Yesterday was Juneteenth and I am uncomfortable admitting that it was the first Juneteenth that I honored with reflection.
I mean, I knew about Juneteenth, but I didn’t KNOW Juneteenth. Didn’t make time to feel the deep hope of freedom that the day commemorated. Yesterday, ’cause this has BEEN A YEAR, I felt called to ponder.
I pondered the role my ancestors played in perpetuating the cycle of enslavement. Strickland. Stone. Stallings. Coppedge. May. Green. Rowlett. Dodson. So many wills, probate documents, and tax records. So many traces of Lucys, Reubens, and Armisteads deliberately obscured from my family story.
I pondered my role in perpetuating the erasure of my “cousins by consequence.” *
I reread the “full disclosure” posts I have written in the past about ancestral enslavement with my shoulders hunched, face scrunched. The tone makes me cringe. My white saviorism is on full display. I am embarrassed. I don’t know the right way to share this information. When is it my story to tell?
I hesitate to return to this work.
But that is what racism looks like, isn’t it? Silence of white folks.
So I make a promise this Juneteenth to walk the journey of discomfort, to tell the full family story. And I hope that folks will participate with me in the comments, to hold me accountable when the tone is off, or share when the story resonates; to find joy when a clue is dropped or ask a question when the digging can go deeper.
In early February I tracked Christopher Sherman Sayles, my great-grandfather’s youngest brother, to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental asylum for the residents of the District of Columbia and for the veterans of the US armed forces.
Sherman had enlisted in April 1898 with Company C, Third Missouri Volunteers, Second Division, Second Corps, swept up by the nation’s patriotic fervor to drive Spain from the hemisphere. With his regiment, Private Sayles traveled to the training facility at Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, and by mid-June was a patient in the Second Division Hospital.
On the night of June 29 Sherman attempted suicide. The thirty-six year old man was transferred to the medical facility at Fort Myer, Virginia, and ultimately admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the District of Columbia, where he died in 1903.
I sent a query to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the repository for remaining hospital files. Was it possible that a health record for a Private Christopher Sherman Sayles, Third Missouri, existed among those stored in Record Group 418, Records of St. Elizabeth Hospital?
Sixty-five pages of YES!
My request for a reproduction of the contents of Box #184 is currently being serviced and if the archivists’ schedule is typical ONLY
When I began my genealogy blog ten years ago, the ‘sphere was fresh, unknown territory. The prospect of reaching an audience, even unidentified, was exhilarating. The possibility of attracting lost relatives and exchanging family records was intoxicating.
Blog posts flowed out regularly.
Comments and followers multiplied.
Cousins-many-times-removed shared stories, tips, maps, and letters.
Until one day I realized that my story cache, specifically Ira Sayles’ tales, didn’t fit a blog post format. And blogging was a chore, not a joy.
Time to reassess. How can Shoots, Roots, and Leaves function as a space of curiosity and joy, that complements the deeper dive I will be doing offline?
Not sure. Yet.
Leave your ideas and requests for future posts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!
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?
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?
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.