A Civil War Survivor

Presque Isle in an 1864 picture taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
Presque Isle in an 1864 picture taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. (Courtesy National Archives)

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

A plantation that served as a Union headquarters during the Civil War is on the market in Remington, Va., for $2.95 million.

Known as Presque Isle, French for "almost an island," or as the Willis House to locals, the brick manor home, built around 1813, housed the command post for officer and tactician extraordinaire Emory Upton. It was the site from which he planned incursions through Northern Virginia. The house is on a knoll, and the Hazel River winds around the property, making it easy to defend because attackers would need to ford the river to get there.

The Culpeper County house changed hands repeatedly from Northern to Southern control over the four-year conflict.

"Some days it would be blue and sometimes it would be gray," said planter Alan Johnson, who bought Presque Isle with his wife, Phyllis, three years ago.

Upton lived there in 1864. He and his officers and some residents who lived nearby were photographed at the house by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Upton, a West Point graduate, was wounded several times during the war, and ultimately was promoted to major general. After the war, he served as commandant of cadets at West Point and wrote a book called "The Military Policy of the United States," in which he argued for a strong, standing professional military.

The house was originally built by Judge Daniel Grinnan of Fredericksburg in the early 1800s; it was completed around 1813. The property then traded hands several times before being purchased in the 1920s by the Willis family. In the 1980s, a California developer bought it, with an eye to building a large planned community in the area. The Johnsons bought it from the developer.

"It's a unique house with a unique history," said Alan Johnson, who has spent much of that time restoring the mansion. The house has many period details, including intricate plasterwork and four fireplaces.

"I enjoy antiquities, and the age, the privacy and the condition gave it tremendous potential to be a gorgeous place," he said.

The house itself is about 4,500 square feet, with four bedrooms and two baths. The former plantation encompasses more than 135 acres of land, and includes a 200-year-old blacksmith shop, two brick buildings that served as slave quarters, several large barns and eight tenant houses.

The house has been on the market for more than six months without a buyer. Real estate agent Jerry Martin, with Virginia Estates in Charlottesville, said the house needs a specific kind of buyer, "someone who wants to get away from it all, or a history buff."

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