care of wounded rebels left behind. One of them, Captain John Lea of North Carolina, recuperated at Bassett Hall. A graduate of West Point, Lea fell in love with the Durfey’s daughter Margaret. Three months later, they were married at the bride’s home, as was the custom.

Most Union and Confederate officers were West Pointers, and among the Yankees in Williamsburg was one of Captain Lea’s old classmates, the cavalry colonel George Armstrong Custer. When Custer heard Lea was a prisoner at Bassett Hall, he visited, and the reunion was so cordial Custer served as Lea’s best man at the August wedding.

“I never saw two prettier girls,” Custer wrote home of the bride and her bridesmaid cousin. He said Lea “was dressed in a bright new (rebel) uniform . . . trimmed with gold lace. I wore my full uniform of blue.” Custer remained as a guest at Bassett Hall for two weeks.

After the war, Bassett Hall passed from the Durfeys to the family of Israel Smith, whose descendants sold the property to John D. Rockefeller Jr. fifty-eight years later.

— Mary Miley Theobald