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  • American Ancestors Magazine Spotlight

  • Our Search for Fayette: Reconstructing the Life of a Maine Civil War Soldier

    by Linda S. Sanders

    The great research adventure my father and I began fourteen years ago actually started decades before, on a Saturday morning in the 1960s. My parents, Earl and Kathryn Barber, owned Barber’s Antiques in a seaside community in California and sold vintage goods there and on the antique show and sale circuit. To supply the business, my mother scoured newspaper classifieds for auctions and estate and garage sales. During one scouting expedition, my mother bought several Civil War–era items at an estate sale: a collection of letters written by Fayette M. Paine and Sarah J. Hilton, a Union soldier and his “affectionate friend”; a photograph of Fayette proudly arrayed in his officer’s uniform; and several souvenir battlefield guidebooks with Fayette’s and Sarah’s names and notes on the covers and interior margins. My parents treasured the entire collection. To preserve the letters, my mother carefully slipped each one into a protective sleeve and tucked them inside a corrugated box for safekeeping. They remained there for more than thirty years.

    My mother died in the fall of 1998, and I began to witness my father’s gradual decline. His health deteriorated and he no longer took part in many of the activities he’d enjoyed. One December morning in 1999, the memory of the letters somehow sparked Dad’s curiosity and he retrieved “the box.” My father sorted and organized the thirty-one letters, from the first, from Fayette to Sarah, on August 13, 1862, the day the 17th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment was officially mustered into service at Camp King in Cape Elizabeth, to the last, from Fayette on August 24, 1865. (Twentythree letters were written by Fayette and eight by Sarah.) My father read and transcribed news from the battlefield, news from home, and heartfelt sentiments shared between two young people in love. When he finished, he couldn’t wait for me to read them too. After I did, I was as engaged and energized by the correspondence as he was. We both longed to know more about Fayette and Sarah and what course their lives took once the war was over.

    We launched our search by requesting copies of Fayette’s military records from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Eventually we received a packet of photocopied documents, such as monthly reports and concise accountings of service in the field or absence due to convalescence from injuries received in battle. The material showed that Fayette had served in the Union Army’s 17th Maine Regiment for three years. He fought in several military campaigns, was wounded twice, and was even takenprisoner by the Confederate Army. We had already gleaned most of these details from the letters.

    However, included among the government documents was a real find: a photocopied obituary, stamped “received July 12, 1898,” from the Earlville Leader of Earlville, Illinois. Fayette’s obituary was a treasure trove of information and a tribute to a life well lived. I was particularly delighted to read that Fayette and Sarah did indeed marry, on November 24, 1867, in Anson, Maine. And we learned of their daughter, Lura May Paine, born, we later discovered, on July 17, 1872, near Earlville.

    Shortly after Fayette’s military records arrived, we contacted the Anson and New Vineyard Historical Societies in Maine, in the small towns of Fayette’s youth. Volunteers graciously sent notes with family information hand-copied from collections housed in their small libraries. Included was a copy of an old New Vineyard Village map, which identified the location of Josiah Paine’s home, a stone’s throw from the blacksmith shop. According to the 1850 census, Josiah, a blacksmith, was Fayette’s father. Fayette was the third of six children born to Josiah Parker Paine (1814–1900) and Lovina Bryant (1813–1889).

    We next turned to genealogy forums on the Internet. My query, posted on Thursday, February 3, 2000, was simple: “Looking for any information regarding Fayette M. Paine of the 17th Maine Volunteer Regiment.” The one and only response to our online query came from Ruth Ford Blood, a historian and genealogist in Maine, who became, and still is, a faithful source for family information. Of all her emails and letters, the most memorable was an envelope filled with photographs of New Vineyard and neighboring communities. Seeing the area that was once Fayette and Sarah’s home was indeed a wonderful gift.

    Our long-distance approach served us well, but our enthusiasm was so great that soon my father and I wanted to experience these places ourselves. We wanted to visit the battlefields where Fayette had fought and was wounded; find the family farm in Illinois; and pay our respects. I was blessed with a husband who appreciated the importance of this search; he didn’t understand the research process or our passion for the pursuit, but he supported and encouraged our efforts nonetheless.

    The preparations for what I would later regard as “Fayette Quest 2000” came together with relative ease. We planned eleven days, seven states, six battlefields, multiple hotel rooms and rental cars, and a detailed itinerary. My father would navigate and I would drive. Our travels began eight months after my father first opened the box of letters. On August 8, 2000, we arrived in Gaithersburg, Maryland, our base for the region’s major battlefield sites. We toured the visitor centers, listened to ranger talks, and took walking tours sponsored by the National Park Service. Immersed in the Virginia landscapes of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and the Wilderness, we felt that Fayette’s letters were almost speaking to us.

    Fayette’s December 17, 1862, letter was written after the battle of Fredericksburg. Simeon, Fayette’s older brother, also assigned to Company A of the 17th Maine, had been shot:

    the ball pass through the forepiece of his cap & took off the forefinger off the right hand & a piece from the forefinger of the left.

    At Gettysburg, we photographed the towering monument for the 17th Maine. During the battle there, on July 2, 1863, Fayette was shot in both legs. He was taken to a nearby house where he lay for three days on a crowded floor, surrounded by other wounded soldiers. While recovering at the U.S. General Hospital in Annapolis, Fayette responded to Sarah’s query about his Fourth of July:

    I could hear the roar of the canon all day of the fourth but I knew our troops were driving the rebels & that was a good deal of consolation to me to know that our troops had gained the day.

    At Spotsylvania we paid tribute to Fayette’s courage. Less than a year after Gettysburg, on May 12, 1864, Fayette was hit again, and another two bullets passed through his body. He lay helpless on the battlefield and was taken prisoner by Confederate forces. Fayette was later paroled with discouraging words from the attending surgeon:

    The Rebel surgeon told me that I couldn’t live but a short time when I was brought to their hospital but I told him I thought he was mistaken & so it proved for I am yet alive & kicking.

    After touring the battlefields, we flew to Maine, rented a car, and travelled the back roads in search of the important places of Fayette’s youth: New Portland, where he was born; New Vineyard, where he grew up; and Anson, where he and Sarah were married. A highlight was meeting Ruth at the Maine State Library and Archives.

    Next, we flew from Maine to Chicago, and drove west to the small farming community of Earlville. Even before their marriage, Fayette and Sarah had set their sights on a western homestead, and they arrived in Illinois in November 1867, soon after their wedding. Our hope of locating records faded fast when we learned that the local historical society had boxed up its entire collection in preparation for a renovation project. The only historical resource available that afternoon was a commemorative yearbook for Earlville High School, 1885–1895. Fortunately, Miss Lura May Paine was one of fourteen graduates of the class of 1891.

    From the LaSalle County Clerk’s Office we obtained a copy of Sarah’s death certificate, which provided insight into her last years. Toward the end of her life, Sarah lived in the National Hotel of Earlville. At 92, she fell, broke her hip, developed pneumonia, and died in her room on January 18, 1935. Hotel invoices found among probate reports showed that Lura May was with her. My father and I drove by the family land and visited Precinct Cemetery, where we found Fayette’s and Sarah’s graves.

    Once the dust had settled from our expedition, we realized our priority had been the experience rather than the research. For every copy of a record, we had snapped at least thirty-six images with our 35mm cameras. My father and I were capturing not only Fayette’s past but our own time together.

    I have returned to Maine twice. The New Vineyard Historical Society let me scan an early twentieth-century image of the Paine family home. Emily at the Anson Historical Society provided directions to the cemeteries where several generations of Fayette’s family are buried. And we’re continuing to make discoveries: in March 2012, we found Lura May’s marriage license at the Riverside County Clerk’s office—in California. Lura May married Abel Cyrus Doughty on July 17, 1902, her thirtieth birthday. Their children, two daughters, were Fayetta Paine, namesake of Lura’s father, born in 1903, and Lois Muriel, born in 1906. Lura May died in Los Angeles on January 4, 1950. A decade or so later, her Paine family keepsakes were sold at the estate sale.

    Another find still awaited me. In the fall of 2012, I searched on the Internet using the name of Fayette’s older brother, Obed. The results led me to a photo restoration company, which referenced “Vintage Album #6.” I was astonished to see photographs from Sarah Paine’s personal album. The business owner said she had not had a single serious inquiry about these images since their appearance on the web ten years earlier. I arrived two days later at the doorstep of this small family business, determined to acquire Sarah’s photographs. The 230-mile round-trip commute was well worth the effort. I left that afternoon with forty-seven vintage carte de visites, images of Sarah’s extended family and friends. Perhaps these albums were originally sold at the estate sale where my mother purchased the letters.

    Our journey to find Fayette has been a gift. My father, who remarried, is happy. Preparations are underway for us to make a return visit to Fayette’s childhood home. We have decided to donate the carte de visites to the Anson Historical Society, near their place of origin. I’m looking forward to a hike through the woods; seeing my father’s delight when he first beholds the Paine family burial grounds; a reunion with Ruth in the genealogy room at the Skowhegan Public Library; and discovering whether the little house Josiah built beside the road in New Vineyard remains standing. We are not through with our adventure yet; the journey still beckons, and we are inclined to follow.


    Linda S. Sanders is writing a memoir about her research experience, The Search For Fayette, which she hopes to publish next year. She lives in Whittier, California, and writes a blog, TheSearchForFayette.com.

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