The dead leaves are ankle deep as my son, Jackson, and I trek through the forest at Payne’s Farm. We know there’s a path because a plethora of blue blazes mark the way through the denuded trees. The leaves have otherwise swallowed the path just as they swallow our feet.
We shuffle through, raising enough racket to risk triggering one of my son’s migraines. I don’t know what battle sounded like here on November 27, 1863, but the simple act of walking is cacophonous enough.
The engagement, unexpected by both sides, pitted the Federal III Corps, led by Maj. Gen. William “Blinky” French, against most of the Confederate division commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. Federals surprised the Confederates, who doubled back and threw themselves into the fight with ferocity. “The Federals were as thick as black birds in front of us,” one North Carolinian said.
The engagement marked the first significant contact between the armies in what became known as the Mine Run campaign.
Jackson and I have come out here because it’s the anniversary of the battle and the weather is warm and sunny. We couldn’t ask for a better day to be on the battlefield.
In school this week, just before break, Jackson had the opportunity to take a qualifying test that could enable him to take college classes as part of his high school curriculum next year. Aside from algebra and reading comprehension, he had to write a 300-word essay. The question: “Does history still matter?”
“Yes,” he tells me when I ask him what he said.
I wait for more. “Only two-hundred and ninety-nine to go,” I point out.
This is the third reason I’ve come to Mine Run: here, most of the battlefield has vanished, reclaimed not so much be development as by amnesia. Overall, Mine Run turns into the biggest battle of the Civil War that doesn’t happen, so there’s not much to remember, at least if one is thinking in the same terms as a Chancellorsville or Wilderness or Spotsylvania—the other major battlefields within a stone’s throw.
In 2003, the Civil War Trust protected the property, but it remained largely dormant for almost a decade until a rudimentary trail and a series of wayside markers, installed by the Trust and Civil War Trails, finally appeared. But the 690 acres remains largely quiet, largely forgotten.
But the engagement made quite an impression on the men who fought here. “It was truly a baptism of fire, while it was a deluge of lead and iron that swept over us, “ wrote a member of the 10th Vermont. A member of the 3rd North Carolina, meanwhile, said it was “as warm a contest as this regiment was ever engaged in. . . . It seemed as if the enemy was throwing minie-balls upon us by the bucket-full, when the battle got fairly under way.”
After their initial success, French’s men bogged down. Johnson’s swelling numbers forced the Federals to redeploy to prevent themselves from being outflanked. The ground dipped and rose in steep ravines, making it even more difficult for the men to secure their position.
The final confrontation unfolded across an open field, with Confederates launching piecemeal attacks that Federals successfully beat back. “It was a desperate effort to dislodge us,” a Federal Marylander said.
Old Allegheny reported the results differently: “The brave officers and men of this division, attacked by a greatly superior force from an admirable position, turned upon him and drove him from the field, which he left strewn with arms, artillery, and infantry ammunition, his dead and dying.” At dark, though, it was his men who withdrew from the field.
Johnson’s aggressiveness foiled the overall Federal maneuver, though—something that would have important ramifications in the days ahead as the campaign unfolded.
But why does this matter?
That’s what Jackson’s essay question is asking, isn’t it? Not just “History-with-a-capital-H” but any particular episode—why does it matter?
I ask Jackson to elaborate on his answer, but he seems embarrassed. Like any teenager, his answer to “What did you do in school today?” seldom gets beyond a monosyllabic, indeterminate noise of some sort. Just because we’re out on the battlefield having a good time doesn’t mean I’m going to get anything different out of him when I ask a schoolish question.
He does give me an answer that includes “remembering the sacrifices of people” and “learning from our own mistakes” and “looking back so we can understand things”—but it all comes out, incredibly, as a single syllable that sounds like a sentence from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.
I ask him to repeat himself, but he gives me a sideways look and one of those monosyllabic noises and then smiles.
My frontal assault isn’t working any more than Old Allegheny’s. It’s time to withdraw and regroup. There’ll be more chance to talk about it later; for now, I’m not going to get my tidy little made-for-ECW episode.
That’s par for the course for Mine Run.
Quotes in this piece come from the wayside markers at Payne’s Farm, courtesy of the Civil War Trust and Civil War Trails.