Ella Bassett was born in New Kent County east of Richmond in September of 1834 at the family estate of "Eltham". She grew up at her father's plantation "Clover Lea" in Hanover County north of Richmond. Ella was a direct descendent of George Washington's sister Betty Washington Lewis. She also was related to the Taylor and Harrison families. So Ella was born into some of the most distinguished and elite families of antebellum Virginia society.
Just prior to the Civil War, Ella met and married Lewis Washington, a direct descendent of George Washington's wife Martha and her family. President Washington did not have any children of his own. Lewis was two decades older than the young Ella at the time of their marriage, and was the owner of "Beall Air" Plantation near Charles Town and Harper's Ferry in present day West Virginia. The couple, descendants of Virginia "royalty" and distant cousins, settled there in 1860.
On an interesting side story, about a year before they wed, Lewis was dragged away from his Beall Air home one October morning in 1859 by some of John Brown's infamous raiders. Washington was held hostage in the Harper's Ferry Arsenal for two days until Colonel Robert E. Lee and a contingent of U.S. Marines directly led by Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart stormed the building and overran Brown's band, freeing Washington and others.
As the Civil War began, circumstances forced Lewis and Ella to resettle at her family home of Clover Lea near Richmond. Lewis would go on to represent the Confederacy on a special diplomatic mission to France. Ella remained at Clover Lea for much of the war, being near some of the major fighting during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and later during Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864 that led to the Siege of Petersburg. Clover Lea served as a hospital for many wounded soldiers during both periods.
During the 1862 campaign, Ella's stepson James Barroll Washington, an Aide-de-Camp to Confederate General Joseph Johnston, was captured by Federal forces. An old friend of his from West Point days, George Armstrong Custer, treated James well and even allowed him to visit with other old acquaintances from their time at the academy. Custer and Washington even sat down to take what is now a famous photo together. Before heading off to prisoner of war camp, Custer gave James some extra money to help him along. It was this chance encounter that linked events two years later.
In 1864 the war was returning to the Richmond area. Looting and pillaging started to take place on and around the Clover Lea property in May of 1864 as the Union Army approached Richmond. Ella, desperate for help, sent out pleas to contact General Custer, her stepsons' old friend. Custer eventually responded and visited Clover Lea in person on May 30. Struck by the beauty of Ella, not much older than him even though she was his friend's stepmother, guaranteed protection for her and their home, assigning guards to watch over things. He also later arranged for Ella to cross the lines in order to visit Beall Air. In appreciation, Ella gave Custer a button from George Washington's coat, an item which is still in the George Custer historical collection.
After the war, Ella took part in many women's associations, such as the Ladies' Mount Vernon Association and the Society of Colonial Dames of Virginia. She also helped many former Confederates regain their U.S. citizenship through her many connections and influence. Mrs. Washington was also known as a writer, publishing some well-known poetry such as The Song of the Sea and The Ruined Castle.
After her husband Lewis' death in 1871, Ella would eventually move to New York City where she died on this 17th day of January in 1898 at the age of 64. She was buried in Charles Town, West Virginia. She had lived a life of influence, and was either a witness of or connected to some of the major events in Virginia during her lifetime.