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