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