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Visitors now can explore Payne's Farm battlefield
Preservation groups open Payne's Farm battlefield in Orange County to the public.

 Visitors from 13 states see part of the Payne's Farm battlefield in Orange County during a tour earlier this month.
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Date published: 5/16/2011


Orange County's Payne's Farm battlefield is open for business.

The scene of the heaviest casualties during the Union army's 1863 Mine Run campaign, the 685-acre battlefield is one of the most pristine on the East Coast--and least-known.

Now, after years of work by the Civil War Trust, Piedmont Environmental Council and local volunteers, it is beginning to welcome visitors. And thanks to its inclusion in the popular multi-state Civil War Trails program, the site will soon be known to thousands of people across the mid-Atlantic and nation.

A 1.5-mile self-guided walking trail through the site's woods and fields has been built, with the battle's history interpreted by a series of wayside markers that a Civil War Trails crew finished installing last week.

Union Gen. George Gordon Meade, urged on by President Abraham Lincoln, launched the Mine Run campaign in late November 1863 to dislodge and outflank Gen. Robert E. Lee's army, aiming to get between it and Richmond.

The Battle of Payne's Farm, fought between the Rapidan River and the crossroads at Robinson's Tavern (also known as Robertson's Tavern) in Locust Grove, occurred on Nov. 27 as the two armies, unaware, blundered into each other--much like the initial action at Gettysburg four months earlier.

Meade later broke off the campaign when Lee's forces entrenched behind Mine Run, creating what he judged were impregnable defenses, and the winter weather turned bitter cold. But he and his troops soon returned to the area, waging the full-blown Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, according to Garry Adelman, director of history and education at the Civil War Trust.

"Since the Union army failed in its objective to outflank and damage the Confederates, Meade learned critical information about advancing an army through that part of the Virginia 'Wilderness'--something that would come in very handy the following spring when the Union advanced again," he said in an interview.

Adelman led the team of historians who painstakingly researched the Payne's Farm battle and designed the walking trail. Their work revealed the fact that, contrary to long-held belief, the heaviest fighting happened in woods north of Zoar Road, not in the open fields to their south.

The landscape, including the historic roads nearby, is remarkably unchanged since that day in 1863, Adelman said.

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The Battle of Payne's Farm erupted on Nov. 27, 1863, when Union forces under Gen. William H. French, called "Old Blinky" by his men, collided with a Confederate division under Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson.

Johnson and his men, sounding the "peculiar rebel yell" (as one account put it), kept up their attack against the Yankees even though they were outnumbered 2-to-1, historian Garry Adelman says.

"Gen. Johnson cheered us on to the fight with 'Hurrah for North Carolina give it to them, boys!'" Capt. Thomas Boone of the 1st North Carolina Infantry recalled.

In seesaw fighting in the woods north of Zoar Road and the rolling pastures along the lane (still there today) to a Mr. Payne's farm, Union and Confederate brigades exchanged fire until they ran out of ammunition, and daylight.

Sixteen thousand men took part in the battle (also known as Locust Grove), which left more than 1,400 casualties. (The weeklong Mine Run Campaign involved 114,000 Union and 44,000 Confederate troops.)

Payne's Farm survivors said the roar of small arms during the fight equaled anything that they heard later during the battles of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.

--Clint Schemmer