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The Rayburn and Henderson Families of Wilcox County Alabama
and the Hardships They Endured

During the War Between the States

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Ernest David Rayburn


The Early Years
The William R. Rayburn and Robert Henderson families were residents of Wilcox County for many years. Both families took up residence in Wilcox county soon after Alabama became the twenty-second state in 1819. (Alabama was formed from the Territory of Mississippi.) Both men who headed these families sought to seek out a better life for themselves by acquiring land and establishing families in this newly founded state. Eventually they became neighbors on adjoining farms. Even though their ambitions were similar, their backgrounds and history were quite different.

Robert Henderson (born about 1793) was a generation ahead of William R Rayburn (born about 1825.) Robert was born in South Carolina. He came to Wilcox County soon after it was formed and married Mary Brown in 1824. For reasons unknown today, Mary did not live long. She died shortly after they were married. Robert then married Elizabeth McCowan in 1828. Before leaving South Carolina, Robert served for a short time in the 27th Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers during the War of 1812. It was this military service that entitled him to a land warrant (a right to acquire property from the government) for property in Wilcox County. In 1851 he acquired raw acreage in the Grampian Hills, located between Fatama and Camden. Although the land was not ideal for farming, he set out to make a home and living for his family on the farm.

William R. Rayburn was born in Mississippi in 1825, but soon thereafter was brought by his parents to Wilcox County. The exact date when William was moved to Wilcox County is not known, but his family appears in the 1830 Federal Census. William married Robert Henderson’s eldest daughter, Frances Ann, in about 1846. In the same yearWilliam enlisted in the First Regiment of Alabama Volunteers for military service in the War Between the U.S. and Mexico. Although his service was short, it qualified him to receive land provided by congressional acts that made land warrants available to veterans of that war. It is believed that he married shortly after his return from service.

Converting Raw Land into a Farm.

And so it was that both these men set out with their new families to tame the raw land and hoping to carve out a farm successful enough for survival. You can take my word for it, that farming in the first half of the Twentieth Century was backbreaking work in which the entire family participated through every daylight hour and sometimes even during darkness. With the uncertainties of war, weather and fate, the returns also seem meager for the hardships endured. Still, one can be certain that farming in the Nineteenth Century was far more demanding and yielded even fewer rewards. Not only was this true in Wilcox County, Alabama, but it was also true in most of the newly formed communities of the South and along the Western frontier. However ubiquitous the situation, the hardships of the time and place seem disproportionate by today’s standards. Practically everything that farmers used was a product of the land they tilled. Food for the family generally was grown, and even the livestock subsisted solely on the vegetation the farmland could produce. Homes were usually constructed from the timber cut during the clearing of the land--either with or without going through a local sawmill. Fortunately, by this time, cloth was a manufactured item. Women of the Nineteenth Century at least avoided the incredibly arduous task of spinning yarn and weaving it into cloth by hand. Of course, cloth cost money; therefore, some saleable product needed to be grown on the land in order to purchase the few needed manufactured essentials.

The land that had been acquired by the Rayburn and Henderson families was located in the Grampian Hills between the towns of Fatama and Camden. The rolling hills did not offer a lot of tillable land, but there were areas level enough for cultivation that could be developed along the ridges. The primitive farming tools available in those days limited the number of acres a man could cultivate. The number of his children who were old enough to work in the fields, as well as the number of livestock he could afford, also affected the size of the plot he could tend. First, selected areas of the raw land to be cultivated had to be grubbed, the sod broken, and then prepared for planting. 

Land was grubbed primarily using primitive hand tools such as the axe and grubbing hoe. A team of horses, when available, could be used to help in the pulling of stumps. Then the land was broken with a wooden Georgia Stock plow equipped with a moldboard. The farmer would walk behind the plow pulled by oxen, mule or horses, guiding the plow to cut a furrow about 6 to 10 inches wide. This slow process meant a man was able to develop only a limited amount of raw land each year. It was an extremely rugged and demanding task. Because of the intensive labor required in clearing and grubbing farm areas, it was common practice to start with a small plot that could be cleared and prepared during the first winter. The following winter, when there was more time for clearing and preparing, additional land could be prepared for cultivation. The endless grueling work did not deter these pioneers. 

They had dreams–dreams of a family, a homestead and sufficient nourishment, clothing, and shelter to survive. They dreamed of a community church, and enough leisure to attend with the family each Sunday. Some undoubtedly dreamed of a school where their children might learn reading, writing and arithmetic. (Public schools were not established in the U.S. until the early 1900s.) These dreams are simple, their fulfillment taken for granted today; but to realize these simple needs required arduous labor in Wilcox County, Alabama, and many other parts of the country, throughout the Nineteenth Century. By the time the War Between the States broke out, both the Henderson and Rayburn families were blessed with many children. The acquired land had been converted to established farms. Living conditions had improved and things were going well for them. The land Robert Henderson had received for his War of 1812 service and the land that William R. Rayburn had received for his Mexican War service had been improved, cotton was “king” of the crops in that part of Alabama, stock animals had increased in number, and the families were apparently finally realizing a few of their goals of a better life and reasonable prosperity. They were climbing toward their dream. I believe that the future to them looked bright. 

At the time of the 1860 Census, the Monroe Brittingham, Robert Henderson and William R. Rayburn families were listed consecutively (dwellings 464, 465, & 466 respectively) thus we know that these families were living close to each other which provided mutual family support. No doubt, Robert Henderson, with his two sons-in-law living next to him, played a key role in helping the Rayburn and Brittingham families. Sarah Catherine Henderson, the second daughter of Robert Henderson and Elizabeth McCowan, had married IsaacMonroe Brittingham about 1846--the same year that Frances Ann and William R. Rayburn had married. But the War created unforseen problems, and posed some of the most difficult challenges these families had ever known. When the male adults of the family are called to war, farm families find their capability to carry out the farm tasks are severely curtailed. 

The War Years

By 1860 there was widespread dissension among the states. Some states believed that the federal government had infringed upon the rights of states to govern themselves. As the debates grew more heated, citizens of the southern states became adamant to the point of advocating secession. This rebellious atmosphere became more and more pervasive until state after state voted for secession from the Union. The right of a state to secede had been reserved in the Constitution for states whose prerogatives were usurped by the federal government. This unrest caused the various states, including Alabama, to turn to their local militia units for military support. At first these units had no connection to the Confederate Army. 

The militia units from Wilcox County had names such as: Alabama River Rangers, South Alabama Rebels, The Bell Rifles, and The Wilcox Farmers. Isaac Monroe Brittenham and William R. Rayburn joined “The Bell Rifles,” William DeKalb Rayburn, brother of William R. enlisted in “The South Alabama Rebels.” As members of the militia, the men of Wilcox County could continue to farm their land and it was unnecessary for them to leave their homes. But in a matter of months, the conflict escalated and in the spring of 1862 these state militia units were made a part of the Confederate States Army of Tennessee. The Bell Rifles became part of the 38th Regiment, Alabama Volunteers. Monroe Brittingham was assigned to Company “A” and William R. Rayburn being assigned to Company “H” of this Regiment. DeKalb Rayburn was assigned to Co. “A” 23rd Alabama Infantry and Oliver Spencer Henderson enlisted in Co. “F” 8th Alabama Infantry. There may have been other members of the Henderson family who enlisted, but I do not have their records.

As members of the Confederate States Army, the men left their families and were taken to various training camps. The absence of the men to tend farms created an unmitigated hardship for the wives and families left behind. Someone had to take up the workload on the farm and function as head of the household. I think these departing soldiers may have believed that they would not be gone for more than a few months. Robert Henderson, now approaching 70, and his wife Elizabeth, must have been of unfathomable help to their two daughters who were both left with large young families. Life was more than difficult for these women with no husband or other male adult at home to direct and carry out the field work. But they considered themselves patriotic people, and I am sure they were proud that the men were willing to go and defend their newly adopted nation and the principle of states’ rights. 

According to the information my father relayed to me from his father, as far as the family was concerned at the time, the war was not about slavery at all. It was about the right of states to manage state affairs without interference from the Federal Government. The Henderson and Rayburn families did not own slaves and did not believe in slavery; but they did believe strongly that states should have the right to govern themselves, and that federal authority should be limited to actions specifically authorized by the Constitution.

As the war droned on, many thousands of men died. Families were left without fathers and husbands, and survival risks increased. Both Monroe Brittingham and William R. Rayburn had died in the war by the end of 1863. William R. had died at Cassville, Georgia; and Monroe Brittingham had died in Tennessee. The Rayburn family was suffering severely. At this time there had not been a man in the household for almost two years and the eldest son, Greenberry Hiram, and called “Green,”was not yet 12 years old. Yet he was now the man of the household. William’s other son, William DeKalb, was only 2 years old. Sarah Brittingham and her family fared no better as her two oldest sons were only age 13 and 10. No doubt, Robert Henderson, now age 70, and his wife Elizabeth, were heart-broken over the tragic deaths of two sons-in-law and the predicament in which their widowed daughters found themselves. With great compassion, the Robert Henderson family did all they could to provide help to the families so that they might survive the ravages of the terrible war. 

Until the final months of the War, Wilcox County was sufficiently remote from the combat area that the battles were being fought on distant battlefields. The families of Wilcox were mostly fighting their own battles just to survive. But, near the end of the war, the situation worsened. The Confederacy was suffering military reverses and the Union forces were able to penetrate deep into the South. In a History of Wilcox County it is written, “Raiders traversed all sections of the County during the war. It was at the cross roads that the large saw mill of W. T. Matthews was located; here near the close of the War Between the States, 500 Yankee troop raiders came along and burnt the mill and killed the watchman. Camden ladies went there and gave the body a decent interment. In memory of those perilous times a handsome Confederate Monument - A Soldier in granite - keeps watch in the little city of the dead.” And in another report of the situation, it is written, “Much property was destroyed and many valuables stolen. With the help of prominent citizens, Judge Cook saved most of the County records by hiding them in distant woods on the Bell place, which is on the Bridgeport Road, near the present home of Mr. Whirt Moore. During the same raid, many people saved their valuables by removing slabs in the family cemetery, putting valuables in the graves and replacing the slabs.” 

When I visited Winston Nettles (grandson of Robert Henderson) in Camden in 1981, he told me accounts of the Henderson family hiding valuables in a grave in the Cabell Cemetery near Camden to prevent looting by the Yankee soldiers. He told me that Robert Henderson did not believe in the reliability of banks and kept some gold in an old trunk at his home. Another family story that has survived through the descendants of Sarah “Belle”(Rayburn) Brooks provides some details of a specific incident that occurred at the William R. Rayburn home near the end of the war. 

There had been some rumors that the Union soldiers were coming, although most communications had been cut off to the area. A runner came to Camden from Scotland (Alabama), in the Northern part of Monroe County, about twenty five miles south of Camden. The runner reported that a Union Cavalry force had passed Scotland and would soon reach Camden. This put the hostile troops right on a path to pass through the area where the Henderson and Rayburns were living. At that time, Sarah “Belle” Rayburn had not married and she was an eye witness. Years later, she told her children that the Yankee soldiers pitched camp in the woods not far from their home. The soldiers came to their house and confiscated their meager food supply, including the family livestock. She said they also took the pickets off the fence around their home for use as firewood. Perhaps fortunately, they were camped there for only a day or two, and then moved on. But the loss of food and livestock left the family in a critical situation, without food or even the milk and eggs that are common fare on a farm. Other families in the area may have come to their aid–at least they survived--but no details of that aid have survived. 

After the War -

The situation was dire immediately following the war, and the families suffered through some very tough times, just trying to survive. The Henderson family no doubt helped as they could and DeKalb Rayburn returned from the war and settled on the farm that joined the Frances Ann Rayburn’s place on the East. He had filed for a homestead and had acquired the land in 1862, the year he went off to war. Upon DeKalb’s return, he started from scratch working with the raw land. To add to the problems, Elizabeth, wife of Robert Henderson died in 1865. Willie Ella, daughter of William R. and Frances Ann Rayburn died before the 1870 census. 

By 1870 the family had recovered, to some extent, from the ravages of the war. Green was now 18 years old and was able to manage the family farm. Boll weevil infestation was increasing and the production of cotton was being reduced.

Robert Henderson died in 1873, and over the next few years the children of Frances Ann all married and started families of their own. The War Between the States caused the most suffering and hardship in the known history of this family. Family members who survived those times were reluctant to discuss the “bad times.” Consequently, the details available to us today have been limited. Nevertheless, the glimpse we have of the large string of crippling hardships they endured, make us proud that we come from such strong stock. We carry the genes of a people who had genuine courage and grit! 

Prepared by: Ernest D. Rayburn

Date: 24 July 2000