Apparently abandoned by his immediate family after his death in 1922, Maine Civil War veteran Jewett Williams has been commandeered by distant relatives prior to his burial in 2016 …
… and the volunteers responsible for respectfully transporting his cremains from Oregon to Maine are unhappy about the bombshell dropped during today’s ceremony honoring Jewett’s arrival at the Togus VA Hospital in Chelsea.
Jewett was the oldest son and child of Hodgdon farmers Jared and Rosaline Williams. Born in Hodgdon in 1843, he was 21 when he was simultaneously drafted and mustered into the army — Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry Regiment — on Monday, Oct. 12, 1864.
A scrawny fellow standing 5-6½ inches tall with a farmer’s lean, muscular frame, Jewett gazed at the world through hazel eyes. He had dark hair and sported a dark complexion.
He participated in the Appomattox Campaign, mustered out with the 20th Maine, and returned to Hodgdon in summer 1865. After his first marriage ended in divorce in 1871, Jewett voted with his feet to leave Maine; moving to Minnesota, he later married a woman who bore him six children.
Jewett and his wife, Nora, lived in Washington State by the early 1890s, and he later moved to Portland, Oregon. Admitted to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem in April 1922, he died there of “cerebral arteriosclerosis” on Monday, July 17, 1922.
No relatives claimed the body, which was cremated. The ashes went into a copper urn forgotten until discovered along with approximately 3,500 other cremain-filled urns at the Salem hospital in 2004.
In 2015, Maine Civil War historian Tom Desjardins found the online records about Jewett’s 1922 death at the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane. The discovery led to the efforts to bring Jewett home.
Starting at Salem on Monday, Aug. 1, 2016, volunteers from the Patriot Guard Riders escorted Jewett’s cremains across country to Maine. The goal, as understood by everyone involved with the project, was to deliver Jewett to Maine for burial in the Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea on Saturday, Sept. 17.
Seven members of the Maine Patriot Guard Riders — President Mike Edgecomb of Spruce Head, Cathy Fiske and Steve Littlefield of Topsham, Robert LaBrie of Bangor, Don Duplessis of Augusta, Edgar “Skip” Hanes of Hartford, and Will Lagasse of Greene — met at the south-bound Kennebunk Travel Plaza on the Maine Turnpike on Tuesday, Aug. 16 and rode south together to “meet” Jewett at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park.
These seven Mainers and other Patriot Guard Riders escorted Jewett home through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
At 1 p.m., Monday, Aug. 22, some 40-50 motorcyclists and several escort vehicles turned from Route 17 onto Togus Road and rode to the Togus VA Hospital in Chelsea. Parking their bikes on Pond Road in front of the VA medical center, the Patriot Guard Riders participated in the moving ceremony that officially returned Jewett’s cremains to the possession of his home state.
Togus personnel, Maine National Guard personnel, Civil War re-enactors, and employees of the Maine Department of Defense, Veterans & Emergency Management also took part in the ceremony, held on the lawn opposite the VA medical center’s main entrance. Including participants, around 200 people gathered to watch as Mike Edgecomb placed the American flag-wrapped box containing Jewett’s cremains on a table set up on the lawn.
Adria O. Horn, the director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, spoke about Jewett and the collaborative efforts that had brought him home to Maine. Among the people watching the ceremony was Brig. Gen. Doug Farnham, the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard.
Everything went well until Horn revealed that rather than Jewett being buried with the other Civil War veterans at Togus as planned, “family and descendants” in Aroostook County wanted him to be buried “with his parents, Jared and Rosaline Williams,” in the family’s plot in a Hodgdon cemetery.
The state has concurred with that request.
Jewett’s cremains will be transferred to the Williams’ distant relatives at Togus on Sept. 17. Until then, the cremains will be housed at the Maine Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Augusta.
Horn’s announcement visibly stunned many listening Patriot Guard Riders, who had believed since Aug. 1 that, as Bob LaBrie of Bangor explained, “He (Jewett Williams) was going to be buried with the 20th Maine boys here at Togus.
“I think it’s terrible,” LaBrie said, referring to Jewett being buried in Hodgdon rather than at Togus.
An Oregon researcher could find no living direct descendants of Jewett Williams. During today’s ceremony, no other descendants of Jared and Rosaline Williams stepped forward and identified themselves.
“I think it’s so terrible that if they’re (Williams’ relatives) so inspired” to insist that Jewett be buried in Hodgdon rather than at Togus, “why aren’t they here?”
Another Maine member of the Patriot Guard Riders wondered aloud if the Williams’ relatives would reimburse the Riders for their expenses incurred in bringing Jewett back to Maine. Many of the motorcyclists scheduled their vacations and spent considerable personal funds to help him get home.
From the conversations taking place among the Patriot Guard Riders after the ceremony, one fact became clear: the state’s decision to let Jewett be buried elsewhere than Togus had left the Riders feeling hoodwinked.
Their feelings are possibly justified; a Facebook post put up last Friday by a Hodgdon resident indicated that people in that town already knew that Jewett would be buried there.
Why state officials chose not to share that information with the volunteers transporting Jewett to Maine at their personal expense remains a mystery.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He loves hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.