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.
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.
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.