The Good Doctor Was a Spy: The Lively Times of Robert Wellford

One of Fredericksburg's leading citizens was either a patriot or a traitor, depending on whether you favored coats of Tory red or Revolutionary blue.

Robert Welford, who went on to become a distinguished doctor in Fredericksburg as well as President Washington's choice for Surgeon General, began life April 23, 1753, in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire. His father, William Welford, was also a physician. According to family tradition, his timely aid to an injured nobleman prompted a reward: the choice of a place in the British Army, in a unit bound for either America or India. Such commissions had to be paid for, so this was a generous offer indeed.Image of Dr. Robert Wellford, courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

Young Robert Welford chose to accompany General Sir William Howe to put down the colonials' rebellion in the capacity of Assistant Surgeon of the First Regiment of British Volunteers. In time, he was found capable and put in charge of wounded American prisoners, who had previously been treated so roughly that many died from neglect. Dr. Welford's careful supervision proved to be a boon to many wounded American soldiers, including the grandson of a royal governor who gave Spotsylvania its name.

Image of Dr. Robert Wellford, Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

A Confidential Matter

Welford befriended John Spotswood, the grandson of Governor Alexander Spotswood. Orphaned at a young age and educated along with his brother Alexander in England, John Spotswood was just the sort of scapegrace whose daring made him an excellent young officer for the new country's army, where he served as part of the 5th Company of Virginia's 10th Regiment. John was wounded at the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777, and was tended by Dr. Welford. As it happened, Welford found the opportunity to give his parole on June 5, 1778, a document which has been preserved online at the Library of Congress. The gentlemen's agreement was transcribed by Kenneth Baumgardt, historian, in his paper, The Royal Army in America during the Revolutionary War: The American Prisoner Records:

"Robert Welford, June 15, 1778, Parole Agreement."

I, Robert Welford, Surgeon do promise and certainly engage upon the word and honor of a gentleman, that I will not directly or indirectly during my captivity say or do anything by word or deed injurious or in the least degree prejudicial to the interest of the United States of North America, and that I will in all things till I am regularly and duly exchanged or otherwise properly released - conduct myself as a gentleman and prisoner ought to do.

But there was more going on behind the scenes than a simple parole agreement. Dr. Welford well and truly sympathized with the American cause, giving what intelligence he could. In a letter dated June 14, 1778 - a day before his parole - American Colonel John Laurens sent a missive to his father detailing his new acquaintance with Welford:

A party of the enemy were out yesterday, and in returning left a Mr. Welford formerly surgeon in their service. This gentleman made himself disagreeable to the British officers, by his humanity to our wounded, and was obliged to resign. He has taken an opportunity of becoming a willing prisoner to a people whose sentiments are congenial to his own. This, I suppose in delicacy to him, must be kept a secret. Cap. McLane, an active, enterprising officer, who is constantly near the enemy s lines, sent him as a prisoner, and he must be announced as such. He quartered with General Lee last night, so that I had no opportunity of speaking to him; it is probable he may furnish us with a great deal of good intelligence.

And what was the nature of that intelligence?

A letter dated the following day gives some details:

Doctor Welford dined with us yesterday, but I had no opportunity of conversing with him but in a promiscuous way. He confirms our opinion of the enemy's intention to pass through the Jerseys; says that they have destroyed a vast number of blankets, etc., that they have strengthened their cavalry by mounting many of their light infantry, or at least providing horses, on which they are to be mounted occasionally. By this means they will have, he thinks, 2,500 horsemen; that General Grant has escaped a court martial for his conduct on the affair of Marquis de Lafayette, by his powerful interest, but that he is much blamed and abused in circles of officers. The doctor contradicts the report of Gov. Johnston's having been mobbed. He says, on the contrary, he is more respected than either of his colleagues, being regarded as the only proper person to gain the confidence of America, and succeed in the important business which they have in view.

Gov. Johnston, it is said, accuses Howe of having acted the part both of a villain and a fool; the latter, in his military operations, the former in wanton and unauthorized destruction of private property.

Later in the letter Laurens stressed the confidential nature of this correspondence:

I omitted to inform you above that Doctor Welford says the people in town have no other than salt provisions. Even that is brought to them from their vessels. As Mr. W. ought to pass for a prisoner of war, I do not mention his name as author of any intelligence, but in confidence to you, not that I think his history will be kept secret, but because I would not be the occasion of discovering it.

A Change in Allegiance... and Surname

The Wellford House todayAccording to the Lomax family history, when the doctor made a return visit to his father in England, he was disinherited and disowned. From that time on, he spelled his name differently than before. Welford became Wellford, and documents of the period contain either spelling.

The Wellford House on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg

After he resigned his commission, Dr. Robert Wellford set up a private practice in Philadelphia. According to his grandson B. R. Wellford, both the Spotswoods and George Washington recommended that he relocate to the Fredericksburg area. This he did and soon he had established a thriving practice. His patients included the Washingtons, the Lewises, the Thorntons, the Lomaxes, and many other prominent families. Not only did George Washington recommend Fredericksburg, he also wrote him an all-important letter of introduction to his friend, William Fitzhugh of Chatham.

William Fitzhugh Esq.of Chatham

near Frederick. Virginia

Brunswick, New Jersey, 1778

Dear Sir,

Dr. Wellford late of the British Army has an idea of settling in Virginia at the town of Fredericksburg. He will have the pleasure of presenting this to you. He is a gent. highly spoken of in his profession and deserves every countenance and support from us for his great humanity, care and tenderness for the sick and wounded of our Army in captivity. Hence it is, I take the liberty of recommending him to your civilities.

I am with sincere regard and affection to you

your most obedient friend

G. Washington

Wellford's patients were also to become his longtime friends. When attending the last illness of Catherine Daingerfield Lewis at Marmion in King George County, in February of 1820, he noted in his diary:

"At the particular desire of Mrs. Lewis I remained the whole day in the house and slept on the subsequent night once more and for the last time in the little parlour in which room in time past I have witnessed such sociality and more merriment that in any other room in the whole course of my life. ....

Robert Welford met his future wife, Catherine, at the home of his former wartime patient and friend John Spotswood. Catherine was the widow of John Thornton and the daughter of Reverend Robert and Mary Randolph Yates. Orange Grove, built by John Spotswood on land passed down from Alexander Spotswood's original Germanna tract, was a favorite stopping place for friends and family traveling between Fredericksburg and Orange County. The couple, who married in January of 1781, named their son, John Spotswood Wellford, for their good friend.

In 1789, Robert Wellford bought a house in Fredericksburg that still stands today and is known as The Wellford House. He served on City Council, and was one of a committee of members who inspected the streets, making recommendations for repairs.

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion flagBut Wellford's service to his new country was not finished. In 1794, a number of frontiersmen in Pennsylvania objected to a discriminatory tax on whiskey designed to finance national projects. In the way it was written, the tax would put much more burden on poor farmers who turned their leftover crops into liquid product than on larger manufacturers. The farmers rebelled , and President Washington called out the troops - 15,000 of them from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia.

The flag of the Whiskey Rebellion

When President Washington decided to do this, he put his trusted officer from Revolutionary days, "Light Horse"; Harry Lee, in charge of the proceedings and called in his reliable friends and relations, including his nephew Lawrence Lewis of Kenmore, one of five Washington nephews serving in the volunteer army. The Commander-in-Chief recommended Dr. Wellford to act as Surgeon General, which meant looking after the troops in the field. The doctor's diary, in which he laid out his daily duties and thoughts on backwoods living, is frequently cited by period historians.

As it turned out, there was very little bloodshed in the Whiskey Rebellion, but the larger issues of what the federal government may or may not do to its people continue today.

Working Days and a Family Tragedy

Dr. William H. Foote visited the Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church - then on the corner of Amelia and Charles streets--on a Sunday during his travels of 1816-18. There he found "Wellford, the physician, of extensive reading, and wonderful memory, and great skill in the healing art; his amiable wife and his sons by his side." If duty called, he might well miss church altogether.

A path at Alum SpringThe family's days were not always so quiet or practical. A decade earlier, in 1803, Dr. Wellford's step-son William Thornton met his distant relation Francis Conway at Alum Spring, then just outside of town. This was no friendly family gathering, though John Spotswood Wellford was also there, serving as his half-brother's second. Pistols were drawn, shots were fired, and the matter of honor was settled in blood. Although young Thornton was able to ride away from the duel, back to his step-father's home for help, he died nonetheless.

A path in Alum Spring Park, Site of the Thorton-Conway Duel

What was the cause of the duel? At a party across the river at Chatham, both hoped to attract the attention of their distant cousin, Miss Nelly Conway Madison. Francis Conway thought to show off a fine bit of new harness to the young lady. But William Thornton may have replaced his rival's new and fancy horse bridle with plainer one, or so Francis thought, making him look a fool. So a challenge was made and both men died by pistol shots fired on the path between Alum Spring rock and the Mill Pond.

John Spotswood Wellford who had stood as his brother's second at the duel went on to become a prosperous businessman and was active in many civic organizations. Another son, Beverly R. Wellford, joined his father in his practice in 1816. Dr. Robert Wellford died in Fredericksburg on April 24, 1823, a day after his 70th birthday. Catherine outlived her husband by nearly a decade, dying on February 11, 1831 at her home. Both are buried at Willis Hill Cemetery, now part of Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Dr. Robert Wellford's portrait is featured on the marker.

Places Mentioned, Past and Present

Today, the Wellford House is in private ownership, but for many generations it was held by members of the doctor's family. It withstood Civil War bombardments during the Battle of Fredericksburg when as many as 30 cannon balls passed through the roof and walls.

John Spotswood's Orange Grove no longer stands, but a nearby historic marker dedicates Spotswood Park near Lake of the Woods to his memory. The Susannah Chandler Chapter, NSDAR is undertaking research and preservation work at the site.

The current Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church was built on land donated by John Spotswood Wellford and Hugh Mercer Patton. John S. Wellford built three houses nearby for him and his married daughters.

Further information on the Wellford family can be found at the Virginia Historical Society, which owns several portraits, in letters owned by the Library of Virginia, and in family papers kept at the University of Virginia.

As far as whiskey and tax protests are concerned, Fredericksburg manufactures its own, alongside its historic monuments honoring George Washington and other Revolutionary War heroes.

For Further Reading:

Revolutionary Medicine: 1700 - 1800 by C. Keith Wilson, M.D.

The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution by Thomas P. Slaughter

Sources Used in the Article:

Items marked with an (*) can be found through the JSTOR database. A Central Rappahannock Regional Library card is needed to access them.

Alum Spring Park: A Walk through History.

Army Correspondence of Colonel John Laurens in the Years 1777-8, Now First Printed from Original Letters Addressed to His Father, Henry Laurens (1807)

"Business Takes Second Seat to Tour"; Free Lance-Star, April 16, 1974. Garden Week Supplement. Pg. 3.

Captain John Spotswood by Craig Swain

A Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography: Comprising the Lives of Eminent ... by Howard Atwood Kelly (1912)

*"; A Diary Kept by Dr. Robert Wellford, of Fredericksburg, Virginia, during the March of the Virginia Troops to Fort Pitt (Pittsburg) to Suppress the Whiskey Insurrection in 1794."; Robert Wellford. The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jul., 1902), pp. 1-19. Also available here.

The Encyclopedia of Virginia Biography, v. 1, pg. 355

Genealogical and Historical Notes on Culpeper County, Virginia: Embracing a Revised and Enlarged ... (1900)

Genealogy of the Virginia Family of Lomax by Edward Lloyd Lomax. pp. 55-56 (1913)

A Guide to Virginia Military Organizations in the American Revolution, 1774-1787 by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Obituary, Mrs. Catharine Wellford, Virginia Herald, February 16, 1831. p. 3, c. 4.

*"Thornton Family."; The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Oct., 1910), pp. 111-113

"Virginia History Is Deeply Rooted in New Development." Free Lance-Star, September 16, 1967. A-3. (Lake of the Woods)

Southern Presbyterian Leaders by Henry Alexander White (1911) p. 237

*"Two Spotswood Boys at Eton in 1760, & c."; Andrew G. Grinnan. The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Oct., 1893), pp. 113-120.