The unique life of a colorful warrior
As the clouds of civil war began to gather, Southerners at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point – including cadets, instructors and staff – had to choose whether to remain serving the Union, or to join the Confederate cause.
The question was particularly difficult for those already serving in the Union army, notably Virginians Robert E. Lee (Class of 1829, and superintendent of the USMA from 1852-55), T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson (1846) and J. E.B. Stuart (1854). They resigned their U.S. Army commissions to lead the Confederate forces.
Some Southerners at the USMA went on to fight for the North, but it was unlikely that any would be entering the Academy after the start of the war – especially any former Confederates. But it did happen.
Warrenton native John Scott Payne (1844-1895), entered the USMA in 1862 after serving as an enlisted man in the Confederate Army. He went on to graduate in 1866, and had an exciting career as a cavalry officer in the American West, fighting in the Indian Wars.
The son of Arthur Alexander Morson Payne (1804-1868), John Scott Payne was the half-brother of William H. F. Payne (1830-1904), who led Fauquier County’s Black Horse Cavalry and rose to the rank of general in the Confederate Army.
In April 1861, John S. Payne enlisted as a private in Co. H, 4th Virginia Cavalry, and by October 4, was serving on picket duty at Pohick Church. On Dec. 15, he was detailed back to Warrenton, serving under the Quartermaster.
In early 1862, Payne left Virginia to join his father in Missouri. While it is unclear why he changed allegiances, Payne received an appointment to the USMA from Missouri leaders, matriculating in the fall of 1862.
According to the Twenty-Seventh Annual Reunion of the Association of the Graduates of the United States Military Academy (1896),
“John Scott Payne entered the Military Academy under particular conditions and at a trying time. A Virginian by birth, reared in the tenets and imbued with most of the traditions of Fauquier County, it was perhaps remarkable that he should have been sent to West Point. He was walking post, a plebe sentry, while two hostile armies were in alternate occupation of the streets of his native Warrenton.
“He was handicapped from the start. Accepting his appointment and education at the hands of the National Government, he was believed, by not a few, to be more than half in sympathy with the cause of the Confederacy.
“Without attaining high rank in any particular study, Payne was skilled in oratory and argument, which in a young man impetuous in speech and not always sound in judgment, proved dangerous possessions. Either in the section room or class debate, Payne was frequently in hot water. His undisputed talent helped no whit in his class standing. He was graduated in 1866.”
After West Point
Payne was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, and was stationed in Alabama and Tennessee during Reconstruction. He was promoted to first lieutenant in May 1867, but impulsively resigned his commission in September 1868 to practice law in Knoxville, Tennessee.
He also edited two Tennessee newspapers, the Rogersville Journal and the Knoxville Daily Whig and Register from 1870-71. Between 1871 and 1873, he served as commissioner for the U.S. Circuit Court, District of East Tennessee. It was during this time he married Lucy Alexander (1849-1911), daughter of a Knoxville judge.
Tiring of civilian life, Payne petitioned and received a presidential intercession, and was appointed a second lieutenant in the Sixth U.S. Cavalry in February 1873.
Payne spent the rest of his military career on frontier duty, stationed at forts in the Colorado Territory and Kansas. He also participated in expeditions into Texas, fighting Indians on the Red River, and in 1875, was assigned to his old unit, the Fifth Cavalry.
Promoted to captain, he served in the Arizona Territory, and in late 1876, commanded Co. F of the Fifth Cavalry on the Big Horn and Yellowstone expeditions. But his most critical duty was to come in September 1879, when Co. F was stationed at Fort Steele, Wyoming, and was sent to quell an uprising at the White River, Colorado Ute Indian Reservation.
The problems at White River began when Nathan C. Meeker was appointed the agent at the reservation. Ignorant of Ute ways, Meeker strictly enforced the government edict to convert the Indians – who had spent millennia as hunters and gatherers – into productive farmers, and to limit their reliance on their horses.
After Meeker plowed a field where the Indians raced their horses, there was a serious confrontation between Meeker and Douglas Nicaagat, a part-Apache sub-chief known as “Jack.” Apprehensive and feeling threatened by the Utes, Meeker sent a courier to Fort Steele asking for armed assistance.
On Sept. 21, four cavalry companies consisting of 175 men and 25 supply wagons under the command of Maj. Thomas T. Thornburg set out from Fort Steele for the White River Agency, 180 miles away. Leading Co. F was Capt. John S. Payne.
By Sept. 25, the column was about 18 miles from the reservation. They were met by Chief Jack, who warned Thornburg that entering the reservation would be a violation of their treaty. A series of muddled communications followed. The negotiations stalled, and the Utes were certain that they were going to be attacked by the full Army force.
On Sept. 29, Thornburg set out with a detail of four officers and two scouts, headed to the reservation for a peace conference. The wagons and the rest of his command remained two miles behind him.
As the detail passed through a narrow passage at Milk Creek, they were attacked from both sides, and Thornburg was killed. Panicked and certain that their actions would precede an all-out conflict, Utes at the reservation killed Meeker and ten of his workers, and kidnapped Meeker’s wife and daughter.
Capt. Payne’s actions, as described in the 27th Annual Reunion:
“The troops looked to Payne for leadership in their hour of peril, and were not disappointed. Skillfully withdrawing the wagon train, the new commander posted his little squadron to fight on foot, and although many gallant soldiers received their death blow, and he himself was twice wounded in the furious action that followed, he succeeded in beating off the attack, and holding his savage foe at a respectful distance.
Then followed a seven days’ siege, dramatic in its incidents of heroism and suffering: the scorching heat from the burning wagons, the slaughter of the horses of the entire command, the days of glaring sun and maddening thirst, the nights of ceaseless vigilance , and the daring sallies for water for the wounded.
The Utes had not completely surrounded the trapped soldiers, and during the night, messengers slipped through to send for help. On Oct. 2, thirty-five “Buffalo Soldiers” – African American troops of Co. D, 9th Cavalry from Fort Lewis, Colorado led by Capt. Francis Dodge, broke through the Ute lines to reinforce the beleaguered soldiers.
Finally, on Oct. 5, about 250 soldiers of the Fifth Cavalry under Col. Wesley Merritt completed the 170 mile trek from Fort D. A. Russell, Colorado, to join the fight. They quickly overpowered the Utes, forcing them to surrender.
Army casualties were 13 soldiers killed and 43 wounded; Ute losses were estimated at 37 killed during the battle and the Meeker incident. The U.S. Government imprisoned several of the Ute leaders, and in 1881 the tribe was moved from White River to a new reservation in the Utah desert.
Return to civilian life
Capt. Payne was recognized for his role in the battle, and was promoted to the rank of Major. But his health began to fail, and he retired from active service in the U.S. Army in 1886.
As reported in the 27th Annual Reunion: “The evening of his eventful life was spent within view of the wooded heights of Warrenton until he was called to Washington as a member of the Board of Pension Appeals. At home, surrounded by congenial friends, and in the sweet companionship of the wife and children to whom he was devotedly attached, he spent two years in well won peace and content.
On Dec. 15, 1895, he passed away, and was laid to rest, as he had asked, among the graves of his ancestors in the Warrenton Cemetery, beneath the shadows of the Virginia hills he had loved so long and well.”
Maj. Payne was survived by his wife Lucy, and children Laura Rollins Payne Mangum (1873-1956) and Arthur Alexander Payne (1883-1968). Beneath his name and years on his gravestone are listed his proudest attainments, “United States Military Academy 1866, Major 5th Cavalry, U.S. Army.”