On Horizons

CW: Suicide attempt

I think of my 19th century ancestors’ lives as bound by the geography of their landscapes. What they observed out their front doors and across the lane framed their beliefs, thinking, their sense of opportunity.  The assembly of characters in their lives were tied by blood or marriage or business.  Their movements were limited by the health of feet or hooves, by mud or snow, by daily necessity. Matters and people beyond that home horizon were physically and emotionally distant.

Exceptions crop up, of course, like the Minor patriarch who drove hogs from southwestern Pennsylvania to market in Baltimore. And the family of Ira and Serena Sayles. Their mid-century children were born to the expanded horizon of intellectual communities in Alfred and Rushford, New York. Their horizons literally changed when the family relocated to Mecklenburg County, Virginia in 1870, the three boys coming of age in the midst of an industrial revolution and a national reconstruction.

The couple split up in 1872, estranged after a long-simmering dispute, perhaps over Ira’s inability to manage finances or perhaps over his condescending attitude toward women’s abilities. Ira returned to New York. Serena remained in Virginia. And the boys, Clifton, Merlin, and Christopher Sherman, traveled back and forth.

Clifton eventually settled into the red clay of Virginia, farming and raising a family that eventually included my grandmother Strickland.

Merlin died before he had a chance to settle down.

And Christopher Sherman? He seems to have been restless, searching horizons for a path to contentment. He lived as a laborer on a farm in Wellsville, New York, in 1880. He traveled with his geologist father, traipsing through Tennessee and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains collecting geological and paleontological specimens for the United States Geological Survey in the mid-1880s. Sherman received a share of the Virginia farm from Serena in 1885. And it appears that he abandoned that land, and went west to live with or around his Uncle Loren Sayles in Cullison, Kansas, in the 1890s.

For thirty-something Sherman, horizons were literally and figuratively broad. Something shattered my great-granduncle’s psyche, something that reduced the line where sky meets ground to only that which Sherman could see from the window of a Washington, D.C. insane asylum.

a little red highlight

I was using the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, to search digital copies of newspapers for anything “Sayles,” particularly for the Ira and Serena Sayles branch. By chance I clicked on a newspaper which had a longish red box indicating a possible “Ira Sayles” mention.

“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri”

Hmmm, I thought. This military reference tickled a memory, so I returned to my files to satisfy my intuition that Private Sayles was Christopher Sherman Sayles.

“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri attempted suicide yesterday afternoon at the 2nd Division Hospital”…Camp Alger, Virginia…June 30, 1898

I refined my search term to “Private Sayles” and returned multiple newspapers between June 30, 1898 and July 8, 1898 carrying the story, some with fuller accounts than others. A side search for “Camp Alger” and the “Third Missouri” sketched the details of Sherman’s shrinking world.

Even short wars leave victims

In 1898 the United States told Spain to get out of Cuba.  Spain said no. So the US declared war at the end of April.  

A bit of a dilemma for the Department of Defense, since as of April 1 of that year the American regular Army stood at 25,000 men to Spain’s global 400,000 men. President McKinley and Congress passed a Mobilization Act to which the country responded with patriotic fervor, adding over 125,000 men to the Army and Cavalry within weeks.  

Christopher Sherman Sayles, age 28, was one such young recruit.  He enlisted as a private with Company C, Third Missouri Regiment in Kansas City, Missouri, in early May, living in the city’s Armory until his regiment received orders to move out. At 6:00 pm Saturday, May 7 Colonel Gross marched his twelve companies, including one Private Sayles, from the Armory, down Thirteenth Street to Grand Avenue, where the regiment received a battleflag, and from there on down Eleventh to Main to the Union Station on Fifth. The enthusiastic troops boarded trains first to encamp in St. Louis and eventually to travel on to Dunn Loring Station, Virginia.  

Camp Alger

Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, 1898

The Third Missouri was part of wave of the untrained Second Division, Third Brigade of the Second Corps assembling at an overgrown estate, Woodburn Manor, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.. Trees were felled, grasses cut, and a canvas city erected in the Falls Church forest and fields. Christopher Sherman was one of thousands who marched, handled arms, ate, pooped, peed, and suffered ticks, lice, and mosquitos. And sometimes bathed. 

Camp Alger it was named, after the Secretary of Defense, Russell Alger.  Close to multiple railroads and blessed with multiple streams, the site was thought to be ideal for a training camp. However, that spring and summer Virginia was dry, empty-streambed dry.  Army engineers had to dig wells, and that took time.  Water for drinking and cooking had to be hauled in, and took priority over bathing. The undisciplined use of the woods as latrine additions added to the malodorous camp atmosphere. And when it finally rained, the forest “sanitation system” ran off into the wells. 

Typhoid was endemic at the time in the US, and many soldiers came to camp already exposed, and would have suffered anyway.  But the poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water accelerated the spread of the disease. 

It may be that Christopher Sherman entered  the Second Division Hospital with symptoms of typhoid at the end of June.  It is certain that on the night of June 29 Private Sayles was restless, and while the attendants and staff were busy elsewhere in the canvas-covered ward, Sherman acquired a penknife and cut his left wrist.  By the time medical providers arrived he had lost a large quantity of blood and was in critical condition.  Major Stunkard dressed the wound and arranged for Sherman’s transfer to the regular Army hospital at Fort Myer, Virginia, for continued observation.  

My great-granduncle’s suicide attempt was reported in newspapers throughout the country, particularly in the midwest. No article was published to tell what happened next; his treatment and attempted recovery was not news worthy to anybody but his family. None of this history got handed down to me.

what Grandma did say

Grandmother Strickland did relate that her father, Clifton Sayles, had a brother who enlisted in the peace time Army, that he died there, and was buried in the National Cemetery in Arlington.  The Spanish-American War was virtually over by the end of August 1898, before the Spanish could mobilize all its military might.  I suppose, then, that the Sayles family could have felt justified in telling neighbors and friends that Sherman was in the peacetime Army, that he died there, that he was buried in a national cemetery.  

But based on my research Christopher Sherman did not serve in a unit after that night in June 1898. He did remain in the care of the US Army, however, for the rest of his life, in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C., where he died November 19, 1903.  A government-issued headstone marks his grave in St. Elizabeth’s East Cemetery, Anacostia, Washington, D.C..  

I have requested help from the National Archives in obtaining Christopher Sherman’s medical records, if they still exist. I may never know any more than I do now.

But I find it important to pause, as our nation deals with the fallout of the Soleimani killing, the downing of a civilian airplane, the traumatic brain injuries of our service men and women, to remember that even a short war has consequences.

Horizons are contracted. Lives are lost. Minds are torn.


sources

He enlisted as a private: Kansas City Journal (Kansas City Missouri) 6 May 1898, p3; Newspapers, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/42846160. Accessed 23 Jan 2020.

Camp Alger: Anderson, Eric. “Camp Russell A. Alger, Falls Church, Virginia.” On Point, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 44–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26364238. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.

contaminated drinking water: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 30 June 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1898-06-30/ed-1/seq-2/>

Family tree facts

  • Christopher Sherman was the youngest child of Ira and Serena Sayles, born in 1862, while the family still lived in Alfred, Allegany County, New York.
  • Private Sayles served with the Third Missouri Regiment during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
  • Sherman (C.S.) was an inmate in the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. in 1900.
  • C.S. Sayles died in Washington, D.C. in 1903.

write with intention

When I began my genealogy blog ten years ago, the ‘sphere was fresh, unknown territory. The prospect of reaching an audience, even unidentified, was exhilarating. The possibility of attracting lost relatives and exchanging family records was intoxicating.

Blog posts flowed out regularly.

Comments and followers multiplied.

Cousins-many-times-removed shared stories, tips, maps, and letters.

Until one day I realized that my story cache, specifically Ira Sayles’ tales, didn’t fit a blog post format. And blogging was a chore, not a joy.

Time to reassess. How can Shoots, Roots, and Leaves function as a space of curiosity and joy, that complements the deeper dive I will be doing offline?

Not sure. Yet.

Leave your ideas and requests for future posts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

A Civil War Legacy Continues: Serena Sayles Makes A Claim

Ira Sayles died Friday, 15 June 1894, and was buried on the Sayles’ Mecklenburg County farm before the sun hovered on the western horizon that evening.

If you have ever served as executor of someone’s last wishes, then you know how incongruous the days following a death can feel. There are all the emotions roiling around loss–relief if the loved one was in pain, deep anxiety about what the person’s absence will mean about your future, regret over old arguments that will never get settled, and deep, grumbling, fumbling sadness. Then there are the legalities, specific steps that one’s mind must clearly, carefully execute.

Vulnerability. Precision. Do what must be done.


Serena and Ira were dependent on their son, Clifton, and as he stated in a letter supporting his father’s pension claim, “I myself am a poor man with a wife and several children to provide for.” The $8 a month that Ira received as a disability pension had been a welcome supplement to the family’s income. Was there some way that benefit could continue?

Vulnerability. Precision.

In the week following Ira’s burial, Serena contacted James Tanner, the Washington, D.C. lawyer who had successfully prosecuted Ira’s disability claim, and began the process of getting a Widow’s Pension based on Ira’s military service.

Who was James Tanner?

Serena Sayles used James Tanner as her legal counsel because Ira had. But how did Ira arrive at the Tanner law office in 1892?

Folks don’t know about him now, but during Reconstruction James Tanner was well known and well regarded as an outspoken advocate on behalf of disabled and elderly Union veterans. Mr. Tanner was himself a disabled vet, having had both legs shattered by a shell during the Second Battle of Bull Run. As a double amputee, Tanner reinvented himself as a stenographer for the War Department. He was assigned to Washington, D.C. and took down the initial first-hand accounts of Lincoln’s assassination in the very bedroom in which president lay dying.

The ambitious New Yorker subsequently studied law and held a variety of public service positions. But he was perhaps best known as a key figure in the fraternal veterans organizations, the Union Veteran Legion and the Grand Army of the Republic, which lobbied states and Congress for funds and facilities dedicated to helping veterans of the War of the Rebellion.

After serving briefly as Commissioner of Pensions in 1888, he dedicated his law practice in Washington, D.C. to helping veterans win claims against the federal government.

Tanner was resilient and shrewd; public speaking engagements kept him in front of veterans and their families, and strategically placed newspaper advertisements kept his pension business before the public.

Ira could have listened to Tanner address the D.C. encampment of the Union Veteran Legion, or perhaps read of the lawyer’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Union veterans, or seen the attorney’s advertisement. Ira was just one of thousands who put their trust in Tanner to prosecute a pension claim. And Serena followed suit.


Precision in Vulnerability

Ten days after Ira’s death Serena took a seat across from notary public N. H. Williams in a Chase City (VA) office. Williams transcribed her testimony into a form provided by James Tanner. She declared herself to be a widow of an old soldier of Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers, whom she had married in Whitesville, New York in April of 1845. Serena also attested that she was poor, living on her daily labor alone, with but a $15 per year income from renting her farm out. And she agreed to pay James Tanner $10 if her pension claim was granted.

Williams had two witnesses testify that Serena was who she said she was, and then mailed the form.

Two days later a clerk in the U.S. Pension Office placed an official stamp on her document and created claim No. 597.861. It would be three years before Serena’s file was considered complete and a decision rendered by the Commissioner of Pensions.


What factors affected the speed at which Tanner could work on this case? How did the country feel about military pensions? Did public sentiment affect Serena and her claim?

Notes

Mourning: The Death of Ira Sayles

On Friday morning, the 15th day of June of 1894, in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Ira Sayles was still but for the shallow movement of his chest. Outside, a mockingbird poured song into the sun-warmed house. His son Clifton and neighbor Joel E. Beales sat bedside by his wife, Serena. Anna, Clifton’s wife, and their children, Alice, Harold, Francis, and baby Gertrude, sheltered quietly nearby.

Ira–once a teacher and abolitionist, a soldier and poet, a geologist and paleontologist–passed on that day, in a house that he never called home, surrounded by family and neighbors who knew him as a stranger.

June is hot, humid, full-on-summery in southside Virginia. The body needed to be interred quickly.

Joel Beales and Henry R. Dodson, helped the family wash, dress, and shroud the remains in a sheet before placing it into a coffin. The neighbors then accompanied the Sayles to their family graveyard, where “they assisted to bury the coffin on the afternoon of the same day as his death.”

I wonder what sort of service, if any, took place that day, or whether a community funeral service was held at some later time. I wonder if the family’s neighbors delivered Brunswick stew, peach pie, tomato wedges, biscuits and ham for dinner that evening. I wonder if anyone stayed with the family over night. And I wonder if Serena in this hour of passing mourned her loss.

Source:

Pension files of the Act of June 27, 1890, Widow’s Pension #597.861 of Serena Sayles, General Affidavit of J.E. Beales and H.R. Dodson, 26 Nov 1894: National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Life Unwinding: Ira Sayles 1891-1893

As fine crystals frosted the window panes of his Ithaca office that November 1891, the assistant paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey concentrated on the Devonian fossils arrayed before him. Ira Sayles–Darwin doubter, writer of meter and rhyme, observer of chipmunks and turkey vultures, thinker of deep thoughts–prepared the season’s specimens under the supervision of Cornell University professor, Henry S. Williams, for shipment to the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

The 74 year old’s labeling and packing of the year’s field work was disrupted by a “stroke of paralysis” which left him weak and tremulous, particularly in his right hand. Nonetheless Ira carried on his duties for the Survey and returned to his Washington, D.C. apartment at 213 9th Street. His winter commute was but a short block north to the National Museum, headquarters for the Geological Survey. Each day he summoned the intellectual acumen of which he was so proud, and joined the team analyzing field notes and fossil specimens to discover the “bearing and distribution of faunas on the history of the elevation of the eastern half of the North American continent.

Ira Sayles lived at 213 9th Street, a block south of the National Museum in 1889-1891.

Real Estate Platt Book of Washington, DC, Volume 2, 1893, by G.M. Hopkins and Company: digitally accessed at DC Public Library (https://digdc.dclibrary.org) 28 Aug 2019.

Ira’s health deteriorated with the deepening of the District’s winter.

On the 24th of February 1892, Ira’s boss, Chief Paleontologist Charles D. Walcott, alerted the Sayles family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia that Ira was “lying dangerously ill at Providence hospital, this city.” What, asked Professor Walcott, did his wife and son want to do with his body in the event of his death?


Ira didn’t give them a chance to make that decision. He left the hospital with or without medical advice, resigned from the US Geological Survey, and set out for home.

One could be forgiven for anticipating that Ira took his frail body to Southside Virginia, to sit on the porch of his family’s farmhouse, to listen to wind-brushed pine needles and drink deeply of the curative Buffalo Lithia Spring Water bottled locally.

But Ira had rarely visited Chase City since the estrangement from Serena in 1872. For a decade afterward Professor Sayles had bounced from one New York academy to another, until he had received an appointment to the Geological Survey in 1883 by former student-cum-Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller. As a geologist/paleontologist Ira had split his homecomings between apartments in Ithaca, New York, and Washington, D.C., with an occasional visit to the farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

So, from that Providence Hospital bed, Ira rose to board trains and coaches not through Virginia’s Piedmont, but through the Appalachian Mountains. During the first two weeks of March 1892 Ira traveled to south central Kansas with the intention of making his home with his younger brother Loren, a prominent citizen and water works engineer in Greensburg. The visit lasted long enough for Ira to celebrate his 75th birthday in April and to witness Loren’s purchase of the Rubart house on East Florida Street in May. But the sibling time proved temporary. In mid-July, wheat fields waved farewell as Ira headed back east.


Unemployed and unemployable, the elderly Sayles had one option for continued independence in Washington–apply for a pension under the Congressional Act of June 27, 1890. This legislation made funds available to soldiers and sailors who had served at least 90 days during the War of the Rebellion, had been honorably discharged, and who found themselves permanently unable to do manual labor because of disability not caused by vicious habits like alcoholism or STDs. Ira’s service with Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and his permanent debilitation from the strokes made for a good claim.

On August 2, 1892 Ira Sayles filed the first piece of paperwork through Washington, D.C. attorney James Tanner. Nine days later the former paleontologist walked from his apartment up 9th Street, past the National Museum, across The Mall to the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on the corner of B and 6th Streets, where he succumbed to the heat and humidity. Whatever his destination, the trip was postponed while he recovered in the Washington, D.C. Emergency Hospital and then recuperated with his friend and colleague, Dr. Revere Randolf Gurley in Carlins Springs, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.


In early October Ira picked up where he left off, and submitted to a physical examination by the pension board’s physicians, Drs. J.W. Little and C.A. Davis. They described him as a 5 ft 8 in, 175 pound, somewhat emaciated, pale man with flabby muscles. They noted that the history of apoplexy caused a loss of power in his right hand, which left Ira tremulous and unable to button all his clothing.

The doctors also noted a right inguinal hernia, which was “readily returnable and easily restrained by truss”, a diagnosis they believed entitled Ira to a 10/18 rating for disability. A secondary diagnosis of a irritable, weak heart was also reason to rate Ira for disability.

“He is evidently debilitated. To some extent.”


With that step completed, Ira retired to the rolling landscape along Butchers Creek, in the care of his son, Clifton.

The first quarter of 1892 was unusually cold, setting farm work and schedules 10 days to a month behind. That delay may have provided time for Clifton to pursue the arduous application process. In March Clifton reached out to James Tanner, the attorney Ira had hired to prosecute his claim. Having established that his father was completely unable to care for himself or to travel to Washington to gather the necessary testimony, Clifton received the necessary documents to pursue the claim from Chase City.

In the following weeks, Ira filed a General Affidavit testifying to his hernia. A local doctor, H. L. Burwell, completed a medical affidavit that Ira was “totally unable to perform manual labor, and that he was suffering general disability resulting of old age, and an inguinal hernia on his right side.” And a J. M. Sloan, who had been acquainted with Ira for 15 years, gave a Neighbor’s Affidavit to affirm that Ira was who he said he was, that his habits were good, that he was “almost totally helpless, so much so, that doesn’t go about at all.”

“It is impossible to get further testimony here as he has not been here but a few months.”

“This is his home and he visits us occasionally.”

Military records, physician exams, general statements, letters, and neighbor’s affidavit slowly piled up in Ira’s file. As the claim was reviewed by Pension Board of Review requests for clarification and additional evidence were made; the family complied. The cold spring was followed by summer days when temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Summer crops were appearing on dinner tables when finally Ira’s invalid pension was approved on August 4, 1893, retroactive to the date of first application August 3, 1892.

Eight dollars a month was not nearly what he had earned as an employee with the Geological Survey, but it was a useful stipend for the care he received in his son’s home until his death just 10 months later.

The story of the pension does not end in June 1894.

For though Serena and Ira’s marriage appeared strained, and strange, they were husband and wife. During the summer of 1894, James Tanner and J. M. Sloan would once again find themselves party to a Sayles declaration for a pension.

Who was J. M. Sloan and what was his relationship to Serena that he went to bat for the Serena’s Widow Pension? Next time on Shoots, Roots, and Leaves.


Sources

Pension files of Ira and Serena Sayles, #1124613 and #597.981, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

Newspapers of the era discovered on Newspapers.com and Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov.)

United States Geological Survey Annual Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1890-1892, available in Google Books, and on U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse (https://pubs.er.usgs.gov)