Sweat beaded across the brows of the Third Missouri Volunteers as they marched the mile and a half from Dunn Loring Station to Camp Alger, Virginia in late May of 1898. Sherman Sayles, newly enlisted private, was older than most of his mates, but no less determined to become a military man. He, along with the rest of his regiment, felt his blood boil with patriotic fervor and determination to drive the Spanish out of Cuba, all the way back to Spain.
The Third Missouri presented as a ragtag bunch, civilians wearing civilian day wear with perhaps a cap or shirt to indicate a military unit. Once the companies arrived at the site of Camp Alger they set to work. With regiments from across the United States, they transformed overgrown fields and dense forest into a town of tents and drill fields. Once Sherman and his mates constructed the essential buildings–kitchens, mess tents, headquarters, hospital, latrines, sleeping quarters–endurance and discipline training became decidedly military. Packs shouldered, the men were ordered to march for miles out from camp, take a quick break, and march back. Medics would haul men back to camp if they succumbed to the heat or fatigue. Eventually weapons drills were added to their daily routine, and sham battles became regular occurrences.
Though there was water for cooking and a bit of washing up, sources in the immediate camp were not sufficient to support bathing of the 26,000 men that assembled on those grounds. So regiments rotated drill marches with a 7 mile march to the Potomac River, for a bit of hygienic R and R.
The record doesn’t indicate just when Sherman Sayles suffered a head injury in that first month. He could have been struck by a falling tree as land was cleared. Or he could have fallen while fooling around or bathing in the Potomac River. Or been hit in the head through some flukey accident during a drill.
But by the middle of June Sherman Sayles occupied a cot in the camp’s Second Division Hospital, restless, agitated, frequently suffering from acute headaches. Private James Lake, medical attendant for Sayles’ ward, was on hand the night of June 29.
At around 10:00 pm that summer evening, Sherman complained of a headache to the night nurse, who notified Lake. While Private Lake went to the dispensary to mix some morphine, Private Sayles pulled out a penknife and sliced open his left wrist. Fellows in nearby cots yelled, and someone ran to retrieve Private Lake. By the time Lake and the attending surgeon, Major Stunkard, got cot-side, Sherman had lost a great deal of blood.
The wound was tended, and by morning Major Stunkard pronounced the soldier out of danger, physically. A note found during the night’s commotion gave the doctor pause.
“I would rather die by Spanish bullets than like this. Those who have falsely sworn my life away shall reap the most of it in the Judgement Day.”
Clearly Sherman Sayles needed further care, care that tended to his mental health as well as his physical well being. Stunkard transferred the soldier to the hospital at Fort Myers (Virginia) where further evaluation determined that Sayles required intensive therapy.
As quickly as orders could trickle through bureaucracy Sherman was transferred across the Potomac to the Government Asylum for the Insane, locally known as St. Elizabeths Hospital, in southeast Washington, D.C. The hospital was built on land overlooking the Anacostia River, giving patients, employees, and visitors alike stunning views of the District and Alexandria. Superintendent William Godding had been in charge of the facility for decades developing its national reputation for the respectful, cutting-edge treatment of the District’s indigent insane and the military’s mentally ill soldiers and sailors.
On July 5th, 1898 Sherman Sayles walked across the campus of St. Elizabeths under the shade of red oaks, silver maples and tulip trees, past vegetable and ornamental gardens, and chicken houses and pigeon coops. He climbed up the steps of a three-story brick building, crossed its white-trimmed porch and entered Oak Hall. A nurse guided the 36-year-old to a large room brightly lit by enormous windows. Beds lined the walls, each with its own privacy screen. From this crowded ward Sherman Sayles, my great-granduncle, would begin his treatment for acute suicidal melancholia.
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.
Private James Lake: “Camp Life by James Lake,” The Bedford Weekly Mail (Bedford, Indiana), 08 July 1898, p. 4; digitally accessed from Newspaper.com (https://www.newspaper.com), 2020.
St. Elizabeths Hospital: “The Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital at the National Archives,” Frances M. McMillen and James S. Kane, Prologue Magazine, Institutional Memory, Summer 2010, Vol. 42, No. 2; digitally accessed at the National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/summer/institutional.html), 12 Feb 2021.
Sherman Sayles: Christopher Sherman Sayles, QO1-563669951, St. Elizabeths Hospital (Washington, D.C.) patient record, Case number 10778, created 1898-1903; copy from National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., received February 2020.