Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Prison Of A Different Kind: Robert's Story Continued

Reality becomes a prison for those who can’t get out of it.
         — Joyce Cary, Anglo-Irish novelist

A monument at Andersonville National
Historic Site in rural Georgia depicts
the suffering Civil War POWs faced.
Photo, Eastern National Park and
Monument Association.
Gruesome statistics only hint at the shocking suffering and hellish deaths prisoners of war endured during the American Civil War. Nearly 30,000 men among the 194,000 imprisoned Federals and 26,000 soldiers of the 215,000 captured Confederates died by war’s end.  It's estimated that 56,000 men perished in prison camps, usually hastily built and open to the elements.

At Camp Douglas in Chicago, nearly 18 Confederate warriors succumbed to hunger, deprivation and disease each day. In rural Georgia’s infamous Andersonville Prison, about 100 Union soldiers died daily by 1864, nearly 13,000 total. Prison conditions North and South were equally horrendous, as documented in letters, dairies and photos. 

I can understand a soldier’s preference for heroic death on the battlefield over the possibility of tormented death in prison.  

My ancestor, Robert McFarland Welborn, bewildered, wistful and sick, gave an interesting if somewhat mundane glimpse of life at a Confederate prison in northeastern North Carolina in a letter to his father. Robert,  recently drafted at age 17 into the N.C. Junior Reserves, wrote from Camp Weldon, where his unit was stationed, in the summer of 1864:

Aug the 5th 1864
My Dear Father

I take the opportunity this morning to write you a few lines to let you know that I am well and harty and i hope thes few lines will find you well      
            They have got two of our boys in the guard house here and have had them ther a month    

            there was a yankee broke out of the guard house and the guard shot two balls through him and killed him dead on the spot

            there was two boys got into a dispute and they got to fighting and one of them stabed the other in the shulder but did not hurt him overly bad    
This period photo
captures the horrors
of Civil War prisoners
at Andersonville
prison camp. Photo,
Library of Congress.
The routine — and common —  opening line of Robert’s report on everyday soldiering life belies his true circumstances at Camp Weldon, where he had little to eat and suffered an illness that soon would hospitalize him. But Robert continues his business-as-usual tone in describing the violence and death in the prison yard.  Had Robert already experienced so much of war’s hardness that he had become hardened?  Or were these musings the simple observations of an overwhelmed farm boy.  Or both?

More of Robert’s letter, hand-written on a notepad, lacking punctuation and full of misspellings:

we are formed into a regment      Armistead* is our colonel      Broadfoot is lieu col       Lineberry captain … and if the war lasts and they  don’t get us kilt you may have my hat           

One side of the letter my ancestral
      cousin, Robert McFarland Welborn, 17,
     wrote to his father Joseph in 1864.
   For full letter, go to LETTERS page.

the doctor says he will send me  to camp holms (Holmes in Raleigh, N.C.) befor long  to be examined again      he says I am not any count in service and i think he is about haf right

i am going to try to get off every day but i think it will be a hard chore        if i get to go to Camp Holms i think i will get off or signed to light duty but i do not want to go to hospital duty for it is as hard as regular ….. but they get to sleep in the house and get better rations than what we get

i was at the election yesterday and at Weldon got word was that  Govner Vance** got most of the vote that was given

i bring my letter to a close      write as soon and tell me the news and tell me how corn looking  and whether you got your (illegible word) out or not     

             tell all the boys….. that was 17 when I left home (they) had better come       Oh if they knowed when they was best off

             no more at present but another day

                                                                                                     your son R M Welborn

Between the pedestrian lines of everyday news, Robert lamented the sorry reality of his soldiering life, a life he apparently dreamed of escaping ("I'm going to try to get off") but couldn’t, at least then.  While researching my Civil War book-in-progress, Dear Father I Am Sorry To Tell You, I'v uncovered three military documents that hint Robert’s situation in fact did later change.

Copy of Robert M.
Welborn's application
for pension in 1918. For more
on Robert, see previous blogs.
Document 1: Robert’s handwritten resignation, dated May 18, 1864; Document 2, dated July 13, 1864, confirming Robert was “transferred to hospital;” and, Document 3, dated Aug. 10, 1864, alleging Robert had “deserted.” 

Desertion usually meant being absent without leave for more than 30 days. I don’t know if Robert actually deserted the Confederate ranks, as did thousands toward war’s end, when defeat seemed inevitable and families at home suffered enormously.  Deserters especially spiked among men from the area of North Carolina that Robert called home, the substantially pro-Union, anti-secession Randolph County, N.C. (See previous blogs.)

Haphazard record-keeping could explain the change from “Absent, transferred to hospital,” to “Deserted Camp Weldon Aug. 10th”.  What I know for sure is that on July 18, 1918, more than 50 years later, North Carolina granted Robert his request for a soldier’s pension.

Robert stated in his pension application that he is the owner of a house and lot assessed at  $500.00 but that he can’t make a living or support himself as there is not sufficient land for farming.    

I’m left wondering if the boy soldier, who personified the ordinary guy caught in the extraordinary human disaster of the Civil War, ever really escaped his prison.

Col. Frank S. Armistead, a West Pointer and brother of Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, who died at Gettysburg; Lt. Co. Charles W. Broadfoot; and, Capt. W.S. Lineberry

** Zebulon Vance, a Confederate colonel, was reelected as North Carolina’s 43rd governor in 1864.

SOURCES: The American Heritage New History of the Civil War, Barnes and Noble, New York. 1996. Jorgensen, Kathryn.  “Historian Persists In Efforts To Correct Record, Honor Deceased”, Civil War News. December 2010. Online at; Cadia Barbee Welborn Papers, Southern Historical Collection, UNC at Chapel Hill; Bollinger, J. Mark, and Landrum, Brneda G., “The Story of Andersonville Prison and American Prisoners of War,” Andersonville National Historic Site. 1987. Marin, Rick, “The Infamous Stockade,” Newsweek. March 4, 1996. North Carolina State Archives.