Ella Washington and the Federal Army

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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George Armstrong Custer became forever famous when he led more than 250 cavalrymen to annihilation on the Little Big Horn river in 1876. A dozen years earlier he had been infamous among Virginians for destruction of civilian property and executing prisoners. Before either of those notable episodes of Custer's life and death, he had been the gallant savior of a hard-beset Virginian woman who lived near Richmond.

Ella Bassett grew up on her father's sizable plantation 'Clover Lea,' a dozen miles northeast of Virginia's capital city. She had been born in September 1834 at another family estate, 'Eltham,' in New Kent County.

In May 1862, the Civil War came to Eltham, and the next month it washed up on the grounds of Clover Lea as well. Two years later the war, by then a hard-eyed, unforgiving monster, descended on Clover Lea in an episode fraught with terror for Ella. Her descriptions of the ordeal she experienced in May and June 1864 serve as an example in microcosm of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians at the mercy of invading troops.

By 1864, Ella had been a married woman for 3 years. Her husband, Colonel Lewis

Ella Bassett Washington. 1834-98. (Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

Ella Bassett Washington. 1834-98. (Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

Descendants George Washington

Washington, was a direct descendant of the first President, George Washington (through George's wife and family; he had no natural children). So was Ella. She and Lewis each had ancestry back to the first President's family on both sides of their own parentage, and accordingly Lewis and Ella were themselves distant cousins by multiple connections. Lewis was more than two decades older than Ella and had been married before. Ella evidently had little or nothing to do with his two daughters, who lived with relatives in Maryland, but she was fond of stepson James Barroll Washington.

The war's preliminaries had fallen on Lewis Washington with alarming savagery the year before he married Ella. On an October morning in 1859, several men used a fence rail to batter down the door of Washington's home, 'Beall Air,' near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The intruders - a detachment from the marauding party directed by John Brown - knew that Lewis owned relics of George Washington and demanded them as booty. They carried Lewis off as a hostage. He witnessed, as a prisoner, the storming by United States Marines of Brown's hideout at Harpers Ferry. Directing the storming party was Colonel Robert E. Lee, United States Army. Among the first men to the door of the stronghold was Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, United States Army, acting as an aide to Lee.

The year after Lewis's brief ordeal at the hands of Brown's merry band, his new bride, cousin Ella, moved into Beall Air. In late 1861, the couple moved from Beall Air to Ella's family place at Clover Lea. She attributed the need to relocate to 'the critical condition of my health.' Since Lewis's home stood in a mountainous region, and Clover Lea plantation lay in the relatively swampy ground near Richmond, contemporary notions would have suggested (not inaccurately) that health considerations would actually militate in favor of Beall Air. Perhaps Ella's concern was to be near her own family to secure their assistance. Not long after the Washingtons relocated to Clover Lea, their baby daughter Betty died. In June 1863, Ella bore a son, William D. Washington.

The 1862 campaign around Richmond nearly resulted in the capture of the Confederate capital and an early end to the war. Fortunately for the Southern army, its timid commander fell wounded at the end of May and General R. E. Lee assumed command. In a week of fighting denominated the 'Seven Days' Campaign,' Lee slowly and at great cost drove away the besieging Northerners and bottled them up against the James river. Lee won the week's biggest battle with the largest charge he ever launched during the war, at Gaines' Mill, just five miles (8km) from Clover Lea.

In the aftermath, suffering wounded men clogged the entire countryside. A major hospital mushroomed next to the Bassett-Washington property. The Richmond Whig

The Federal Army

'Clover Lea,' home of Ella Bassett Washington, photographed in the 1930s. (Author's collection)

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three times published appreciative notices of the kindness bestowed on sick and wounded soldiers by women of the neighborhood, 'especially ... the ladies of "Clover Lea."' A few weeks later, the same newspaper reported the death of baby Betty. It is hard to avoid the speculation (but impossible to prove) that microbes from the hundreds of sick, wounded, and infected soldiers convalescing in the vicinity might have brought on the infant's demise.

Although the Federals failed to capture Richmond during that spring of 1862, they did capture Ella's stepson, Lieutenant James Washington. The youngster, who had been serving on the staff of Confederate army commander Joseph E. Johnston, found himself in the hands of a friend from West Point days, George A. Custer. The quondam classmate treated Washington to a cigar and something to drink, and rounded up some other friends serving in the Union army.

That evening, Ella wrote later, the prisoner and his captors enjoyed 'rather a jollification in one of the headquarters tents,' reminiscing about their cadet days at the famous Benny Haven's Tavern near the military academy grounds.

When the provost guard took young Washington away to head for a prisoner-of-war camp, Custer stuffed some US currency in his friend's vest pocket to help smooth his captivity. 'You must have some money, Jim,' Custer said, 'those pictures in your pockets [Confederate currency] don't pass up there.' The cartel for exchange of prisoners had not yet broken down at that stage, so James went back to Confederate service upon exchange after a short period in captivity. Two years later, George Custer would be in a position to help James Washington's stepmother in a more substantial fashion.

War's mailed fist went rampaging northward for nearly two years after the

The Federal Army

fighting around Richmond in May and June 1862 - but in May 1864 hostile troops swept across the grounds of Clover Lea and threatened to destroy everything that the Bassetts and Washingtons owned. On 28 May, Ella could hear rifles rattling in the near distance. It was a time 'of dreadful suspense and anxiety.' She wondered in her diary that evening whether her brothers had been in the fighting, and whether they had survived. A few Confederates galloped past, pausing only briefly. 'God bless you, boys,' Ella's father said as they hurried away. As their horses' hoofbeats faded, Ella thought they left behind 'a strange silence, brooding over nature like a pall.'

The next morning, after a terrified night and little sleep, Ella had to face the invasion of her property by swarms of uncontrolled enemy foragers. This 'most horrible set of creatures I ever saw' took everything in sight and made the women fear for their safety. Ella longed for a guillotine to 'take their heads off in just as rapid a style' as they were killing the farm animals.

In desperation, Ella Washington sent notes off to her stepson's friend, General Custer, hoping that he might come to assist her. One of the messages did reach the Federal cavalry-general and on the 30th he arrived in person at Clover Lea, where he at once promised to protect the stepmother of his friend James Washington, and her property. Custer behaved gallantly with the pretty Virginian, who despite being his school chum's stepmother was not much beyond his own age. Ella wrote of the pleasure of finding someone, in the midst of 'this host of enemies, with whom we can feel some human sympathy.'

Even though they enjoyed intermittent protection afforded by the connection with Custer, Clover Lea and its civilians still suffered under the hostile occupation. Despite her gratitude for Custer's aid, Ella told her diary: 'In wickedness and impudence no nation ever equalled the Yankees.' Years later, in contrast, she still wrote warmly of the enemy general's 'generous and kindly deeds done under trying circumstances.'

Mrs Washington's experience as a helpless pawn on the chessboard of war was of a kind shared by countless thousands of other women. Her own vivid words describe some of what she saw and felt:

the dreadful Yankees ...I feel so much fatigued I can scarcely dress ... What a day of horrors and agony, may I never spend such another ... The demon of destruction [was] at [our] very door, surrounding, swallowing [us] up in its fearful scenes of strife ... How can such an army of devils not human beings ever succeed? ...I fancied (though it seems a very ridiculous idea) that there was something almost human in [the dying farm animals'] screaming voices ...I was glad when the last had been killed ... I am feeling physically and mentally oppressed, never found my nerves so shaken, and my courage so tried.

As General Custer took his leave of Clover Lea and went back to war, Ella described to him the frustration of being helpless to affect her own fate. 'You men don't know how much more intolerable the martyrdom of endurance is than the martyrdom of action.' 'Some of us,' he replied, 'can comprehend, and sympathize, too. War is a hard, cruel, terrible thing. Men must fight, and women weep.' Ella gave Custer as a token of her appreciation a button from George Washington's coat. The General set the button as a brooch and presented it to his wife, who eventually donated the relic to the US Military Academy. It survives today in the collection of Custer Battlefield National Monument, Montana.

Custer subsequently played a role in making war 'a hard, cruel, terrible thing' in the Shenandoah valley. In September, his troopers murdered six Confederate prisoners in a churchyard and the streets of Front Royal. One was a 17-year-old youngster whose widowed mother screamed in horror as she pleaded in vain for his life. A girl in the village wrote of how that 'dark day of 1864 ... clouded my childhood' and haunted her dreams forever. The famed Confederate partisan leader John S. Mosby

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ordered execution of a like number of Custer's captive men, but the Southerners blanched after carrying out half of the brutal job and let the rest go. Twelve years later, Custer himself wound up at the mercy of merciless men and died with scores of his troopers at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

James Barroll Washington became a railroad president after the war and died in 1900. His father, Ella's husband, died in 1871, leaving the widow without many resources. Ella used her Washington connections to assist ex-Confederates in procuring Federal pardons after the war. When that lucrative but short-term business died down, she subsided into genteel poverty and died in New York in 1898.

Lieutenant James Barroll Washington and Captain George Armstrong Custer in 1862, while Washington was a prisoner of war in the keeping of his old friend from the US Military Academy. (Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service)

Lieutenant James Barroll Washington and Captain George Armstrong Custer in 1862, while Washington was a prisoner of war in the keeping of his old friend from the US Military Academy. (Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, National Park Service)

James Barroll Washington

How the war ended

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