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.

Transcript Tuesday: General Affidavit in the Widow’s Pension Application of Serena C. Sayles, 1894

GENERAL AFFIDAVIT

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

In the matter of the application for pension of Mrs. Serene (sic) C. Sayles Widow of the late Ira Sayles

ON THIS 30thday of July , A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety-four, personally appeared before me, a Notary Public in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths, J.M. Sloan, aged 60 years, a resident of Chase City in the county of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia whose Postoffice address is Chase City Va, and M.V.B. Webb aged 58 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia whose Postoffice address is Chase City VA well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who being sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows:

Mrs. S. C. Sayles owns a small plantation, worth some #300.00 the rent of which amounts to $20.00 per annum. Which amount barely pays the taxes on same farm.  There is no other income whatever, which she receives, and no other property or source of income. 

And we further certify that the above statement was written by N.H. Williams in our presence and only from oral statements made to him on this 30thof July 1894 at chase City, Va. And in making this above statement I did not use, and I was not aided or prompted by any written or printed statement or recital prepared or dictated by any one other person and not attached as an exhibit to this testimony. 

We further declare that we have no interest in said case, and are not concerned in tis prosecution. 

Signed

J.M. Sloan

M.V.B. Webb

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

Sworn to and subscribed before me this day by the above-named affiants and I certify that I read said affidavit to the said affiants including the words _____ erased, and the words _____ added, and acquainted them with its contents before they executed the same.  I further certify that I am in nowise interested in said case, nor am I concerned in its prosecution; and that said affiant are personally know to me and that they are credible persons.

Signed 

N. H. Williams

Notary Public

NOTE.—-This may be sworn to before a Clerk of Court, Notary Public, Justice of the peace, or any officer who has the right to administer an oath. 



Widow’s Pension Application 597.861, Serena C. Sayles, General Affidavit of J.M. Sloan and M.V.B. Webb, 30 July 1894. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Transcript Tuesday: General Affidavit in the Widow’s Pension Application of Serena C. Sayles, 1894

General Affidavit 

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, 

In the matter of the application for pension of Mrs. Serena C. Sayles widow of the late Ira Sayles 

ON THIS 4thday of July, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety four, personally appeared before me, a Notary Public in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths, J. M. Sloan, aged 60 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia, whose Postoffice address is Chase City, Va, and M.V.B. Webb, aged 58 years, a resident of Chase City, in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Virginia whose Postoffice address is Chase City, Virginia, well known to me to be respectable and entitled to credit, and who being duly sworn, declare in relation to the aforesaid case as follows:

They have personally known the said Serene (sic) C. Sayles , widow of the late Ira Sayles, for some twenty years. She was never married to any one(sic) else besides Ira Sayles. She was lawful wife until his death. Ira Sayles died near Chase City, Virginia, on the 14thday of June 1894. Mrs. Serene (sic) C. Sayles has never married since the death of her late husband. They further certify that both of them have known the applicant in such manner that they would have known it if she had married again, since the death of Ira Sayles.  Mrs. Serene (sic) C. Sayles is in very dependent circumstances and unable to support herself, except by her daily labor, which is her only means of support. 

And we further certify that the above statement was written by N. H. Williams, in our presence and only from oral statements made to him on this 4thday of July 1894, at Chase City, Virginia, and in making this above statement, we did not use and we were not aided or prompted by any written or printed statement or recital, prepared or dictated by any other person and not attached as an exhibit to this testimony. 

We further declare that we have no interest in said case, and are not concerned in its prosecution. 

Signed

J.M. Sloan, late Capt. Co K.O.V.I

M.V.B. Webb

State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

Sworn to and subscribed before me this day be the above-named affiants, and I certify that J.M. Sloan read said affidavit to the said affiants including the words ____erased, and the words ____added, and acquainted them with its contents before they executed the same.  I further certify that I am in nowise interested in said case, nor am I concerned in its prosecution; and that said affiants are personally known to me and that they are credible persons.  

Signed

W. H. Williams, Notary Public

Note.–This may be sworn to before a Clerk of Court, Notary Public, Justice of the Peace, or any officer who has the right to administer an oath. 



  • General Affidavit in the Pension Claim #597.861 of Serena C. Sayles, widow of Ira Sayles, Soldier’s Certificate #859591; National Archives, Washington, D.C.