Following a ceremony at a psychiatric hospital in Salem, Oregon, on Monday, a group of motorcycle-riding volunteers set off on a cross-country trip to deliver the unclaimed ashes of Civil War veteran Jewett Williams to his home state of Maine where—more than 150 years after his military service—his cremated remains will be buried with full military honors.
When Jewett Williams died in an Oregon psychiatric institution in 1922, no one came to claim the Civil War veteran’s grizzled body. Like thousands of other lost souls, the old man’s cremated remains were poured into a copper canister and unceremoniously shuffled from one location to another on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital in the state capital of Salem until they were locked out of sight for years in a storage room. As a final indignity in death, the Maine native’s name wasn’t even spelled correctly on the label attached to his remains.
Williams may have been forgotten to time had the corroding canisters holding his ashes and those of more than 3,600 others not been discovered in 2004 by Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney. Now, nearly a century after his death, Williams is finally heading home to be buried with full military honors.
“He was a son, a brother, a husband and a father. At the end of his life, however, he was alone,” Courtney said on Monday at a ceremony in front of an outdoor memorial, which opened in 2014, that displayed the copper canisters of the Oregon State Hospital’s unclaimed remains behind a glass wall. “When he died, nobody came. Nobody came to honor him. Nobody came to take him home. Nobody came…until today.”
Following the ceremony attended by dignitaries, veterans’ advocates and Civil War re-enactors, the soldier’s ashes were entrusted to the Patriot Guard Riders, a group of motorcycle-riding volunteers that honor fallen soldiers and attend the funerals of U.S. military veterans, firefighters and police officers. Wearing leather jackets studded with military patches, the bikers stood at attention and saluted as a wooden box containing a folded American flag and the veteran’s remains was packed onto the back of one of the motorcycles. As the engines of more than two-dozen Harley-Davidsons and other motorcycles roared, the Patriot Guard Riders began the first leg of a 3,000-mile journey as the American flags mounted on their bikes whipped in the breeze.
The precious cargo will be transferred from state chapter to state chapter as part of a cross-country relay that will include hundreds of riders. “It’s kind of a Pony Express transfer,” Mike Edgecomb, leader of the Maine Patriot Guard Riders, told the Portland Press-Herald.
Williams may still have been lost to history had it not been for a pair of dogged researchers. According to the Portland Tribune, amateur genealogist Phyllis Zegers of Roseburg, Oregon, learned of the existence of the thousands of unclaimed remains at the Oregon State Hospital while researching her family history. She began to research the lives of those patients and posted more than 1,600 biographies, including that of Williams, online. In early 2015, Thomas Desjardin, a Civil War historian and author of “Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign,” was conducting further research on the Union Army unit when he discovered Zegers’s write-up. Desjardin proposed the return of the private’s ashes to Maine, and earlier this year the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard made a formal request.
Born in 1844, Jewett Williams was the oldest of at least nine children. He grew up in Hodgdon, Maine, a small farming village that scraped against the Canadian border. Although he hailed from the farthest corner of the United States, the 20-year-old joined the fight to preserve the Union in October 1864. Williams served as a private in Company H of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry Regiment, which had gained fame for its valiant charge up Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the war was in its closing months, it didn’t appear that way to Williams, who saw plenty of action during the siege of Petersburg.
Williams was present at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, when the Civil War came to an effective end with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After parading through the streets of the nation’s capital as part of a grand review, Williams mustered out of the army in July 1865 and returned to Maine. Like many post-war Americans, he eventually moved west—bouncing from Michigan to Minnesota to Washington. Once he reached the Pacific Northwest, the father of at least five children appeared to drift apart from his wife and family. By 1903 he was living alone in Portland, Oregon. On April 14, 1922, Williams was admitted to the institution known at the time as the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane because of progressive senility. His stay was not a long one. He died there on July 17, 1922, at the age of 78 from cerebral arteriosclerosis.
It’s not known what became of his wife, his children or any descendants. For now, though, the Patriot Guard Riders are his companions. Plans call for the soldier’s remains to be taken to Gettysburg National Cemetery and Appomattox Court House before arriving in Maine on August 22. A police escort will accompany the private’s ashes from the Maine border to Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, Maine. Although the cemetery is closed to new interments, a special dispensation was granted for the Civil War veteran to rest alongside his fellow soldiers from the 20th Maine. At a special ceremony on September 17, Williams will be buried with full military honors and fulfill a motto emblazoned on a patch worn by one of the Patriot Guard Riders: “The Nation That Forgets Its Defenders Will Itself Be Forgotten.”