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.


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 for Pension Claim of Serena C. Sayles, 27 August 1895


State of Virginia, County of Mecklenburg, ss:

In the matter of the application for pension of Mrs. Serena C. Sayles, widow of Ira Sayles, Co. H. 130. Regt. N.Y. Inf.

On this 27thday of August, A.D. one thousand eight hundred and ninety-five, personally appeared before me, a Notary in and for the aforesaid County, duly authorized to administer oaths J.M. Sloan, aged 64 years, a resident of Chase City in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va. Whose Post-office address is Chase City and M.V.B. Webb, aged 57 years, a resident of Chase City Va in the County of Mecklenburg and State of Va whose post-office address is Chase City Va 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:

From the Records.

190 acres of land Value $570

Personal property              50/ $620

Taxes –                               $7.00

The income from said land for several years has barely paid the taxes, and she has no other income.  In order to eke out an uncertain existence, she has to resort to selling a little timber, but even that resource will soon be exhausted. We deem her case both worthy and urgent. 

Can’t see how she keeps body and soul together. 

If she was not too proud, would, no doubt ask help of her neighbors. Her land is mostly Old Field pines, poor and almost worthless. We hope she may soon be helped, by her Government that owes the debt, because fro services of her husband, now deceased.

We have made the foregoing statement without suggestion or dictation from any one. 

We don’t think her land would bring $250- if sold today. 

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


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 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. 


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. 

Entered into the Pension Office files by James Tanner, Attorney at Law, Washington, D.C., 30 Aug 1895.

Serena’s Lament

Great-great-grandparents Serena and Ira Sayles were married in April of 1845, in Alfred, New York, but spent much of their lives from 1862 until 1894 separated by the demands of a post-war nation. Throughout their marriage Ira was an amateur geologist, and his last decade was spent traveling up and down the east coast for the United States Geological Survey, based out of Washington, D.C., while Serena remained on the Virginia farm with son Clifton. Ira returned to Serena–to die.  The following passage prompted my poem:

Mr. J. E. Beales states that he was present with Ira Sayles on June 15th, 1894. Saw him die. J.E. Beales and Henry R. Dodson both state that they viewed the remains after death. They both assisted to shroud or prepare his remains for burial, and they both were present at his burial. They assisted to place his remains into the coffin and both assisted to bury same, on the afternoon of same day of his death which was June 15th 1894.

General Affidavit,                                                                             Civil War Widow’s Pension application of Serena Sayles               26 November 1894

Serena’s Lament

I said it.
At least I’ll know where you are after this good bye.

Seems all I did was watch you leave;
What chased you?
What caught you?
Did you feel my gaze lingering on your back,
Hope for your return dangling like a loose thread from your coat?

Off you went. Traipsing over rocks,
Winding up mountains,
Climbing down caves.
Chips and chunks of earth filling your sack,
Specimens retrieved, categorized, classified, analyzed, theorized
Among names that never
Included mine.
The shroud gathers round your empty frame,
Takes you, a specimen,
To the red red iron-fed soil
Of this land.
Now you will be categorized, classified and analyzed
By its souls.

And my eyes will linger on your back no more.

The Chase (City): Part Four

This is the fourth post from a series originally published a year ago on blogspot, dkaysdays.

The next step to receiving a pension required Ira Sayles to submit to an exam by government approved doctors, a Surgeon’s Board. The report of October 5, 1892 indicates that Ira was seen by two of its three members in Washington,DC:

Dr. Hood, President, was absent,

JW. Little, Secretary

CA Davis, Treasurer

From the chart’s history come details that help us in 2009 visualize this elderly man, our ancestor. He was 5’8″, 175 pounds, with a heart rate of 84 and respirations of 20 per minute. His age, curiously, was listed as 65 years. Someone later reviewing the chart had written in 75?

Claimant is somewhat emaciated, pale with flabby muscles. Claims to have suffered from an attack of apoplexy one year ago.which has left him weak with loss of power in right hand. We find no lesion of special sense, no motor or sensory lesion, yet he is tremulous and he says unable to button all his clothing. He is evidently debilitated. to some extent.

Is the subject of right indinch? inguinal hernia, soc of which having passes through external ring is found lying beneath the integuments and is about size of a hen’s egg. It is bodily returnable and easily retrained? by truss. Rate Ten Eighteenths

The heart is irritable and weak and we find a distinct mitral systolic ? but no hypertrophy. No aortic disease. Rate Six Eighteenths.

No other disability

No evidence of vicious habits.

This former Union soldier was, in their opinion, entitled to a 10/18 rating for the disability caused by the Inguinal Hernia, 6/18 for that caused by Disease of the Heart and nothing for anything else.

By the end of 1892 it appears that Ira finally resided in Chase City, Virginia.  I see a man, once independent and adventuresome, a hiker and scientist, an urban dweller, now confined to a chair on a farm in very rural Virginia, tended by people he had rarely visited. He was lucky, some would say, to have had a son take him in.

In his letter of March 1893 to Attorney James Tanner, Clifton urges action on the pension, for he is a ” poor man with a wife and several children to provide for; otherwise I would advise my father to take no further steps in the matter. He is however, most certainly entitled to a pension (under the act of June 1890) and he just as certainly needs it. . .”

I would wager that, far from feeling welcomed, Ira felt beholding and a burden to this relative-stranger. Old age confers that fear on all of us, it seems, no matter what era we find ourselves living the human life.

The Chase (City): Part Three

Part three in a post originally published a year ago on blogspot, dkaysdays.

I imagine R.R. Gurley, face marked with concern, sitting by Ira’s bed as he recuperated from heat prostration in August 1892. What are you going to do? How will you take care of yourself? Have you thought about applying for a soldier’s pension?

To receive a pension per the Act of June 27, 1890 the Soldier’s Application states the soldier must have:
1. An honorable discharge (but the certificate need not be filed unless called for ).

2. A minimum service of ninety days.

3. A permanent physical disability not due to vicious habits. (It need not have originated in the service.)

4.The rates under the act are graded from $6 to $12, proportioned to the degree of inability to earn support, and are not affected by the rank held.

5. A pensioner under prior laws may apply under this one, or a pensioner under this one may apply under other laws, but he cannot draw more than one pension for the same period.

Before permitting his elderly friend to board the train to Chase City, I imagine a concerned Mr. Gurley obtaining the help of S.G. MacMaster and M. Holmes. Accompanied by these colleagues Ira Sayles appeared before a notary public on August 2, 1892, to declare that he is

“the identical Ira Sayles who was enrolled on the 19th day of August 1862, in Co. H of the 130th NY Infantry in the war of the rebellion, and served at least ninety days, and was honorably discharged at Suffolk, Va, on the —-day of March, 1863. That he has never been employed in the military or naval service otherwise than as stated above.That he is now unable to earn a support by manual labor by reason of paralysis and general debility result of old age. That said disabilities are not due to his vicious habits, and are, to the best of his knowledge and belief, permanent. That he has never applied for pension. ”

He agreed to appoint James Tanner of Washington, DC his true and lawful attorney, to prosecute his claim, paying him a fee of $10 in the “event of the allowance of the claim by the commissioner of Pensions.” Ira gave his post-office as Chase City, Virginia, and signed his name. S.G. MacMaster and M. Holmes, both of Washington, D.C. swore to his identity and that they had no interest in the prosecution of the claim.

There. Application made. But this is the government, and this application but the first step in proving that Ira Sayles was a soldier honorably discharged, and too debilitated to support himself, through no fault of vicious habits.
next….What the doctors have to say…..