Gathered between a Confederate re-enactor’s tent and the brushy edge of a mown field at the Togus VA Hospital complex in Chelsea, some 30-35 people gathered to conduct a memorial service for Pvt. Jewett B. Williams on Saturday, Sept. 17.
The service took place as part of the Maine Living History Association encampment held at Togus in conjunction with the 150th anniversary festivities for the VA hospital, the first facility of its kind in the United States.
A Hodgdon farmer, Williams served with Co. H, 20th Maine Infantry during the last six months of the Civil War. Leaving Maine (and supposedly forever) by late summer 1870, he wandered from Minnesota to Michigan, then back to Minnesota to Colorado to Washington State to Oregon, where he died in a state hospital for the insane in July 1922.
Along the way, Williams married twice and had seven children: a son in Maine and six children elsewhere, one of whom (19-month-old Franklin) died of scarlet fever in November 1873.
Urns containing the cremains of 3,500 people (including Jewett Williams) were discovered at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore. in 2004. Last year, Maine author and historian Tom Desjardin found Williams’ name in an Oregon researcher’s online database.
This past Aug. 1, Patriot Guard Riders started “Jewett” (as many people now call him) eastward to Maine. The cremains arrived at the Togus VA Hospital on Aug. 22 and transferred to custody of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services.
Williams will be buried with full military honors at the Hodgdon Cemetery on Sept. 24. This past Saturday, he was honored at Togus in a moving ceremony conducted within sight of the white grave stones of Civil War veterans buried in the East Cemetery at Togus.
As Civil War re-enactors and visitors watched in the beautiful noontime September sun, MLHA director Christabell Rose noted that while “Jewett B. Williams is not here with us today physically, he is spiritually.” She was dressed as her Civil War civilian persona, Miss Rose.
“He came back a very changed soldier” who “had a very difficult time with relationships,” she said. Williams’ troubling first marriage ended in divorce, his tumultuous second marriage with his wife’s death. His surviving children apparently made no effort to claim either his body or his cremains.
Jewett Williams “couldn’t fit in with that role of being a good” father and husband, Rose said.
Desjardin talked about the recent efforts involved in transporting Williams’ cremains via the Patriot Guard Riders to Maine this past August.
Then Desjardin explained “what the war did to Jewett Williams.” Although the 21-year-old farmer “served the regiment in combat for only six months,” he fell sick not long after arriving at the 20th Maine’s camp near Petersburg, Va.
Until he was drafted into the Army, Williams was apparently as healthy as an ox, albeit growing up in southern Aroostook County, he was not exposed to the diseases that sickened (and killed) so many soldiers. He suffered from only the occasional cold while farming in Hodgdon.
By the time that Williams mustered out at Portland in July 1865, he had contracted diarrhea that caused piles, developed rheumatism from sleeping outdoors on cold ground in damp weather, and had also caught pneumonia. Despite these debilitating conditions, Williams was “never absent, never sick, never anything but present for duty,” Desjardin said.
“He had to have quite a great physical constitution” to endure marching, disease, and bad Army-supplied food, Desjardin stated.
Rose then spoke about the Patriot Guard Riders and expressed her gratitude “at what they do and how they do it.” Introducing two PGRs from Connecticut who “came from away to honor our son from Maine,” she watched as onlookers applauded the man and the woman.
The national commander of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War from 2012-2013, Perley Mellor of New Hampshire read a proclamation thanking the Patriot Guard Riders for their role in “the monumental occasion” of bringing Williams’ cremains from Oregon to Maine.
“I am proud to be here today,” Mellor said.
During the roughly 20-minute ceremony, Civil War re-enactor Bill Spaulding of Brooks held a 20th Maine Infantry flag reminiscent of the flag presented to the regiment prior to its participation in the June 1865 Grand Review in Washington, D.C. Spaulding was portraying Capt. Andrew Bean of Brooks and Co. F, 4th Maine Infantry.
The flag was created by Rev. Blaikie Hines of Thomaston. The pastor of the West Rockport Baptist Church, he opened the religious part of the ceremony.
“We are here to honor Pvt. Jewett Williams not only as a soldier, but as a man,” said Hines, clad in the black suit of his Civil War persona, a United States Christian Commission member. Referring to the historical evidence that Jewett Williams attended a Baptist church in Hodgdon, Hines then read Psalm 46, “one of hope, one of compassion, one of love.”
Portraying a Civil War chaplain, Charles McGillicuddy then said of Williams, “You’re back home in your native Maine. Your journey is close to its end.
“Welcome to your eternal home,” said McGillicuddy, who then gave the closing prayer.
For the third time since he arrived on Maine soil on Sunday, Aug. 21, Jewett Williams had been honored by people who appreciated the service that he performed for his nation.
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.