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
I think of my 19th century ancestors’ lives as bound by the geography of their landscapes. What they observed out their front doors and across the lane framed their beliefs, thinking, their sense of opportunity. The assembly of characters in their lives were tied by blood or marriage or business. Their movements were limited by the health of feet or hooves, by mud or snow, by daily necessity. Matters and people beyond that home horizon were physically and emotionally distant.
Exceptions crop up, of course, like the Minor patriarch who drove hogs from southwestern Pennsylvania to market in Baltimore. And the family of Ira and Serena Sayles. Their mid-century children were born to the expanded horizon of intellectual communities in Alfred and Rushford, New York. Their horizons literally changed when the family relocated to Mecklenburg County, Virginia in 1870, the three boys coming of age in the midst of an industrial revolution and a national reconstruction.
The couple split up in 1872, estranged after a long-simmering dispute, perhaps over Ira’s inability to manage finances or perhaps over his condescending attitude toward women’s abilities. Ira returned to New York. Serena remained in Virginia. And the boys, Clifton, Merlin, and Christopher Sherman, traveled back and forth.
Clifton eventually settled into the red clay of Virginia, farming and raising a family that eventually included my grandmother Strickland.
Merlin died before he had a chance to settle down.
And Christopher Sherman? He seems to have been restless, searching horizons for a path to contentment. He lived as a laborer on a farm in Wellsville, New York, in 1880. He traveled with his geologist father, traipsing through Tennessee and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains collecting geological and paleontological specimens for the United States Geological Survey in the mid-1880s. Sherman received a share of the Virginia farm from Serena in 1885. And it appears that he abandoned that land, and went west to live with or around his Uncle Loren Sayles in Cullison, Kansas, in the 1890s.
For thirty-something Sherman, horizons were literally and figuratively broad. Something shattered my great-granduncle’s psyche, something that reduced the line where sky meets ground to only that which Sherman could see from the window of a Washington, D.C. insane asylum.
a little red highlight
I was using the Library of Congress website, Chronicling America, to search digital copies of newspapers for anything “Sayles,” particularly for the Ira and Serena Sayles branch. By chance I clicked on a newspaper which had a longish red box indicating a possible “Ira Sayles” mention.
“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri”
Hmmm, I thought. This military reference tickled a memory, so I returned to my files to satisfy my intuition that Private Sayles was Christopher Sherman Sayles.
“Private Sayles, Company E, 3rd Missouri attempted suicide yesterday afternoon at the 2nd Division Hospital”…Camp Alger, Virginia…June 30, 1898
I refined my search term to “Private Sayles” and returned multiple newspapers between June 30, 1898 and July 8, 1898 carrying the story, some with fuller accounts than others. A side search for “Camp Alger” and the “Third Missouri” sketched the details of Sherman’s shrinking world.
Even short wars leave victims
In 1898 the United States told Spain to get out of Cuba. Spain said no. So the US declared war at the end of April.
A bit of a dilemma for the Department of Defense, since as of April 1 of that year the American regular Army stood at 25,000 men to Spain’s global 400,000 men. President McKinley and Congress passed a Mobilization Act to which the country responded with patriotic fervor, adding over 125,000 men to the Army and Cavalry within weeks.
Christopher Sherman Sayles, age 28, was one such young recruit. He enlisted as a private with Company C, Third Missouri Regiment in Kansas City, Missouri, in early May, living in the city’s Armory until his regiment received orders to move out. At 6:00 pm Saturday, May 7 Colonel Gross marched his twelve companies, including one Private Sayles, from the Armory, down Thirteenth Street to Grand Avenue, where the regiment received a battleflag, and from there on down Eleventh to Main to the Union Station on Fifth. The enthusiastic troops boarded trains first to encamp in St. Louis and eventually to travel on to Dunn Loring Station, Virginia.
The Third Missouri was part of wave of the untrained Second Division, Third Brigade of the Second Corps assembling at an overgrown estate, Woodburn Manor, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.. Trees were felled, grasses cut, and a canvas city erected in the Falls Church forest and fields. Christopher Sherman was one of thousands who marched, handled arms, ate, pooped, peed, and suffered ticks, lice, and mosquitos. And sometimes bathed.
Camp Alger it was named, after the Secretary of Defense, Russell Alger. Close to multiple railroads and blessed with multiple streams, the site was thought to be ideal for a training camp. However, that spring and summer Virginia was dry, empty-streambed dry. Army engineers had to dig wells, and that took time. Water for drinking and cooking had to be hauled in, and took priority over bathing. The undisciplined use of the woods as latrine additions added to the malodorous camp atmosphere. And when it finally rained, the forest “sanitation system” ran off into the wells.
Typhoid was endemic at the time in the US, and many soldiers came to camp already exposed, and would have suffered anyway. But the poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water accelerated the spread of the disease.
It may be that Christopher Sherman entered the Second Division Hospital with symptoms of typhoid at the end of June. It is certain that on the night of June 29 Private Sayles was restless, and while the attendants and staff were busy elsewhere in the canvas-covered ward, Sherman acquired a penknife and cut his left wrist. By the time medical providers arrived he had lost a large quantity of blood and was in critical condition. Major Stunkard dressed the wound and arranged for Sherman’s transfer to the regular Army hospital at Fort Myer, Virginia, for continued observation.
My great-granduncle’s suicide attempt was reported in newspapers throughout the country, particularly in the midwest. No article was published to tell what happened next; his treatment and attempted recovery was not news worthy to anybody but his family. None of this history got handed down to me.
what Grandma did say
Grandmother Strickland did relate that her father, Clifton Sayles, had a brother who enlisted in the peace time Army, that he died there, and was buried in the National Cemetery in Arlington. The Spanish-American War was virtually over by the end of August 1898, before the Spanish could mobilize all its military might. I suppose, then, that the Sayles family could have felt justified in telling neighbors and friends that Sherman was in the peacetime Army, that he died there, that he was buried in a national cemetery.
But based on my research Christopher Sherman did not serve in a unit after that night in June 1898. He did remain in the care of the US Army, however, for the rest of his life, in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C., where he died November 19, 1903. A government-issued headstone marks his grave in St. Elizabeth’s East Cemetery, Anacostia, Washington, D.C..
I have requested help from the National Archives in obtaining Christopher Sherman’s medical records, if they still exist. I may never know any more than I do now.
But I find it important to pause, as our nation deals with the fallout of the Soleimani killing, the downing of a civilian airplane, the traumatic brain injuries of our service men and women, to remember that even a short war has consequences.
Horizons are contracted. Lives are lost. Minds are torn.
Christopher Sherman Sayles was welcomed into the village of Alfred Station, New York sometime during 1862, the year his father, Ira B. Sayles, enlisted in the 130th Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry of the Union Army. This youngest child of Ira and wife, Serena White Sayles, was named for his paternal grandfather, Christopher Sayles.
Sherman had two brothers, Clifton Duvall (b. 1852) and Merley (b. 1856). According to the 1870 Federal Census, Sherman resided with his mother and Merley in Rushford, Allegany County, New York, after Ira migrated to Mecklenburg County, Virginia with Clifton in 1869. By 1880 Serena had emigrated to Virginia to farm with Clifton and wife, Anna McCullough; and Ira had returned to Andover, New York to teach school. Sherman is recorded as living with Ira and working as a laborer. Merle has disappeared from the records.
A. Florette Sayles Strickland wrote in her family history that “(Her father) Clifton Sayles’ brothers, Sherman and Merle, remained unmarried. One of them served in the peace time Army and died while there. He was buried in the National Cemetery, Arlington, Va. The occupation and burial place of the other brother is unknown to writer.”
The facts of Merle’s life and death remain unknown. It is clear from the 1900 Federal Census and the document “Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans 1879-1903” that Sherman was the brother who served in the Army. The surprising discovery was the fact that he served in the Spanish American War in 1898, as a private in Company C, 3rd Regiment Mo (?) Infantry, was discharged and admitted to the St. Elizabeth’s Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C., where he was listed as an inmate in the 1900 Federal Census. C. S. Sayles was single, and could speak English, read and write. Christopher Sherman Sayles died on 19 November 1903 and was buried in a hospital cemetery.
It was not uncommon for family members to hide the nature of a loved one’s mental illness, and my grandmother’s failure to include this detail may reflect her father’s desire to forget it. Someday soon I will request Sherman’s medical records from the National Archives, to follow the family story a bit further, and uncover perhaps the circumstances and nature of his mental illness.