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.