Yesterday was Juneteenth and I am uncomfortable admitting that it was the first Juneteenth that I honored with reflection.
I mean, I knew about Juneteenth, but I didn’t KNOW Juneteenth. Didn’t make time to feel the deep hope of freedom that the day commemorated. Yesterday, ’cause this has BEEN A YEAR, I felt called to ponder.
I pondered the role my ancestors played in perpetuating the cycle of enslavement. Strickland. Stone. Stallings. Coppedge. May. Green. Rowlett. Dodson. So many wills, probate documents, and tax records. So many traces of Lucys, Reubens, and Armisteads deliberately obscured from my family story.
I pondered my role in perpetuating the erasure of my “cousins by consequence.” *
I reread the “full disclosure” posts I have written in the past about ancestral enslavement with my shoulders hunched, face scrunched. The tone makes me cringe. My white saviorism is on full display. I am embarrassed. I don’t know the right way to share this information. When is it my story to tell?
I hesitate to return to this work.
But that is what racism looks like, isn’t it? Silence of white folks.
So I make a promise this Juneteenth to walk the journey of discomfort, to tell the full family story. And I hope that folks will participate with me in the comments, to hold me accountable when the tone is off, or share when the story resonates; to find joy when a clue is dropped or ask a question when the digging can go deeper.
In early February I tracked Christopher Sherman Sayles, my great-grandfather’s youngest brother, to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental asylum for the residents of the District of Columbia and for the veterans of the US armed forces.
Sherman had enlisted in April 1898 with Company C, Third Missouri Volunteers, Second Division, Second Corps, swept up by the nation’s patriotic fervor to drive Spain from the hemisphere. With his regiment, Private Sayles traveled to the training facility at Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, and by mid-June was a patient in the Second Division Hospital.
On the night of June 29 Sherman attempted suicide. The thirty-six year old man was transferred to the medical facility at Fort Myer, Virginia, and ultimately admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the District of Columbia, where he died in 1903.
I sent a query to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the repository for remaining hospital files. Was it possible that a health record for a Private Christopher Sherman Sayles, Third Missouri, existed among those stored in Record Group 418, Records of St. Elizabeth Hospital?
Sixty-five pages of YES!
My request for a reproduction of the contents of Box #184 is currently being serviced and if the archivists’ schedule is typical ONLY
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.
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.
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!
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?
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?