Saturday, December 18, 2021

Then & Now: The sad decline of Custer's honeymoon house

A cropped enlargement of Custer with his staff on the front porch of "Clover Hill"

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Every year since 1984, my friend Clark "Bud" Hall — a Vietnam vet and former FBI agent — has photographed "Clover Hill," the Stevensburg, Va., plantation house where George Armstrong Custer honeymooned with his 22-year-old bride, Elizabeth "Libbie" Bacon. The most recent photographs of the abandoned. circa-1775 house aren't pretty—nearly obscured by trees and undergrowth, it barely clings to life.

Frank Hampton
(Find A Grave)
Clover Hill — which sits 300 yards north of Route 3, near Culpeper — has a rich history beyond "The Boy General": It was home to James Barbour, a prominent lawyer, planter and delegate to the Virginia secession convention. Barbour served as a major in the Confederate Army. 

In the aftermath of the Battle at Brandy Station, 2nd South Carolina Cavalry Frank Hampton — Rebel cavalry commander Wade Hampton's brother — died in the house from a saber wound suffered in fighting nearby. "Utterly disfigured," diarist Mary Chestnut wrote about his wound. (Hall was instrumental in saving "Brandy" from developers.)

Last week, Hall—who lives in Culpeper—shot his annual Clover Hill photograph. Here's a selection of those photos and Hall's story about the house, Libbie and her "dear life hero.":


Works Progress Administration photo

Most married men — if honest about it — will admit their good fortune to have wed women who are better human beings than themselves. (I confess.) This marital dynamic proved uniquely valid when George Armstrong Custer won the hand of Elizabeth Clift Bacon, one of the most persevering wives in American military history. It is of note that nearly 158 years ago, “Autie and Libbie” honeymooned in Stevensburg, Va.

Spending part of his boyhood i n Monroe, Mich., George “Autie” Custer went off to West Point, where the undisciplined cadet graduated last in the class of 1861. Advancing rapidly in the Civil War, Lieutenant Custer functioned as a key aide and received high marks for his role at the Battle of Brandy Station, June 9, 1863. Appointed in late June 1863 as a brigadier at the age of 23 — the youngest general in the Union army — Custer received command of the Michigan Cavalry Brigade. He then effectively led his “Wolverines” in the Gettysburg Campaign. 

Incontestably, Custer was a superb cavalry officer. Further, his men adored him simply because he led them into battle.

George Armstrong Custer and his bride, Elizabeth,
about February 15, 1864. (Library of Congress)
On Sept. 13, 1863, General Custer received a slight leg wound at the Battle of Culpeper Court House. Granted leave, the opportunistic Custer traveled west and audaciously courted Monroe’s most beautiful belle, 22- year old Libbie Bacon. Judge Daniel Bacon had no desire to see his beloved only child marry an intemperate soldier of modest roots, especially one known to favor “excessive alcohol and gambling.”

Now a nationally heralded officer, however, Custer convinced both Judge Bacon and Libbie he had given up alcohol (true) and gambling — untrue; he never quit gambling. As usual, Custer succeeded in capturing his objectives, and vows were exchanged on Feb. 9, 1864, in the “most splendid wedding ever seen in the state,” according to a reconciled Judge Bacon.

Departing on their honeymoon, Custer escorted his bride to West Point, New York City and Washington, where huge receptions awaited them. An attentive Custer never left Libbie’s side, and her own early devotion to him was evident: “Every other man seems so ordinary beside my own particular star.” She also referred to Custer as “my dear life hero, my boy general.”

While in Washington, Custer received urgent telegrams from Army of the Potomac winter headquarters at Brandy Station directing him to report immediately for a “secret” assignment. Libbie pleaded not to be left behind, and the couple trained to Brandy Station in late February.

Soon arriving by coach at Stevensburg, Libbie was made comfortable at “Clover Hill,” the beautiful, church-appearing home of Jack Barbour. Barbour was not in residence. Custer quickly departed for a raid toward Charlottesville on Feb. 28 and returned to Clover Hill on March 2, where he determined to provide his wife an “army honeymoon.” 

In honor of his bride, General Custer re-named Clover Hill “Camp Libbie.” For entertainment, Libbie was often hoisted into a “silver harnessed coach” and escorted to Mount Pony, where she toured the army’s main signal station. From atop the summit, Libbie wrote her parents that she observed the “white tents of the Army ... stretched far as eye could see.”

With her coach accompanied by mounted escort, Libbie also attended “six-course dinners” hosted by Custer’s superiors at Rose Hill and at the Dr. Daniel Green farm near Brandy. After spending just short of a month at Camp Libbie, General Custer secured a leave and took his wife on General Ulysses Grant's “special train” to Washington where their “official honeymoon” continued.

In mid- April, Custer deposited his wife in a Washington boarding house and he returned to the army for the “Overland Campaign.” Libbie much enjoyed Washington, where she met President Lincoln, commenting to her parents that he appeared to be the “most painfully careworn ... man I ever saw.”

Libbie lived in Washington throughout the remainder of the war and later followed her husband west to the plains. Following his death at the Little Big Horn, Libbie survived him by 57 years and “devoted the rest of her days to defending and gilding his memories.” They are buried together at West Point. 

One is certain Libbie never forgot her “Stevensburg honeymoon.”


Clark Hall


Clark Hall


Clark Hall


Clark Hall


Clark Hall

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  • Chestnut, Mary Boykin, A Diary From Dixie, Edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary, New York: D. Appleton and Comapny, 1906.

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