Monday, May 30, 2016

The Killing Field Where Corporal Welborn's Luck Ran Out

        We are sadly human, and in our contemplation of the Civil War we see a dramatization of our humanity.   —Robert Penn Warren
INTO THE WOODS: This faint path, marked by small
blocks of blue paint on bark, led me through the
 1863 Battle of Payne's Farm, where my ancestor,
Lyndon M. Welborn, died.  The fierce clash between
 battle-hardened foes ignited the seven-day Mine Run
 Campaign, in which nearly 2,000 soldiers died.

Lyndon McGee Welborn, a 23-year-old corporal of the First Regiment, Company B, North Carolina Troops, almost made it to the end of the Civil War.  But his luck ran out in the afternoon of Nov. 27, 1863, during the Battle of Payne's Farm on a remote field north of Richmond.  Since volunteering to fight for the Confederacy in May 1861, right after his home state seceded, my ancestor had survived in a continuous cauldron of hardship and violence. Even a leg wound that hospitalized him hadn't kept the Randolph County farm boy down.

Union troops cross the Rapidan River At Germana
Ford during the Mine Run Campaign, Virginia, 1863.
Lithograph courtesy U.S. Library of Congress online.

As I have done with each of the four sons who wrote home to their father Joseph Welborn during the war, I set out to locate the exact places where Lyndon, William, David and Robert penned their dozen or so letters.  Lyndon was the fourth son in a family of 10 children, and the only son to volunteer for duty  — against father Joseph's wishes. The Confederacy drafted the other three sons. (See Archives at right.) Lyndon proudly became an infantryman, a private, CSA, at age 20. His First Regiment of N.C. troops, reconstituted several times as its members perished, were active from the war's first shots, to Gettysburg and other major battles, to the last skirmishes at Appomattox Court House. Private Lyndon was Joseph's only son to die in the war, so I made the place where he fell the last I visited.

The killing field where Lyndon's life ended wasn't easy to find. He didn't die on a famous nearby battlefield:  Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, the Wilderness, all well-marked and celebrated, although the daylong Battle of Payne's Farm — an unexpected encounter that ignited the oft-overlooked Mine Run Campaign — took place in the same roiled real estate between the enemy capitals of Washington and Richmond.

A display at the Chancellorville Battlefield Visitor Center
explains the importance of the central Virginia area where 
the Battle of Payne's Farm took place, as well as many
 other skirmishes and battles. These include 
Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Wilderness.

One hundred fifty three years, later, thanks to a dedicated group of Civil War historians having preserved and marked it, I was able to locate the battlefield where Lyndon died.  But first, I tried to find Raccoon Ford, where Union troops crossed the Rapidan River, a tributary of the Rappahannock River before the battle. Both rivers flow between the federal and Confederate capitals. Their waters geographically and symbolically separated the enemy armies.

Despite an hour looking for it, I had no luck finding the steep, primitive Raccoon Ford. 

"In a word, it's obscure," said Britt Brewer, on duty at nearby Chancellorville Visitor Center when I asked him about the river crossing. "You've got lots more famous crossings all along the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers: Germana Ford, Kelly's Ford, Elly's Ford." Union soldiers' traversing of these fords and others along the rivers preceded the famous Virginia battles we read about in history books. Brewer added that Raccoon Ford today is inaccessible.

The Civil War Trust placed this
marker along Virginia Hwy. 611,
marking the 1.5-mile walking
trail through the Payne's Farm
Battlefield. The trail is part of a
635-acre historic preserve.
To get to Payne's Farm, I needed to find the crossroads town of Locust Grove, 73 miles northwest of Richmond. On a bright autumn day, I headed north from US 20 along Virginia Highway 611, still largely an agricultural area, until I spotted the historic Zoar Baptist Church on the left.  The church parking lot provided a few spaces for battlefield visitors. 

At the site, I followed a woodland path, marked by blue paint on trees, as dying leaves mourned overhead. The path took me past 11 markers that told of the frenzied fight of late fall 1863, when an isolated column of Army of the Potomac troops forded the Rapidan. At daybreak, they marched up the narrow Racoon Ford Road, amid rolling pastures and fields ringed by thick woods.

The Union troops collided with a contingent of seasoned Confederate fighters, less than half the number of their adversaries that day.  Corporal Welborn was among them.  As usual, Federal troops were advancing

This plaque marks the site of the
hospital where Lyndon Welborn
recuperated after a left thigh
wound sustained at the Battle
 of Chancellorsville. Government
buildings today dominate the area
along a busy street in Raleigh, N.C.

to overtake the Confederate capital ("On to Richmond!") and Confederates were ready to fight like hell to keep them at bay ("Give it to 'em, boys!")

Though the odds of victory weren't good for Lyndon and his fellow  fighters that day, they had become accustomed to uncertainty during three years of conflict.  From the final letter the recently promoted corporal wrote home to father Joseph:

May 24th 1863
Raleigh NC
Dear father,
My health is very good yet and my wound is doing fine… If they would just let me know what I have to do I could content myself here I have got a pair of crutches and can go all about over the grove… if I knew I had to stay here (Pettigrew Hospital) untill my wound gets well….I am going to quit thinking anything like a furlough and make myself satisfied with where they put me…
Your affectionate son
L.M. Welborn

Where the Confederate military put him was squarely back in Virginia.  (To see Lyndon's other letters home, go to the LETTERS page.)

The cold, rainy day at Payne's Farm descended into tentative attacks and counterattacks.  Late in the afternoon, the Confederates, under division command of Gen. Edward Johnson, once again sounded "the peculiar rebel yell," and charged.  According to firsthand accounts, Lyndon's First Regiment became the most heavily engaged  of the day. 
The Zoar Baptist Church was started
in 1805 and moved to its current
site near Payne's Farm in 1884.

View of entrance to the walking trail
through the battlefield from the Zoar
Church parking lot. 

As the regiment charged, they likely   heard the expected exhortation from their leader, Capt. Thomas Boone: Hurrah for North Carolina!  Give it to 'em, boys! Gunfire continued until darkness and lack of ammunition ended the battle. Neither side could claim victory. Fifty Confederate men sustained wounds. Five lay dead.  Lyndon was among them, forever young.

Of the Mine Run campaign's 1,952 estimated casualties, 1,272 were Federals; 680 were Confederates.

The inconclusive fighting that followed at Mine Run, a north-south creek, marked the end of winter fighting in the Civil War's Eastern Theater. The Army of the Potomac, under the command of Gen. George G. Meade, seeing his hope of expanding the victory at Gettysburg dashed, set up winter quarters at Brandy Station, Va.  Meade had concluded that the Confederate defense line was too strong to continue an advance, a decision that undermined his military career. 
This stone marks Lyndon
McGee Welborn's grave in
rural Randolph County, N.C.

Robert E. Lee's army also retired in the area. The general's hope of repeating the Confederate triumph at Chancellorsville was dashed.  Lee was quoted as saying, " I am too old to command this army. We never should have permitted those people to get away." From the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia to the outskirts of Washington, one enormous military encampment faced an unusually harsh winter marked by grim deprivation.

American history doesn't regard the Confederate cause as noble. Yet, I have read of many noble characteristics in the southern ranks, and I know that rebel actions often exuded noble intentions.  When Lyndon volunteered to fight in the spring 1861, riding a wave of youthful bravado with a legion of friends and kin, he set out on his own personal path to glory. I think he believed in a high-minded nature of the North Carolina cause.

As he almost innocently stumbled along that chosen path, which became more and more tortured as weary years of fighting passed, he never veered from his pledge to stick to his decision to fight for the Confederacy. Lyndon remained loyal to his tribe of North Carolinians who had eaten together, slept together, fought together, survived together and mourned their dead together for the better part of the war.  Lyndon became a man of his word, a noble thing indeed.  

From Lyndon' first letter home after volunteering:

acquia creek Virginia

aug 19 1861

Dear Father

i received a letter from you this morning and was very much pleased to here from you

i had not herd in some time...
... i dont think that we wil have any fighting to do….. that is our reg(iment)          we (volunteers) are  for the war     we wil be reserved the twelve months      Volunteers wil hav to fight until their time is out          i think peace will be made before that time Pa 

I looked over them chapters (in the Bible) you told me to read but if we are doing wrong we cant help it now…… but if my capt. or col. was to tel us to go home all that did not want to fight for their country i would not go after i undertok it             i wil go throu with it if i live but as you are dis satisfied i wish i had never undertook it  

you was pittying me but if i was dissatisfied and had a hard time you would not be to blame            

...   I must quit writing and go at some thing else        give my best respects to all my folks and friends       I will write when i can        you kno that i am a bad hand to write a letter but this is a good way to learn                                                                                             
Farewell for thy time        Write soon as you can
From your son Lyndon

As I left the battlefield and recrossed Highway 611 for a final glance at the killing field where Lyndon died, a weariness settled over me, the same emotional weight I've felt walking so many other Civil War battlefields.  I heard the faint whiz of pick-ups and cars busy at the day's tasks, but mostly I heard the oaks lonely whisper of long-ago loss, long-ago waste of precious life.  

After Lyndon's death at Payne's Farm, Joseph brought his son's body home to the farm in Randolph County.  Joseph buried Lyndon in the family cemetery, where already rested Lyndon's mother, Parthena, who died when Lyndon was a child.  In time, the other Welborn brothers who fought in the Civil War, as well as their families, were buried in the Bell-Welborn cemetery at the shady edge of a peaceful cornfield. 

SOURCES: ;   A Roster of the North Carolina Troops, 1861-1866; /wiki/Battle_of_Mine_Run;;; cschemmer@freelancestar.com; National Park Service @; From, Kati Sengal. National Park Service @ Payne's Farm Trial at   The Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill; N.C. Archives, Raleigh, N.C. All photos, unless otherwise noted, were taken and copyrighted by B.J. Welborn.