Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Edge Of Obscurity: Tracking The Ailing Confederate

Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever. – Napoleon Bonaparte

This 1912 photo shows two extant 
wards of Winder Hospital that operated
during the Civil War.  Courtesy, Civil
War Richmond,

In December 1864, my ancestor, William Lane Welborn,  recuperated from some illness in Winder Hospital, sprawled across Richmond's west end. From the Confederate capital, he penned a letter to his father Joseph, a widowed North Carolina farmer. Joseph had seen three other sons march off to war. One son had died in battle a year before William wrote home:

December 14th 64
Ritchmond VA

Dear Father 

I write you a few lines to let you no how I am     I think I am a 
The original letter William Welborn
wrote to his father from Winder
Hospital in December 1864. For
full letter, go to LETTERS page. 
giting  wel      
I hope these few lines may 
 find you al well    I received your letter to day and was glad to hear (from) you    I am triing to git in the navy awhylt    I do not no whether I will git in or not      The doctor said he would secont me before the board   . . .

I want you to send me a letter just as soon as you git this letter with out delay and tell me how to direct a letter to David Welborn (William's younger brother)    I do not how to direct a letter to him          if I did I would start one to him today

give me the directions and give to him mine so he can rite to me   tell him to rite to me as soon as he can for if I am sent to new command the timing is not with me    so I will haf to write first if I get transferred    I have moved from where I was

Direct your leters to the 17th ward secont division winder hospital Richmond V.A.   . . .

This 1864 photo shows wounded
soldiers passing time at a hospital in
Fredericksburg, Va. Men suffered
hardship and boredom while recovering.
Soldiers at Winder Hospital often
gambled, using clothing or meal tickets
as chips. More on PHOTOS page.
Photo: James Gardner, War Photo &
Exhibition, Hartford, CT.
Wm L Welborn

The fate of William, the third of Joseph's 10 children, seemed uncertain. During the Civil War, twice as many men suffered inglorious deaths from disease, especially diarrhea, as combat. 
For hospitalized soldiers, life took on the grim aspects of a prison camp. Both the invalid and the imprisoned languished in misery, loneliness and boredom, as did Private Welborn, a 34-year-old wagon maker drafted five months before he wrote his letter.  
. . I have nothin of interest to rite to you more than they are a fiting (fighting) all around here and it is harde times here, a worse acoming      I fear we git a little bred and a little beef twice a day     we are a bout half starved here    I do not think there is any chance to git home a tal      my pen is so bad I can not wriet with it so I must quit  

Wm. L. Welborn 

As I have done with other Civil War ancestors (see archives), I set out to find the place where William wrote his letter. I wanted to find where Winder Hospital sprawled across Richmond's West End more than 150 years ago.  Winder reigned as the biggest among the 50 hospitals in Richmond’s beehive-busy 2.4 square miles. It probably was the Confederacy 's largest. Surely I would find something, I convinced myself. But navigating the maze of one-way streets in modern-day Richmond ended up being a frustrating trek into obscurity.

If any vestige of Winder remains today, it's one of history's mysteries.  The only present-day sign I found of the hospital was literally a sign reading "Winder St."


This street sign marks where Winder
Hospital stood in Richmond. I set out
recently to find if anything from the
Civil War complex remains.
Construction on Winder began when war broke out in 1861. It stood at "the west terminus of Cary Street" along the north bank of the James River. The complex spread over old farming fields next to a pond/reservoir, now within Robert Byrd Park. The self-sustaining
William made this sworn statement
in 1918 to help younger brother,
David, get a pension. Both
brothers landed in Richmond
hospitals simultaneously in the war
and visited. Document, N.C. Archives.
For David's story, see July 2011 blog.
community comprised 125 acres of farmland for growing supplies and about 100 buildings. These included offices, surgery rooms, storerooms, fire stations, library, kitchens, dining halls, bath houses, and myriad framed, one-story, 60 by 30-foot wards. Each ward had three doors on two sides.  A single wood stove warmed each ward. "Negro" attendants (free and enslaved) kept the hospital buzzing.  

Houses in the neighborhood where
Winder Hospital stood resemble the
hospital's 1860s wards. It's unclear if
any of the renovated wards survive.
In military fashion, Camp Winder’s commander, Gen. John Henry Winder, laid out the vast hospital complex in five divisions, later expanded to six divisions plus a tent section. Each division housed warriors from designated states. Although William wrote from a ward in the Second Division, historic records show that section initially housed soldiers from Tennessee and Kentucky, with N.C. soldiers assigned to Third Division wards. But as the war limped into its last bloody years, four of the five hospital divisions served N.C. soldiers. (North Carolina, late to secede, ended up sending the most troops of any state to fight during the war. Records show the state at one point gave the hospital $15,000 to aid native convalescents.)  

Sign at entrance of park located today
on former Winder Hospital grounds. A
patient's memoir states the hospital
bakery stood west of the "Reservoir of
the Richmond water-works."

After hours of searching, armed only with some internet information, a map and chutzpah, I asked kind strangers for directions.  Finally I located  the neighborhood where Winder operated. Today, rows of townhouses and modest homes with well-kept lawns line a tight grid of narrow streets at the former site. A high-rise, residential care facility and public specialty school dominate the area.

Local historians suspect that several of the brick houses along Powhatan Street, once within the historic Winder grounds, are renovated hospital wards. I wanted to see them.

William Welborn's
grave, located in the
Bell/Welborn burial
ground in Randolph
 County N.C. Joseph
Welborn also lies
in the 200-year-old,
state-protected site.

"Any idea which houses were part of the hospital?" I asked a couple out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. I explained that a large Confederate hospital occupied the neighborhood during the Civil War.

"What?...Here?" the man said, shaking his head in disbelief. Today mostly African Americans live in this part of Richmond, itself 51percent African American. The idea that rebel soldiers recuperated here seemed incredulous to the man. "I never heard of a Confederate hospital here," he said, scanning the houses behind him.

For answers about any Civil War wards-turned-residences, I turned to Robert Krick, historian at Richmond Battlefield Park. Krick emailed this information to me:
The 90-foot Confederate pyramid
dominates historic Hollywood
Cemetery, east of the site of
Winder Hospital. Such famous
southern leaders as JEB Stuart
and George Picket — and 18,000
Confederates — are buried in the
vast cemetery.  Some who died
at Winder probably lie here, too.
Union soldiers destroyed cemetery
records when Richmond fell in 1865.

"In my opinion there are at least two original buildings still standing, now converted into homes, and possibly two others, for a maximum of four.  They don't look all that much like the (historic) photographs, which accounts for the uncertainty."

Anything palpable about the Confederacy's biggest hospital apparently has slipped into obscurity. This surprised me. With so much Civil War history embedded in Richmond's psyche and landscape, the prize of Union fighters whose capital, Washington, was a mere 100 miles to the north, the fact that there wasn't so much as a historical marker amazed me. (One of Richmond's largest hospitals, Chimborazo,* however, is a celebrated part of Richmond Battlefield Park.)

As the war ended in 1865, federals took over Winder Hospital. Later, Richmond used hospital facilities to house its citizens impoverished by years of fighting. William survived his illness and the war, as did David Welborn and another younger brother, Robert. William died on Oct. 10, 1929, after marrying twice but having no children.

Records of N.C. Troops show the ailing William was present and accounted for in the Confederate army through January 1865. I do not know if he returned to the battlefield, suffered another illness or sustained a wound. I do know that he returned home to Randolph County at some point and is buried there. His gravestone, near father Joseph's, a wife and his brothers, makes no mention of his Civil War record.

My ancestor's record, as well as the location of the hospital where he recuperated, languishes among the ranks of history's invisibles.

This map shows the concentration
of Civil War battles around Richmond,
as Union forces tried repeatedly to take
the city and Confederate soldiers
continually dug in to defend it.
Today, as America hotly renews the cultural and political wars over how students should learn our nation's story, political agendas continue to pick winners and losers — deciding what we should enshrine and what we should forget — as we have done since our nation's inception.

As for me, I want to know America's history as it truly unfolded, haloes and horrors, the glorious and the obscure, alike.

                                               ###; Memoir of William A. Curtis, 2nd N. C. Cavalry. Civil War Collection, Tennessee State Library & Archives; Virginia Historical Inventory;;  North Carolina Archives, Raleigh, N.C.; Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Horwitz, Tony, "The Civil War's Hidden Legacy." Smithsonian magazine. Dec. 2014. North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865, A Roster, Warrenton, N.C. New History of the Civil War, American Heritage, Barnes and Noble, 1996. U.S. Civil War Photographs online at markers, online at All photos unless otherwise noted, taken and copyrighted  by B.J. Welborn.

* For more about Chimborazo, check out my book, AMERICA'S BEST HISTORIC SITES, Chicago Review Press, 1998. Though out-of-print, you can find it online or go to the National Park Service website.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Finding Sherman Amid The Lions And Tigers And Bears

This life-size rendition of Gen.
William T. Sherman and a Union
soldier stands along the south side
of the Congaree River in Columbia.
Sherman peers at the new S.C. capitol,
under construction in February 1865.
 Photo Barry Ahrendt.
We find traces of the American Civil War in strange places, so it should come as no surprise that a tantalizing reminder of Sherman's raid on Columbia in February 1865 lies hidden amid the lions and tigers and bears at a zoo just west of the South Carolina capital.

Walk along the Woodlands Path through tall hardwoods and thick underbrush in a corner of the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden's 170 acres, and you'll find what locals call "Sherman's Rock."  The ledge of granite on a bluff overlooking the Saluda River marks the spot where Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and some of his 65,000 men encamped after marching farther into the Carolinas. Legend has it that the famous general spent the night under the shelter of this granite slab.

Legend has it that General Sherman
slept under this granite ledge, known
as "Sherman's Rock" before his troops
invaded Columbia, S.C.,  in 1865.
Now we know that Civil War generals generally didn't sleep under rocks.  They took up quarters in  houses, as Sherman had done many times on his March To The Sea. That winter night outside Columbia 150 years ago, he probably slept in a nearby dwelling that Union troops later burned down. Still, "Uncle Billy's" bigger-than-life reputation as a solder's soldier — just one of the guys —  keeps the legend of "Sherman's Rock" alive.

A while back, I took a bus tour of sites related to Sherman's march on Columbia, known around South Carolina as "The Darkest Days."  Our tour guide, Tom Elmore, a bearded man in a gray flannel shirt, told our group how "the most hated Yankee general" strategized on the bluff along the Saluda River before invading the nearly defenseless capital of the hated state that had started it all.

The highly lauded Riverbanks Zoo
near Columbia protects nearly 2,000
animals, many rare and endangered. It
also safeguards a few historic gems.
"Sherman had it in for Columbia," he told our enthusiastic group of history buffs, adding that "It really shocked the entire South to see Sherman outside Columbia."

Indeed, only a few months before, Sherman had mused, "The whole army is burning with insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina.  I almost tremble at her fate, but she deserves all that seems in store for her."

The bluff where Sherman's men encamped rose near a former prisoner-of-war camp, "Camp Sorghum." (The bus tour also stopped at the POW site at an intersection near downtown Columbia .) The starving Union officers imprisoned in the camp dubbed it Camp Sorghum after the type of molassas Confederates served them.

Union General Sherman
Wrote Sherman in his memoir: "On the night of the 16th I camped near an old prison bivouac opposite Columbia, known to our prisoners of war as 'Camp Sorghum,' where remained the mud-hovels and holes in the ground which our prisoners had made to shelter themselves from the winter's cold and the summer's heat."

 "They were very, very ticked off by what they saw," Elmore told our Civil War tourists. Elmore said that Camp Sorghum still held about 200 prisoners when Sherman came to town, although up to 1,400 Federal officers had once been imprisoned in the open field.

In 1865, the Camp Sorghum site had no trees, in sharp contrast to the area today. The trees had been harvested for use. Likewise the bluff now inside the Riverbanks Zoo complex where Sherman's men encamped. Another contrast: When Sherman allegedly slept under his eponymous rock, one of the worlds largest textile mills, the Saluda Manufacturing Co., chartered in 1834, stood nearby on the bluff. (See photo below.) Today, all that remains of the mill are sections of its granite foundation, camouflaged by weeds, grasses and vines.
A portion of the 1834 Saluda
mill ruins at Riverbanks Zoo.
In 1855, a new owner renamed
the four-story factory The
Columbia Cotton Mill.

This sign tells visitors to the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden about
the cotton mill that operated along the Saluda River when Sherman
readied to raid Columbia, S.C. in 1865.  Eighty looms and a thousand
women manufactured goods for the Confederate effort
 during the American Civil War.
Zoo visitors can observe this ruin
of the destroyed Saluda River bridge
from the current pedestrian bridge.
To access the mill ruins and Sherman's Rock, our tour group (and myself on a later visit), crossed a narrow, pedestrian/tram bridge over the Saluda.  The modern bridge stands where a covered bridge  traversed the frolicking river waters during most of the Civil War years. Confederates burned down that bridge to impede the Union troops' advance to Columbia.  But the Federals laid a pontoon bridge at the site, and by mid-afternoon on Feb. 16, 1865, the soldiers crossed the river under the protection of Union sharp-shooters on the top floor of the Columbia Cotton Mill.

Today, you can see four granite abutments of the old Saluda bridge that Confederates burned in an effort to halt Sherman's army.

Columbia after Sherman's descent on the South Carolina
capital in February 1865.  This photo facing Main Street
 was taken from the site where the nearly destroyed state
 capitol stood. (See previous blogs for more about this.)
Photo, Library of Congress.
On the morning of February 17, 1865, Sherman observed that his troops had reached the Broad River, where they had also built another pontoon bridge and were preparing to advance into the heart of Columbia. (For clarification, three rivers converge in Columbia: the Broad, the Saluda and the Congaree. Confederates burned the bridges across those rivers, trying to stop Sherman's advance.)

During The Darkest Days of Sherman's campaign against South Carolina, Columbia's 20,000 residents suffered. Homes, businesses and buildings were plundered. In the end, two-thirds of the city's 124 blocks and nearly 500 buildings were destroyed, mostly by fire. Who started the fires and whether they were deliberate or accidental remains one of history's hot controversies.

Whether or not Sherman actually snoozed under a rock at the Riverbanks Zoo also sparks debate.   As for me, Sherman's Rock makes a good story and a great destination for a hike through the woods at one of America's most interesting zoos.

SOURCES: Sherman, William T.,  Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (1865). Da Capo Paperback, 1984. New York; Battle For Columbia, Lexington (SC) County Chronicle, 2008; All photos, unless noted, were taken by B.J. Welborn. For more photos, go to PHOTOS page.