By Rhonda Simmons Published: July 26, 2010
Sitting atop a grassy knoll near the confluence of the Rappahannock and Hazel Rivers in eastern Culpeper County, a stately brick house has stood the test of time.
The 19th century 4,500-square-foot Federal-style house accommodated Union head-quarters during the American Civil War and generations of local families over the years.
Built in 1813, Presque Isle features original hardwood floors, several fireplaces, four bedrooms, a renovated kitchen, ornate plaster moldings, a basement and an attic.
“This home is a historical marvel. It’s not only unique in its presentation in Culpeper County, this house would be unique and a rare gem wherever it’s at,” said historian Clark “Bud” Hall, president of the Brandy Station Foundation.
Homeowners Alan and Phyllis Johnson of Orange County opened their historic home to the public on Sunday for a fundraising event.
As part of the Museum of Culpeper History’s 10-year-anniversary on Main Street, a total of 130 guests gathered on the house’s manicured lawn and listened to Mountain Remedy during the Picnic at Presque Isle.
“They’re doing this as a gift to the museum and we are doing this as a thank you to all of the members in the community,” said museum executive director Lee Langston-Harrison.
The menu included hot dogs, hamburgers, baked beans, cole slaw, fresh fruit, pasta salad, lemonade and iced tea.
Located at the end of a three-mile gravel road, the 135-acre plantation includes a pond, five wells, three natural springs, two brick buildings used as slave quarters, an old blacksmith shop and several rental properties.
Planter Alan Johnson, who purchased the property in 2003, also uses the land to grow soybeans.
“We’ve been working on the farm for all of these years and you never finish,” said Alan Johnson. “The millwork, floors and doors are all original. It’s a unique place.”
The couple tried to keep the house in its original condition except for a few upgrades.
“It’s just so unique to keep it the way it was,” said Phyllis Johnson. “So many times people buy places and you don’t even recognize them because they’ve added so much stuff and changed things around.”
History of the home
“This was determined by an archeological (study),” said Hall, a close friend of the Johnsons. “This was the home of prehistoric peoples. That’s been documented by finds on the property particularly the spear points.”
Manahoac Indians, a Siouan tribe, also occupied the property, Hall added.
“They were hunters and gatherers and they camped in this area,” he said. “It’s interesting that their archeological remnants were shown to be exactly where the prehistoric camps were. They built on top of each other.”
Judge Daniel Grinnan of Fredericksburg built the house during the early 1800s and completed it in 1813.
By the Civil War, the Major family was living in the home.“What happened here during the war was profound,” Hall explained. “You didn’t see brick homes in Culpeper County during that era. People came from miles around to visit this home. This is easily the most remote house in the county. Therefore, it has always proved to be very mysterious to people.”
During the war, Presque Isle frequently changed hands between Union and Confederate control.
The property is also tactically located between Welford’s Ford on the Hazel River and Freeman’s Ford on the Rappahannock River.
“This house is situated militarily in a profoundly strategic sense in the center of two of the most important Civil War crossings. It was bound to incur Civil War activity and in truth it would.”
While the Majors family still lived in the home, Union Gen. Emory Upton and his soldiers occupied the home from December 1863 until May 1864, according to Hall.
“Just because the Yankees showed up didn’t mean they were leaving,” Hall said. “All credit to the Major family for staying in the home. Because they didn’t vacate the home, the Yankees could not tear the house apart. But if you had to turn a house over to somebody, you’d want it to be Emory Upton. He was a great guy.”
After the war, Upton was appointed commandant of West Point and published several books regarding military tactics.
“He was a very distinguished guy,” Hall said.
Organizers are requesting donations of $85.68 per acre through the Help Save the Brandy Station Battlefield campaign.
The two tracts of land that make up this new effort are considered highly significant to this particular campaign that started June 9, 1863.
According to historians, the northernmost tract is where Gen. John Buford’s Union cavalry fought against Rooney Lee’s Confederate troops. The southernmost tract features land where Union cavalry under Col. Thomas Devin’s leadership clashed with Gen. Wade Hampton’s Confederate soldiers.
“There is no piece of Piedmont plain in Culpeper County that witnessed more infantry and cavalry action than this property.”
The CWPT’s goal is to raise $67,000.
To donate, visit civilwar.org.