Thursday, June 18, 2009
We had a recent email from Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum who was looking for information on Joseph Cullen Ayer, a 1st Lieutenant who served with the 18th Massachusetts. The museum had a trunk that belonged to Ayer in their collection and were contemplating including it in an exhibit that will start on July 4, 2010. Needless to say, after responding to the email, I was already stuffing a suitcase in anticipation of a trip to the Windy City next year. However, Peter cautioned the trunk might not actually make it into the exhibit. So, we’ll have to bide our time until we get the definitive word.
When you learn of things like the existence of Ayer’s trunk, it makes you wonder about the journey it’s been through and how objects wind up where they do. Obviously when the trunk was donated to the CHM in 1976, someone thought it more fitting to house it in a museum than to keep it in private hands. But where it was between May 22, 1918, when Ayer died of facial cancer at the Mountain Branch of the National Soldier’s home in Johnson City, Tennessee until Robert Anderson, a collector got his hands on it is anybody’s guess.
Ayer had one surviving relative, a son who bore his name and from whom he had been estranged from for years. The son, Joseph Cullen Ayer, Jr., a Harvard educated minister and historian of some note, traveled to the home to make arrangements to ship the body home to Massachusetts and collect the $22.75 in cash that his father had in his possession.
George M. Barnard, Jr., another Lieutenant in the 18th Mass., who knew Ayer as well as anyone in the Regiment and shared his opinions on everyone in letters to parents, labeled Ayer “a jackass.” Judging by Ayer’s later abandonment of his wife and child and seemingly endless wandering from one National Home to another late in life, Barnard’s assessment of Ayer, a practicing attorney before and a land speculator after the war, may not have been far off base.
I’m speculating myself, but there are events that cross as shadows over people’s lives that crush the spirit in some and serves to strengthen another. Ayer spent a year with the 18th before he was appointed as the head of the 1st Division Ambulance Corps for the Fifth Corps shortly before Antietam. Overseeing the removal and transportation of the sick, mangled, and dying for a year can worm into your psyche and leave one unable to cope with tragic news from home carrying the announcement a year old son had died. Plagued by health problems, including rheumatism and kidney disease, Ayer was subsequently discharged from military service on December 17, 1863, four months after he was ordered to return for duty with the 18th Mass., something he never did.
I’m speculating that he was a failure as a businessman after the war, because he seemed to pursue deal after deal, bouncing from Boston to Tennessee, where he speculated in land, to New Zealand, where he speculated in mining, until almost broken down physically at age 58 he entered the Togus Branch of the National Home in Augusta, Maine and applied for a pension.
Ayer’s was the second trunk belonging to a member of the 18th Mass. we’ve located. The first was that of Albert Sturdy, which I happened on purely by accident when I visited the Maine Military Museum in Augusta years ago. At the time I visited, the museum was only open every other Sunday. The curator gave me his undivided attention, which wasn’t hard to do, particularly since there was only one other visitor in the building. We spent time at the Civil War section, most of which was devoted to Joshua Chamberlain and featured such personal artifacts as a pistol and sword. I began pumping for information on Colonel Joseph Hayes, a Maine native who served with the 18th, and, as if on cue, I happened to turn around and my eyes fell on a chest clearly marked with Sturdy’s name. Believe me when I say that my mouth literally dropped open.
Sturdy, who was cited for bravery at the battle of Fredericksburg, where he nearly had his left foot blown off, made a small fortune in the jewelry manufacturing business in Attleboro, Mass. following the war and had purchased a farm in Washington, Maine as a summer retreat. Decades later, the trunk was discovered in a barn on the property and subsequently donated to the museum.
Whereas Ayer seemingly stumbled into self-created misfortune after his military service, Sturdy led a privileged life, including long stints as a bank director and secretary for the local gas company. He and his brother built enough wealth that they were sole benefactors of the local hospital in Attleboro, which still bears the family’s name.