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Civil War veteran’s ashes take motorcycle ride through Idaho

Civil War veteran's remains pass through Idaho to final resting place

Dario Bell from the Idaho Patriot Guard Riders says it is an honor to participate in transporting the remains of Jewett Williams through Idaho on the way back to Maine.
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Dario Bell from the Idaho Patriot Guard Riders says it is an honor to participate in transporting the remains of Jewett Williams through Idaho on the way back to Maine.

One by one, members of the Idaho Patriot Guard Riders and others filed by a table Tuesday morning inside the Cloverdale Funeral Home in Boise. On it sat a framed portrait of Civil War veteran Jewett Williams, a box containing his ashes and two American flags.

Veterans saluted. Others made the sign of the cross. And several of the 50 people who attended a morning service placed their hand on the flag and gave Williams a silent tribute.

Ninety-four years after his 1922 death at age 78, Williams garnered the respect and admiration that had escaped him when he died a forgotten man at a Salem, Ore., mental hospital.

“It was an honor to be selected as one of the states that his cremains are going through,” said Dario Bell, captain of the Idaho Patriot Guard Riders. “It’s the ultimate respect we can do.”

Members of the Idaho chapter rode Monday afternoon to Ontario, Ore., to accept Williams’ remains from an Oregon group that brought them by motorcycle from Salem. The ashes, kept in a wood box, were held overnight at the Boise mortuary.

“It feels good. It’s emotional,” Patriot Guard member Mary Clark said after watching the box carrying Williams’ remains be brought past a flag line and loaded into a storage compartment of one of the motorcycles making the trip east through Twin Falls, Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

Twenty motorcycles rode out of the funeral home parking lot onto West Fairview Avenue and headed toward Interstate 84 shortly after 7:30 a.m. The group was scheduled to meet the Montana contingent near the Continental Divide at Monida, Mont. at 3 p.m. that afternoon.

A role in history

At age 21, Williams enlisted in Company H of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He came from Hodgdon, Maine, a small farming town just west of the U.S. border with New Brunswick, Canada, where his parents were raised.

After Williams joined, the regiment took part in three battles near Petersburg, Va., in late 1864 and early 1865.

“The New Englanders were actively engaged with Grant’s army in the long siege of Petersburg and the running fight with Lee to Appomattox,” James I. Robertson Jr., retired professor of Civil War history at Virginia Tech, told the Associated Press.

Jewett shared a tent with his cousin, Albert Williams, who in a letter reflecting his rudimentary education, described long marches in bad weather and sleeping in the open, according to a family history published online in 2005 by Barbara Ann Estabrook, the AP reported. Albert also described a scorched-earth campaign.

“i didnt have a chance to get a shot at a reb when we on the rode but i made the Cattle and Sheep and hogs suffer. You bet we killed every thing that we see and burnt every thing as we went,” Albert Williams wrote on Dec. 18, 1864, less than four months before he died of fever at age 21.

The 20th Maine also took part in Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s April 9, 1865, surrender at the home of Wilmer and Virginia McLean in the rural town of Appomattox Court House, Va., and later marched to Washington, D.C., where a military procession and celebration dubbed the Grand Review of the Armies took place on May 23 and 24, 1865.

The procession to bring Williams’ remains to Maine will continue state by state for the next three weeks. The final leg is scheduled for Aug. 22.

He will be buried with full military honors on Sept. 17 at Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, Maine, 6 miles east of Augusta, the state capital. It will take place during the 150th anniversary celebration for the adjacent Togus Veterans Hospital, the oldest Veterans Affairs hospital in the nation.

Williams will join five other members of the Maine 20th who are buried at Togus.

After the war, Williams became a carpenter. In the 1880s he lived in Brainerd, Minn., with his second wife, Nora Carey, according to census records researched by Phyllis Zegers of Roseburg, Ore., a volunteer with the Oregon State Hospital genealogy project.

The Williamses later moved to the Tacoma area in what was then Washington Territory. Williams also lived in Everett, Wash., before moving to Portland by 1903.

Zegers found newspaper references that Williams spoke at schools in the Portland area between 1914 and 1919. In the 1920 census, the Portland resident was listed as a widower.

She was unable to locate any descendents.

On April 14, 1922, Williams was admitted to the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane, the same Salem hospital used for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Records indicate he was admitted to the hospital for senility. He died three months later.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell