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Maps Sayles Surnames

His Future Was Not Yet Written

Shortly after my father died I began to search for his ancestors, my ancestors. Within a couple of years I had masses of information about Ira Sayles, my dad’s mother’s grandfather, including a one-line reference in The Alfred (NY) Sun obituary of one George Parker.

A little later [George Parker] was brought north by Prof. Sayles.

The Alfred Sun (Alfred, New York), June 4, 1902

Research into those words revealed a story of serendipity.

Murfreesboro, North Carolina, 1863

George Parker was a young black man, 18 to 20 years old, who sought refuge from slavery in the cabins of Uniontown, a contraband camp outside the Union stronghold in Suffolk, Virginia. He arrived as part of a small group of refugees from Murfreesboro, North Carolina in early 1863 after Lincoln’s promised emancipation proclamation became reality.

Murfreesboro was an important antebellum town not far from the Virginia border situated on the Meherrin River, a tributary of the Chowan River which flowed into the Albemarle Sound. By the fall of 1862 its shops and academies had been appropriated by the Confederate cavalry for barracks, commissaries, and stables; a Union boat sat down river guarding the way to the coast.

That fall, across the North Carolina border, soldiers–including those commanded by my great-great-grandfather, Captain Ira Sayles–regularly marched out of Camp Suffolk to the Blackwater and Nottoway Rivers, streams just to the north and east of Murfreesboro, foraging and engaging in skirmishes with “secesh” troops.

By the time George Parker and his fellow refugees made their way in wintry conditions past skittish pickets and irate slave-catchers into the pine cabins of Uniontown my ancestor Ira was too ill to carry his officer’s sword.

So how, then, did Ira and George begin a collaboration culminating in George Parker’s lifelong residence in Alfred, New York?

Uniontown (above right hand corner)

and Camp Suffolk, 1863

My great-great-grandpa was an exceptional teacher by all accounts, equal parts demanding, unrelenting, and encouraging.

Ira Sayles also had a long history as an abolitionist. In the fall of 1850 he organized his Alfred colleagues, neighbors, and family in resisting the Fugitive Slave Act, declaring in a published op-ed that they would refuse to cooperate with any enforcement of the act “even unto death.” In the summer of 1862 he once again organized these folks, exhorting fellow able-bodied men to answer President Lincoln’s call for 300, 000 volunteers, and enlisted himself at the age of 44.

Captain Sayles was an acknowledged leader in his community because of his brain, not his brawn. And though his heart and soul longed to be part of the moral defeat of the Confederacy, his body was not able to endure the physical privations and disease of camp life.

The muster rolls for January and February of 1863–the time period I suspect George Parker arrived in Camp Suffolk’s Uniontown–indicate that Captain Sayles was too unwell to report for military duty.

But perhaps not so ill that he couldn’t teach.

A convalescing Sayles may have walked from his hospital bed to the Uniontown school, lecturing, tutoring, assisting in the classroom tasks. Or perhaps Ira simply stayed in bed and tutored from his cot anyone who wanted to learn. Including young George.

It is hard to know who first recognized the potential in the relationship. Ira knew he had to resign, that he couldn’t wield his sword against the “insolent foe.” As the teacher-soldier was digesting this bitter pill, perhaps George expressed a desire to move on, out of the crowded camp, away from the disease and constant threat of re-enslavement. And perhaps Ira proposed that the young man travel, not just to another contraband camp, but to New York, to a community of farmers and educators invested in the freedom of the formerly enslaved.

He came north.

George and Ira crossed paths, just in time, as one was arriving in camp, and one was preparing to depart. They found each other by pure serendipity.

Ira received his honorable discharge February 25, 1863. Shortly thereafter, they traveled by boat–one middle-aged white dude, one very young black man–down the Nansemond River to the Chesapeake Bay, on up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. There they caught a series of trains to Alfred Station, disembarking to lead very separate lives.

George Parker came north with Professor Sayles, his future not yet written.


Epilogue

George Parker spent the rest of his life in Allegany County, New York, a welcomed member of the town of Alfred. Student, farmer, friend, husband, father. He died in 1902, leaving the farm he purchased on the edge of town to the Alfred University community that embraced him.

The Alfred Sun (Alfred, New York), June 4, 1902; accessed digitally from Old Fulton New York Post Cards (fultonhistory.com) 5 April 2021.


Murfreesboro, North Carolina: Confederate States Of America. Army. Dept. Of Northern Virginia. Chief Engineer’S Office, Campbell, A. H. & Cassell, C. E. (1863) Map of Hertford and part of Northampton and Bertie counties, N.C.: surveyed under the direction of A.H. Campbell, Capt. of Engineers & Ch’f. Topog’l Dep’t N.D. Va. [S.l.: Chief Engineer’s Office, D.N.V] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00323/.

Camp Suffolk, Virginia: Allen, O. S. (1863) Map of the siege of Suffolk, Va. [S.l.: s.n] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00399/.

A terrific read on the process of emancipation and the role of contraband camps: Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning, Vintage Books: New York, 2016.

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Sayles Transcriptions

On This Day: The Discharge of Captain Ira Sayles

Winter SkyAs the sun set one hundred fifty years ago, Ira Sayles glumly faced life as a civilian. The New York abolitionist had enlisted in the summer of 1862, joining Alfred neighbors and friends in forming Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers.  Their first deployment was in Portage Station, New York, to be issued uniforms and weapons, and to elect company officers.  Private Ira became 1st Lieutenant Sayles.  The regiment traveled by train, their early legs through Williamsport and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania lined by cheering children and flag-waving townsfolk.  A brief stop in Washington, D.C. was followed by passage down the Potomac, into the Chesapeake Bay, to Fort Monroe.  The soldiers, by and by, found themselves in the September humidity of southeastern Virginia, eight miles from the North Carolina border, and just mosquito-wings distance from the Great Dismal Swamp.  Camp Suffolk would soon surround the southern town of Suffolk, with earthen forts, trenches, and rifle pits.

The recruits of the 130th NY Volunteer  infantry were unseasoned soldiers, and days of shoveling red clay were followed by nights of marching.  Footsore, hungry and often wet, the companies would return from their Blackwater River escapades without having fired a shot.  By the end of September the regiment began losing soldiers to the diseases of the swamp.  And 1st Lieutenant Sayles was elected Captain to fill one such resignation.

From the Family Records of Sharon Babcock.  THANK YOU!

Captain Ira Sayles was proud to wear the officer’s sword, and to marshal the energies and courage of his men.  After all the pre-war public-speaking, after all the furtive dealings along the local Underground Railroad, Ira must have found the actual participation in slavery’s eradication a seductive reason to endure all the trials and horrors of the war.

Unfortunately, Ira’s forty-six year old body rebelled against the prolonged exposure, manual labor, and sleep deprivation.  By January, Ira Sayles, suffering from chronic debilitating pain, reported for a hospital cot instead of picket duty.  At length,  as it became evident that Ira’s passion could not overcome the frailties, his regiment’s physician, B. T. Kneeland, wrote these words :

February 19th. 1863

I certify that I have carefully examined Capt. Ira Sayles of Co. H, 130th N.Y. Vol’s. and find him incapable of performing the duties of his position, because of rheumatic disease induced in my opinion by frequent and long continued exposure and fatigue, in performing the duties of his office.  

Surely a long, sleepless night followed the examination.  The next day, after sharpening a fresh goose feather quill, Ira dipped deep into his abolitionist soul to find these words:

Sir,

I have the honor hereby to tender my Resignation of the Captaincy of Company H of the 130 Regiment, New York State Volunteers, which post I now hold.

It is with unfeigned regret, that I find myself compelled to take this step during the continuance of my country’s imminent peril; but the labors, the exposures, and the watchings of the past six months’ service here, have made such inroads on my health, that it is evident I can no longer perform the severe duties of a Captain of Infantry, either creditably to myself, or effectively for my country.  In such case, honor and patriotism alike demand, that the sword I am no longer able to wield with due energy, I resign to stronger hands.  (Please find Surgeon’s Certificate enclosed.)

Praying for my country’s Early and Honorable Peace through Victory over her Insolent Foes,

I have the Honor to be, Sir, Very Respectfully Your Most Obd’t Serv’t,

Ira Sayles

One last time, Ira proudly added:

Capt. Comd’g Co. H., 130 Reg’t., N.Y.S.Vols.

By February 26, Ira would have received notice. Special Order No. 55 had been issued by Head Quarters, Department of Virginia, Seventh Army Corps, Fort Monroe, Virginia:

The following named officers having tendered their resignations are honorably discharged from the military service of the United States

Capt. Ira Sayles 130th Reg. N.Y.Vols. on account of ill health.

By command of Maj Genl. Dix

The sun set that February night on a civilian Ira Sayles.