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.

You have to read this!! – 1861:The Civil War Awakening

Growing up in southwestern Virginia I studied the War of Northern Aggression  American Civil War twice before leaving elementary school.  Book reports, timelines, war monuments, heroes’ homes, battlefields and class lectures were integral pieces of the Lost Cause/States’ Rights curriculum.  None of that childhood education or my recent family research prepared me for the chaos I found myself in among the pages of 1861: The Civil War Awakening.  Adam Goodheart has stripped away 150 years in this great narrative, sweeping the reader into the sights and sounds, the worry and the hope of that year in America.

The Union was a sentiment, but not much more.  ~Henry Adams 

Writing from his barracks inside the Capitol, Theodore Winthrop wrote a dispatch to  The Atlantic Monthly.  “Our presence here was the inevitable sequel of past events,” he wrote. “We appeared with bayonets and bullets because of the bosh uttered on this floor; because of the bills —  with treasonable stump-speeches in their bellies — passed here; because of the cowardice of the poltroons, the imbecility of the dodgers, and the arrogance of the bullies, who had here cooperated to blind and corrupt the minds of the people.  Talk had made a miserable mess of it.”

Goodheart’s account of this year deftly uses such original sources to construct character and narrative; it is a lively, compelling story of our country’s descent into the madness of fratricidal war.

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.

 

Follow Friday: The Museum of the Confederacy

Back when I was a kid, in the 1960s, every southern child learned about the yell, the high decibel, primal yell that rebel soldiers were reported to have uttered as they charged into the blue uniformed aggressors.  Speculation held that it sounded like a pack of wild men; the eerie screams stopped Yanks in their tracks, made them reconsider their positions and examine their reasons for fighting.  The Museum of the Confederacy in  Richmond, Virginia has a vodcast in which this mythic cry has been recreated–and it is indeed eerie, primal, menacing.  No wonder northern soldiers wrote home about it.

This site contains this clever reconstruction, as well as, several other short lectures covering subjects such as:  Mourning in Civil War America, Creativity in Captivity, Emancipation and the New Black Vote, Encouraging Hearts and Strengthening Hands.  Anyone attempting to understand the cultural transformations and political consequences of the Civil War will find this set of videos helpful.  Even if you are a Yankee. ;)