The Tigerish Glare: part one

Sweat beaded across the brows of the Third Missouri Volunteers as they marched the mile and a half from Dunn Loring Station to Camp Alger, Virginia in late May of 1898. Sherman Sayles, newly enlisted private, was older than most of his mates, but no less determined to become a military man. He, along with the rest of his regiment, felt his blood boil with patriotic fervor and determination to drive the Spanish out of Cuba, all the way back to Spain.

The Third Missouri presented as a ragtag bunch, civilians wearing civilian day wear with perhaps a cap or shirt to indicate a military unit. Once the companies arrived at the site of Camp Alger they set to work. With regiments from across the United States, they transformed overgrown fields and dense forest into a town of tents and drill fields. Once Sherman and his mates constructed the essential buildings–kitchens, mess tents, headquarters, hospital, latrines, sleeping quarters–endurance and discipline training became decidedly military. Packs shouldered, the men were ordered to march for miles out from camp, take a quick break, and march back. Medics would haul men back to camp if they succumbed to the heat or fatigue. Eventually weapons drills were added to their daily routine, and sham battles became regular occurrences.

Though there was water for cooking and a bit of washing up, sources in the immediate camp were not sufficient to support bathing of the 26,000 men that assembled on those grounds. So regiments rotated drill marches with a 7 mile march to the Potomac River, for a bit of hygienic R and R.

The record doesn’t indicate just when Sherman Sayles suffered a head injury in that first month. He could have been struck by a falling tree as land was cleared. Or he could have fallen while fooling around or bathing in the Potomac River. Or been hit in the head through some flukey accident during a drill.

But by the middle of June Sherman Sayles occupied a cot in the camp’s Second Division Hospital, restless, agitated, frequently suffering from acute headaches. Private James Lake, medical attendant for Sayles’ ward, was on hand the night of June 29.

At around 10:00 pm that summer evening, Sherman complained of a headache to the night nurse, who notified Lake. While Private Lake went to the dispensary to mix some morphine, Private Sayles pulled out a penknife and sliced open his left wrist. Fellows in nearby cots yelled, and someone ran to retrieve Private Lake. By the time Lake and the attending surgeon, Major Stunkard, got cot-side, Sherman had lost a great deal of blood.

The wound was tended, and by morning Major Stunkard pronounced the soldier out of danger, physically. A note found during the night’s commotion gave the doctor pause.

“I would rather die by Spanish bullets than like this. Those who have falsely sworn my life away shall reap the most of it in the Judgement Day.” 

Clearly Sherman Sayles needed further care, care that tended to his mental health as well as his physical well being. Stunkard transferred the soldier to the hospital at Fort Myers (Virginia) where further evaluation determined that Sayles required intensive therapy.

As quickly as orders could trickle through bureaucracy Sherman was transferred across the Potomac to the Government Asylum for the Insane, locally known as St. Elizabeths Hospital, in southeast Washington, D.C.  The hospital was built on land overlooking the Anacostia River, giving patients, employees, and visitors alike stunning views of the District and Alexandria. Superintendent William Godding had been in charge of the facility for decades developing its national reputation for the respectful, cutting-edge treatment of the District’s indigent insane and the military’s mentally ill soldiers and sailors. 

On July 5th, 1898 Sherman Sayles walked across the campus of St. Elizabeths under the shade of red oaks, silver maples and tulip trees, past vegetable and ornamental gardens, and chicken houses and pigeon coops. He climbed up the steps of a three-story brick building, crossed its white-trimmed porch and entered Oak Hall. A nurse guided the 36-year-old to a large room brightly lit by enormous windows. Beds lined the walls, each with its own privacy screen. From this crowded ward Sherman Sayles, my great-granduncle, would begin his treatment for acute suicidal melancholia.

continued…


Camp Alger: Anderson, Eric. “Camp Russell A. Alger, Falls Church, Virginia.” On Point, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 44–48. JSTORhttp://www.jstor.org/stable/26364238. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.

Private James Lake: “Camp Life by James Lake,” The Bedford Weekly Mail (Bedford, Indiana), 08 July 1898, p. 4; digitally accessed from Newspaper.com (https://www.newspaper.com), 2020.

St. Elizabeths Hospital: “The Records of St. Elizabeths Hospital at the National Archives,” Frances M. McMillen and James S. Kane, Prologue Magazine, Institutional Memory, Summer 2010, Vol. 42, No. 2; digitally accessed at the National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/summer/institutional.html), 12 Feb 2021.

Sherman Sayles: Christopher Sherman Sayles, QO1-563669951, St. Elizabeths Hospital (Washington, D.C.) patient record, Case number 10778, created 1898-1903; copy from National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., received February 2020.

Horizons Expand

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?

Yes.

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


2020-03-18T14:00:00

  days

  hours  minutes  seconds

until

The Arrival of Case #10778


On Horizons

CW: Suicide attempt

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.  

Camp Alger

Camp Alger, Falls Church, Virginia, 1898

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.


sources

He enlisted as a private: Kansas City Journal (Kansas City Missouri) 6 May 1898, p3; Newspapers, https://www.newspapers.com/clip/42846160. Accessed 23 Jan 2020.

Camp Alger: Anderson, Eric. “Camp Russell A. Alger, Falls Church, Virginia.” On Point, vol. 19, no. 4, 2014, pp. 44–48. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26364238. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.

contaminated drinking water: Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 30 June 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1898-06-30/ed-1/seq-2/>

Family tree facts

  • Christopher Sherman was the youngest child of Ira and Serena Sayles, born in 1862, while the family still lived in Alfred, Allegany County, New York.
  • Private Sayles served with the Third Missouri Regiment during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
  • Sherman (C.S.) was an inmate in the Government Hospital for the Insane, Washington, D.C. in 1900.
  • C.S. Sayles died in Washington, D.C. in 1903.