On This Day: Ira Sayles Enlists in the Union Army

On August 14, 1862, my great-great-grandfather, Ira Sayles,  volunteered “to serve as a soldier in the Army of the United States of America, for the period of THREE YEARS, unless sooner discharged by the proper authority.”  The forty-four year old teacher from Alfred, New York joined others gathering at the recruiting station in Almond, Allegany County, New York.  The blue-eyed volunteer swore that he would “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America” and that he would serve “them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever.”  He stood five foot eight inches tall, his hair still dark and full.  Having pledged to observe and obey the “orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles of War,” Ira Sayles signed his name.  The next day Private Sayles was mustered into Company H of the 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers Infantry.

*** Thank you, cousin Sharon, for sharing this photograph of Ira Sayles.

Project 150: Ira and Serena Sayles in 1861


November 1861   The rolling hills of Allegany County, New York were studded with trees, bare-limbed but for the oak trees.  Red brown leaves would be clinging fast to those branches until harsh winter winds pulled them into crunchy swirls.  

All that remains of The Gothic, built by Samuel S. White in 1851 for his daughter, Serena White Sayles

Ira and Serena Sayles would have been leading very full lives on the campus of Alfred Academy and Alfred University, which were situated on the hill just beyond the Main Street of the town, Alfred.  Waking early to parent two young boys, ten year old Clifton and four year old Merlin, the couple would have departed The Gothic, their lovely framed house, to teach; Serena would have taught French while Ira taught modern and classical languages, mathematics and geology.  The end of the fall term was approaching, and the campus would have been filled with the tension that accompanies examination preparation.  Of course, autumn winds brought more than northwestern cold fronts that year. 

Alfred – Hotbed in Cold Times

Alfred University was a community of religiously devout, liberal intellectuals; ardent believers in equal rights – for women and for negroes.  Among the guests entertained on the 1861 campus were Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lectured on the “Classes of Men” and Frederick Douglass, who spoke on his “Life Picture.” Shortly after shots were fired on Fort Sumter, the entire graduating class of the university enlisted, leaving for Elmira, New York on July 2, 1861 to become part of the 23rd New York Volunteers.  Professor, and Sayles’ neighbor, Jonathan Allen accompanied the young men as they headed to Washington, D.C. and to the front, where he witnessed the chaos of the Union retreat at Bull Run.

 That November letters from Asher Williams, Luis Kenyon, Edmund Maxson, and other alumni would certainly have been shared among the community as were, no doubt, Jonathan Allen’s first hand accounts.  Copies of the Angelica Reporter, Genesse Valley Free Press and the Elmira Advertiser could have been found in every hall, in every home. 

Students and faculty alike would have been immersed in a dual world in which academic studies prepared students for peace time adult lives and community organizations prepared everyone for war time contributions.  Serena and Ira may very well have argued about just what those contributions should be for each of them.  Ira was probably quite keen on enlisting himself, while Serena, who was pregnant with their fourth child*, would have encouraged him to remain active enlisting others.

November held hope for quick victory over the slaveholders’ treason and joy for Alfred’s loved ones who were still safe.  But there was almost certainly some tension among this abolitionist community about what Lincoln and the Union was finally going to do about slavery.  Thus far the war had nothing to do with slavery, though slavery had everything to do with the war. Among the thanksgiving and prayers offered up that November 28, Ira and Serena would most certainly include thoughts for their unborn child, their former students turned soldier and for unknown slaves fleeing their oppression.  For the Sayles family the secession of southern states had already become an opportunity to end slavery on American soil, once and for all.

Project 150 is a series of Civil War posts that, taken together, will tell the story of my family’s life choices during the years of rebellion.  Sources used for today’s post include privately held family documents, documents held in the Alfred University archives and the New York State Military Museum and the Federal 1860 census accessed at ancestry.com.

*Their daughter, Florette, had died of unknown causes in 1857.

Project 150: It’s 1861. Farm On.

Project 150 is a series of Civil War posts that, taken together, will tell the story of my family’s life choices during the years of rebellion.  Sources used for today’s post include privately held family documents, a Wiki article on the election and the Federal 1860 census accessed at ancestry.com.

My great-great-grandparents, F. Marion and Mary Jane Gwynn Minor, woke up each day of 1861 inside a farmhouse on Ceylon Lane.  Each night they tucked their three children, John (age 9), Olfred (age 6) and Sarah (age 3), into bed.  When they attended Goshen Baptist Church in the nearby village of Garard’s Fort, Marion and Mary Jane drove past brother Samuel Minor‘s family home.   Driving to the nearest town, Carmichaels, took the couple past the homes of Marion’s parents, John P. and Isabella McClelland Minor, and his sister, Isabella Minor and Hugh Keenan.  The families were four of the ninety-eight that called Greene Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania home.

Within its sixteen square miles, the township had 134 women housekeeping and keeping all that was in the house – the stories, the children, the meals, the cleaning, the mending, the tending, the healing.  The hills also sheltered 105 farmers and day laborers, 5 shoemakers, 4 carpenters,3 merchants, 2 clerks, 3 seamstresses, 2 millers, 2 stonemasons, 2 stonecutters, 2 washerwomen, a shinglemaker, a chairmaker, a cattle drover, a physician, a blacksmith, and a coal miner.  All but two families were white, and all but twelve residents were born in Pennsylvania.  Most everyone could read and write.  The township’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of the merchants and three farming families: the Lantzes, the Gerards and the clan of John P. and Isabella Minor.  

John Pierson (Pearson) subscribed to the Waynesburg Messenger,  an instrument of the Democratic Party.  Shared among the extended family, the pages were no doubt well thumbed; the articles frequent sources of conversation and debate. Greene County voters had handed the county to the pro-slavery Southern Democrat, John C. Breckinridge, in the 1860 election.  

As the country staggered toward dissolution in 1861, Marion bought twelve head of cattle from Philip Wolf for $140, and another three for $25.  A bit later he purchased one from John Ramer for $24.20. As Abraham Lincoln settled into the White House, F. Marion bought ten more head at $60.  

Throughout the summer of 1861, as volunteers formed companies and regiments and brigades, the Minors of Ceylon Lane farmed on.  Walnut and oak trees were felled for logs, planks and rafters; stable flooring, joists, and sills.  Stables were built, homes repaired; livestock bought, fed and sold.  Into the fall the family farmed.   John P. purchased 50 bushels of coal for $5.  John P. Junior and Olfred probably climbed the hill to the family schoolhouse when they could, and climbed trees to shake out nuts when they were asked. 

As the days folded into long nights, the Minor business of tending children and raising cattle continued to thrive. 

December the 24th 1861

This is to certify that I, Elias Slocum, waid for TB Martin and Dan Shore 42 hed of cattel sold to Pearson Minor the cattel was in a fair condition to when waid.  

                                    Elias Slocum, way master

On December 30, 1861 John P. Minor made one last entry in his business ledger:  Lindsey paid me $487.00.  

Farm on.

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The Cloak of Defeat: Friday’s Facing The War

Author’s Note:  What began as a mere dabbling into my family roots has become a robust investigation of my family history. Slowly the search has become centered on the lives, decisions and events of the Civil War era, 1850-1880, as they shaped the physical and mental landscape in which my grandparents and parents lived.  Here I repost an essay from last summer, in which I first grapple with how those past lives reached out to touch my childhood, my mental landscape.  

  The Dodson Farm, Mecklenburg County, Virginia

I am American by birth, Virginian by the grace of God.

And like many southern white children of the 1960’s I grew up in a culture that wore its defeat like a thick woolen cloak draped around one’s shoulders, adorned by the tales of our brave soldiers J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.  To be Virginian was to represent your family and your state with honor, as demonstrated by that great leader Robert E. Lee.  You may not believe in the cornerstone argument BUT you must honor your duty to the motherland and your family, and rise to their defense!

While the institution of slavery was mentioned, pro-slavery racism and its sibling Jim Crow segregation were not discussed.   Ever so subtly children inherited their parents’ mistrust and loathing of all things Yankee, and even with a Yankee mother I could not escape this net.

I remember walking the hall of my high school, surrounded by my black and white friends, laughing and taunting the plain clothes police officer lurking in the dark corner–present to protect any little white child from unruly mobs.  Discussing the latest desegregation violence in Boston, one of my gang cried,”Ain’t so easy, is it, Yankee Boy!”  We all hated the hypocrisy of the Yank, whose finger pointed to the South as the crucible of all American sin and never at himself, ignoring the seeds of racism within his factories, cities, and governments.

All this anti-Yankee sentiment persisted into my adult discussions of the Civil War, and I continued the tradition of defeat.  The Civil War was about states’ rights, far more than it was about slavery.  Most southerners didn’t even OWN slaves, and many who did were right kind to them.  Yankees always think they are so moral and pure, but even they didn’t like free blacks and took drastic measures to ensure that freedom and liberty to the emancipated did not equate into white men’s jobs.  And so it was until I began my genealogical journey.

In census documents, deeds and wills, slavery became slaves–people that my people owned, like the trees they sold for lumber and the hogs they raised to butcher.  My people participated in one of history’s slave cultures, using the commodity of bonded labor to produce commodities like tobacco to be sold in a global economy.  To ignore the stories of slaves, even if they are only names found in documents, is to ignore black pioneering in the United States.  What is contained in my family’s papers, documents and stories will be shared whenever and wherever possible.

For me, it is time to drop the cloak of defeat, and be a true Virginian, honoring all the people who contributed to the development and promise of that state, and to all of these United States.


This Day in Family History: April 15

April 15.

A date burned into my brain by adrenaline and estrogen and progesterone, a hormone cocktail that pushed a new life into our world.

In 1864, my great-great-grandmother, Mary Jane Gwynne Minor lay in her child bed. Her birthing team may have included a sister-in-law, a midwife, or perhaps a doctor from nearby Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.  Her husband, Francis Marion,  and other three children would have been sent from the home, as modesty dictated.  At some moment, the brick farm house on Ceylon Lane was filled with the cries of the newborn son, and from that moment forward Mary Jane would remember April 15 as Leroy’s birthday.

Leroy Minor turned one April 15, 1865, joy for his reaching this milestone in childhood survival dampened by news of Abraham Lincoln’s death that very morning.  I wonder what Mary Jane thought of the war’s end, the president’s assasination, reconstruction’s beginning.  Living in a household of northern Democrats I doubt that there was much concern expressed for the Freedmen, or much thought directed toward policies of reconciliation.  The business of running the farm, raising children and supporting her husband’s cattle dealing would have been far more immediate than national politics and regional strife.

By year’s end slavery, a national disease, was abolished from the soil of the United States by constitutional amendment .  Mary Jane may not have paid much attention to this transformative moment, for her baby boy failed to thrive.

Little Leroy Minor died in February 1866.