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Orange battle earns new look

November 13, 2009 1:41 am


The fields and forests of Payne's Farm are nearly the same as they were during the battle of Mine Run in 1863. lo1113minerun2.jpg

Historians Timothy H. Smith, left, and David Adelman want to open Orange's Mine Run battlefield to the public. lo1113minerun.jpg

Historian David Richards consults a map of the Mine Run battlefield near a tree line where skirmishes took place. 1113paynesfarm.jpg



Out in the countryside of Orange County, historians are working to breathe new life into an old battle.

When complete, their efforts should help the public appreciate one of the Civil War's least-known campaigns, called Mine Run, after the creek of the same name off State Route 20.

Mine Run may be as notable for what didn't happen as what did. It involved 145,000 troops and set up what could have been a full-bore, bloody series of battles between the armies led by Union Gen. George Gordon Meade and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

But at the 11th hour, Meade--who had initiated the campaign under pressure from President Lincoln to bag Lee's Army of Northern Virginia--called it quits.

"Historians have tended to overlook this campaign because there was no major bloodletting," said Timothy H. Smith, a historian from Gettysburg, Pa.

Yet veterans of the Battle of Payne's Farm said its musketry was as hot as anything they'd experienced at Antietam or at Gettysburg, the latter just four months earlier.

"This battle has not made a large figure in history, but it was a very sharp engagement," the historian of the 10th Vermont Volunteers wrote later. "Every tree in the thick forest was scarred with bullets and the undergrowth half cut away. How any man could come out of that tremendous storm alive seemed a wonder."

The Confederates saw it that way, too. It was "as warm a contest as this regiment was ever engaged in," a member of the 3rd North Carolina Infantry recalled. " It seemed as if the enemy was throwing Minie balls upon us by the bucket-full, when the battle got fairly under way."

More than 1,200 casualties were inflicted at Payne's Farm and in a simultaneous encounter along the Orange Turnpike (Route 20).

Last week, Smith and three colleagues tromped across the fields and through the woods where the campaign's fiercest battle was fought, on what was Madison Payne's farm near the Rapidan River's Raccoon Ford.

Smith, fellow Gettysburg historian Dave Richards and the team's leader, Garry Adelman, are eager to tell that story to a wider audience. Adelman spearheaded the recent effort to interpret the Slaughter Pen Farm and the First Day at Chancellorsville battlefields in Spotsylvania County, which were saved from development by the Civil War Preservation Trust.

The goal of the new project, also sponsored by CWPT, is to provide public access to the Payne's Farm battlefield, which few people have had the opportunity to visit. Until 2003, when CWPT and the Piedmont Environmental Council acquired the tract, the land was private property.

By year's end, the historians will draft an interpretive plan for the farm, which extends for nearly a mile along State Route 611. As funding allows, the trust envisions installing illustrated wayside markers to describe the battle, and creating walking trails and a parking area for visitors.

The national nonprofit group will seek public comment on the plan, supported by a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program, CWPT spokesman Jim Campi said.

For now, Payne's Farm remains off the beaten path, about three miles north of Routes 20 and 611, where Robertson's Tavern stood. But the trust's historians are piecing together every detail of what happened on the 685-acre site, which is remarkably unaltered from its Civil War heyday.

Here, Confederate Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson attacked with a division of 5,300 men, unaware that he faced an entire Union corps, supported by a second one--32,000 Union troops in all.

The site's fields and forests are nearly just as they were on Nov. 27, 1863, when columns of blue and gray accidentally bumped into each other at a road intersection near modern-day Zoar Baptist Church, and the battle ensued, Adelman said.

That crossroads remains. The farm lane along which Southern artillery and infantry positioned themselves is still there. A postwar farmhouse stands where the Paynes' home did; the family stayed in the cellar during the battle.

The landscape itself is informing the research as Adelman, Smith and Richards figure out how best to explain what happened here to future visitors, Campi said.

By halting Meade's advance toward Locust Grove, the Battle of Payne's Farm helped undo his elaborate plan to get the jump on Lee's army, the historians said.

Confederate forces gained a day to prepare for an all-out assault by the Yankees, creating defensive earthworks along Mine Run that Meade concluded were impregnable, said Adelman, the senior historian at History Associates Inc. in Rockville, Md.

By Nov. 30, after more delays, Meade decided to end the campaign. He realized his effort to outflank Lee had failed.

Clint Schemmer: 540/368-5029

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