Story about the death of Asa Wilmots Olin

Asa Wilmoth Olin

Born: 1 Jan 1818 Canton, St Lawrence, NY

Died: 16 Jan 1864 Camp Relief, Washington DC

Asa was the son of Deacon Joseph Mitchel Olin and his line was >Ensign Caleb Olin> Henry Olin> John Olin I.

Asa died serving as a Private in the Union Army in the Civil War. Recently I was teaching a class on using military records to discover biographical data about ancestors and I used Asa as my test case for my students.

In researching Widow’s Pension files on Ancestry’s Fold3 website I located the application file of Asa’s widow, Betsy Champney Olin, and used it as an example of how rich these record files are for writing the story about the life and death of your ancestors. This pension file was 44 page of documents related to proving that Betsy and her juvenile children still living at home deserved the pension.

I demonstrated that you can find key vital record data in these files that may be the only place you can find such information. In this pension application there were records proving the marriage date, place and minister who married Asa and Betsy. There was information regarding the age of the children and where they were born.

Widow Pension files required proof of service, and in Asa’s case proof of his death while serving the Union Army. This file provided a great deal of background and color about his last days. There are also depositions from relatives and associates telling of Asa’s service and other details of his life that would be very hard to find in any other record set.

Asa died of a massive heart attack shortly after arriving at Camp Relief outside of Washington, DC. He had just arrived from New York by train and had contracted a bad cold and chest congestion on his trip to Washington. He was resting at the Camp and died suddenly the next morning.

The file contained a letter to the widow from the base commander that her husband had died suddenly, which is hand written and sent the same day by rail to her home in Canton, NY. It’s an

early version of the dreaded telegram that we came to know in later wars. You can imagine the reaction of receiving such a note suddenly. A digitized copy of all these records is available in the online record set on Fold3. You can simply search his name and note the Civil War and his record sets come right up.

Her actual application for the pension contains biographical information useful to a family researcher including Betsy’s maiden name and birth location, which is sometimes difficult to locate for women in the 1800’s.

The item I wanted to discuss in detail was a letter written by Betsy’s oldest son Russell who was 24 at the time. Russel traveled to Washington DC immediately upon hearing of his father’s death. The letter is dated just four days after his dad’s death. This letter gives the reader an incredibly detailed sense of what happened to Asa and the angst of the son writing his mother.

I will share excerpts and transcribe the letter which is difficult to read because of the penmanship and lightness of the digital image.

“Camp of Scott 900” (This was the regiment Asa was serving in.)

Washington January 20th, 1864

Dear Mother:

I arrived last evening at 9 o’clock and came up here at once. I could ascertain little or anything about Father before this morning, and accepted a bed which was kindly offered me by one of the soldiers and slept all I could until this morning.

I went to the surgeon of the Regiment as soon as I could see him and asked of him the particulars of Father’s illness and death. He told me that Father came into the hospital Friday morning. He had complained some of a severe cold that he had taken on the way down here and had his throat treated, but he had nearly recovered.

Father said he had quite a severe pain about his chest when he went to the hospital but he could not locate it more particularly. After taking some rest in a comfortable bed and having received suitable nutrient he exclaimed himself much better and thought he should soon recover.

He talked considerably Friday night and slept comfortably well until 4 o’clock in the morning. He then awoke and attempted to arise but in the attempt he was taken with fainting and fell out of bed on the floor. The attendants ran to help him and placed him on the bed again. He then called for water and said he was somewhat discouraged to find himself so weak.

A violent pain of the heart immediately set in so severe that he could only place his hand over his heart and thus in death his agony. He continued in this state for two hours where death came to relieve him of his suffering and as I humbly trust to usher him into that rest that remaineth for the people of God. He died very easy, and the surgeon informed me that he did not seem at all to fear death. There was no chaplain to pray with him or administer that most necessary medicine of spiritual consolation in his last moments, but let us trust that God was with him and has taken Father to himself. I never felt more the truthfulness of the sentence in the Proverbs, “Vanity of vanities saith the Preacher, all is vanity.” I have tried in vain to hear of some word Father might have spoken, concerning his family, but it appears that he so little time due to the suddenness  of his death hat he did not think of leaving us any last words.

After his death the surgeon held a post mortem.

The letter ends there, but there is a P.S dated from New York City Thursday Evening Jan 21st 1864, which Russell wrote on his way home.

After trying to procure means to take Father’s body home and finding that it would be with great difficulty that I could do so, I gave up the idea of that possibility. His remains can be brought home at any time. I visited the cemetery where Father was buried in the afternoon yesterday. It is about two miles northwest of the city and pleasantly located. About 7,000 have already been buried there since the war began. It is called the “Soldiers Home.” It is divided into lots and every grave is numbered, so that there can never be any doubt of ascertaining his grave. Walnut head boards are being prepared for tomb stones. They are to be painted white and the name is to be printed on them in black letters. There Father’s remains lie—on one side is the grave of J. W. Wilson and Private from Company B Second Regiment, NC Infantry and on the other side that of Joh nMiller a Union Soldier. You doubtlessly feel the same sadness that I do. We all feel it in common and that think that Father’s body should rest then so far away from home, but it is near his Countries Capital and besides, he is not there and it matters little comparatively where the body it.

I could not recover any of Father’s clothing that would be of any service to you at home and as I thought you would not care to receive his uniform, etc. I got his pocketbook containing some unimportant papers and $1.00 which must have been in all the money he had with him.

I am on my way to Geneva...

The letter went on to discuss and comfort his mother and siblings at home.

This remarkable letter gives a researcher the opportunity to almost step into the shoes of the letter writer and understand his pain dealing with the death of his Father so suddenly and communicating to his mother by letter.

The remarkable fact that in 1864 he traveled from update New York on trains to Washington, DC during the midst of the War and this letter is preserved in this pension application file.

As a side note the Veterans Home Cemetery is not far from today’s Arlington National Cemetery and was the first burial ground for thousands of Civil War Soldiers.

You can find a grave site locator for Asa in the US Burial Registers, Military Posts and National Cemeteries, but there is also a headstone placed in his family plot in the Evergreen Cemetery in Canton, St Lawrence, NY. #42167507

See below a screen shot of the register noting the burial of Asa W Olin. This is available on (Click on image to view larger size.)

Screen shot of burial register

I urge all of you who are researching your ancestry to locate these type of stories to share with your family and future generations. It’s more than dates, it brings these people to life and we better understand their struggles in life.

Happy researching.

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