As the sun set one hundred fifty years ago, Ira Sayles glumly faced life as a civilian. The New York abolitionist had enlisted in the summer of 1862, joining Alfred neighbors and friends in forming Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers. Their first deployment was in Portage Station, New York, to be issued uniforms and weapons, and to elect company officers. Private Ira became 1st Lieutenant Sayles. The regiment traveled by train, their early legs through Williamsport and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania lined by cheering children and flag-waving townsfolk. A brief stop in Washington, D.C. was followed by passage down the Potomac, into the Chesapeake Bay, to Fort Monroe. The soldiers, by and by, found themselves in the September humidity of southeastern Virginia, eight miles from the North Carolina border, and just mosquito-wings distance from the Great Dismal Swamp. Camp Suffolk would soon surround the southern town of Suffolk, with earthen forts, trenches, and rifle pits.
The recruits of the 130th NY Volunteer infantry were unseasoned soldiers, and days of shoveling red clay were followed by nights of marching. Footsore, hungry and often wet, the companies would return from their Blackwater River escapades without having fired a shot. By the end of September the regiment began losing soldiers to the diseases of the swamp. And 1st Lieutenant Sayles was elected Captain to fill one such resignation.
Captain Ira Sayles was proud to wear the officer’s sword, and to marshal the energies and courage of his men. After all the pre-war public-speaking, after all the furtive dealings along the local Underground Railroad, Ira must have found the actual participation in slavery’s eradication a seductive reason to endure all the trials and horrors of the war.
Unfortunately, Ira’s forty-six year old body rebelled against the prolonged exposure, manual labor, and sleep deprivation. By January, Ira Sayles, suffering from chronic debilitating pain, reported for a hospital cot instead of picket duty. At length, as it became evident that Ira’s passion could not overcome the frailties, his regiment’s physician, B. T. Kneeland, wrote these words :
February 19th. 1863
I certify that I have carefully examined Capt. Ira Sayles of Co. H, 130th N.Y. Vol’s. and find him incapable of performing the duties of his position, because of rheumatic disease induced in my opinion by frequent and long continued exposure and fatigue, in performing the duties of his office.
Surely a long, sleepless night followed the examination. The next day, after sharpening a fresh goose feather quill, Ira dipped deep into his abolitionist soul to find these words:
I have the honor hereby to tender my Resignation of the Captaincy of Company H of the 130 Regiment, New York State Volunteers, which post I now hold.
It is with unfeigned regret, that I find myself compelled to take this step during the continuance of my country’s imminent peril; but the labors, the exposures, and the watchings of the past six months’ service here, have made such inroads on my health, that it is evident I can no longer perform the severe duties of a Captain of Infantry, either creditably to myself, or effectively for my country. In such case, honor and patriotism alike demand, that the sword I am no longer able to wield with due energy, I resign to stronger hands. (Please find Surgeon’s Certificate enclosed.)
Praying for my country’s Early and Honorable Peace through Victory over her Insolent Foes,
I have the Honor to be, Sir, Very Respectfully Your Most Obd’t Serv’t,
One last time, Ira proudly added:
Capt. Comd’g Co. H., 130 Reg’t., N.Y.S.Vols.
By February 26, Ira would have received notice. Special Order No. 55 had been issued by Head Quarters, Department of Virginia, Seventh Army Corps, Fort Monroe, Virginia:
The following named officers having tendered their resignations are honorably discharged from the military service of the United States
Capt. Ira Sayles 130th Reg. N.Y.Vols. on account of ill health.
By command of Maj Genl. Dix
The sun set that February night on a civilian Ira Sayles.