Archive for February 2011

Illuminating James Austen

February 28, 2011

Last month, I received an email from Eleanor DeHaai, a descendant of Civil War soldier James Austen.  We began

James Austen's grave at Los Angeles National Cemetery, courtesy Find A Grave contributor Shiver

 corresponding, and Eleanor shared the story of her great-grandfather James with me.

 Sam Hartwell, a descendant through James’ daughter Lavinia, tells us of James’ early life and family:

“James Austen was born in Godalming, England in 1831 and emigrated to America aboard the ship Devonshire in November 1853.  He married Julia Maria Ayer, daughter of Ira Ayer Sr. and Julia Wadsworth Ayer of Evans, New York.  Ira Ayer Sr., my great-great grandfather, also fought in the Civil War.  Ira was a colonel in the 48th New York Militia in the Patriot’s War, 1838, and a captain with Co. A, 116th Regiment, New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, 1862-63.”

 James Austen’s time in the service began on September 17, 1862, when he enlisted at Buffalo, New York, in the 27th New York Light Artillery.  Sam Hartwell takes up the story here, “He was discharged from this unit on 24 November, 1862 when he re-enlisted in the newly formed 5th Regiment of United States Artillery, from which he was discharged as a Sergeant in Capt. Truman Seymour’s E Battery. The reason for his discharge was to enable him to accept his commission as a lieutenant in the 22nd New York Cavalry on 22 April 1864 (or 65), and it is this discharge that mentions his “Very Good” character.  He was discharged at the end of the war from the 22nd NY Cavalry on 1 August 1865 under Special Order No 4 issued 22 July, 1865.

 As a soldier, James probably saw no action with the 27th New York Volunteers – he transferred out of the unit before it officially mustered in to the army. The 5th United States Artillery is a distinguished unit, however, formed early in the war and with a long and distinguished history in the Civil War and beyond. E Battery sees action, specifically in the fall of 1863, which finds it working overland towards Richmond with the Army of the Potomac. It, presumably with Austen, participates in the Battle of the Wilderness in the spring of 1864. In the summer the unit is credited at the siege of Petersburg, and at the end of the war in 1865 is with Grant at Clover Hill near Appomattox when Lee surrenders.

 James left the 5th Artillery in April of either 1864 or 1865 (the dates are unclear), having earned a commission as a lieutenant in the 22nd New York Volunteer Cavalry – so he may or may not have participated in the latter campaigns of the 5th Artillery. If he joined the 22nd NY Cavalry in the spring of 1864, he finds that unit with the 4th Division of the 9th Corps, from April, 1864, then with the 2d Brigade, 3d Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac, from May, 1864; unattached, Army of the Potomac, from May 8, 1864; with its brigade in June, 1864; with the Army of the Shenandoah from October, 1864, and with the Cavalry Division of the Army of West Virginia, from February, 1865. He was commended in the records as having a ‘CHARACTER: Very Good’.”

Julia Maria Ayer, wife of James Austen. Courtesy Sam Hartwell & Eleanor DeHaai

Shortly after his discharge in August of 1865, James married Julia Maria Ayer.  Their two children, James Frederick and Lavinia Austen, were born in the years 1866 and 1868.  Great-granddaughter Eleanor DeHaai says, “Julia died of consumption when their son, my grandfather Fred, was about four and little Lavinia, Sam’s ancestor, was a baby.   James was able to take care of Fred, but Lavinia, being a girl, was placed in the care of an aunt and uncle of Julia’s in St. Paul, MN.   James found work there, though we don’t know what kind of work.  I suppose he wanted to be able to see Lavinia, and for Fred and Lavinia to be close.   Fred graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota College of Law and became an attorney in St. Louis, MO.   Lavinia became a teacher and suffragette.”

 Little else is known of James’ life after the death of his wife, Julia.  The 1880 Census of Perrysburgh, New York, shows James and son, Fred, boarding at the home of Robert and Orpha Armstrong.  Unfortunately, it lists James only as “Boarder”, and does not give us his occupation.  We do know that James entered the Sawtelle Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in October of 1890.  He was discharged in 1896, but was re-admitted ten months later.  James Austen died at the Sawtelle Home on August 12, 1898, with the cause of death listed as “paralysis”.  He was laid to rest at Los Angeles National Cemetery.

 Special thanks to Eleanor DeHaai and Sam Hartwell, the great-grandchildren of James Austen, for illuminating the story of their Civil War ancestor.

Finding More Than Headstones on Find A Grave

February 15, 2011

Cheri Branca's Underground Railroad Quilt

Over a year ago, I became a contributor to Find A Grave.  For those of you unfamiliar with this website, Find A Grave is a forum in which volunteers from all over the world transcribe the headstones in their local cemeteries.  The transcriptions, and often photos of the headstones, are placed on Find A Grave where they are accessible to everyone. 

 This worthwhile endeavor serves many purposes, as it allows descendants to view the headstones of their ancestors that they may never have been able to find or to which they may have not been able to travel.  As an historian, one of the purposes I find most helpful is that the headstone photographs serve as a guide to the past.  As the years go by, headstones become eroded by sun, snow and wind.  The writing becomes faint.  Vandals do their dirty work by destroying headstone after headstone all over the world.  The information on Find A Grave preserves the history found on a headstone.

Underground Railroad Quilt Book

 After becoming a contributor, I began to see the names of other local people and the work they were doing on Find A Grave.  One contributor’s name, Cheri Branca, kept popping up.  We began corresponding by email and met in person last June when Cheri attended a tour I gave at Greenvale Cemetery. 

 Cheri began her work on Find A Grave at the urging of her cousin, who had set to work entering the names of his family members.  After finding some ancestors on Find A Grave that volunteers had already transcribed, Cheri “decided I should pay back that favor and do some volunteering and help out other people who can’t get to the cemeteries near me. I’ve always found cemeteries fascinating and when I did an index to 3500 obituaries from the first 50 years of the Victor Herald in 1989, I tromped through almost all the local cemeteries trying to locate those people to add to the data”. 

 Cheri has been a Find A Grave contributor for nearly two years.  At this writing, she has transcribed and photographed over 3,100 graves with the help of her husband.  In addition to grave photos, Cheri takes the time to research the people whose headstones she memorializes on Find A Grave.  As she says, “I feel it is important to not only post the information and the photo, but to research all I can, so I can connect the families back together after all this time has passed. That means checking lots of sources, from the County websites, Rootsweb, the census records, family genealogies, anything I can find…and then I sift through it and try to get as accurate an outline as I can.”   Can you imagine the excitement of finding your ancestor’s memorial with these additional nuggets of information included?

A new side of Cheri recently emerged when she emailed me photos of some quilts she has created.  Who would have known that there were such things as Civil War quilts?  One of Cheri’s creations was for a friend who had a Civil War themed wedding.  Another was an “Underground Railroad” quilt.  Some people believe that slaves created a special code and pieced it into quilts in order to give directions to the Underground Railroad.  Many quilt historians have

Civil War Diary Quilt book

disputed this idea, but the lore has survived.  Additional information about the Underground Railroad Quilt Code can be found on Quilt Historian Barbara Brackman’s website, www. barbarabrackman.com. 

Find A Grave has been a real source of inspiration for me.  Not only has it given me the opportunity to preserve history by transcribing and photographing graves, but it has also provided me with the opportunity to meet some pretty amazing people such as Cheri Branca.  I’ve found more than headstones on Find A Grave.  I’ve also found friends.


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