SOUTH HADLEY — The Town Common resembled a Civil War camp, all flags and uniforms and crisp salutes, as the cremated remains of Private Jewett Williams arrived here toward the end of an emotional, cross-country journey.
The stay was only a short one, a fleeting chance last weekend to honor a Union veteran who finally, incredibly, was on his way home to Maine after his long-forgotten ashes had been reclaimed from the Oregon psychiatric hospital where he died in 1922.
“He’s finally getting the fair and full military honors that he deserved and earned,” said Ryan Dolan, a 25-year-old from Granby, who was dressed in a lieutenant’s uniform of the First Massachusetts Cavalry.
In a Sept. 24 ceremony in a small town on the Canadian border, Williams almost certainly will be the last of the famed 20th Maine Infantry Regiment to be interred.
His long, rolling trip home was led across 21 states by the Patriot Guard Riders, a national organization of veterans who provide motorcycle escorts at many military funerals. Along the way from Oregon — through the Rockies, the Midwest, and then Appomattox, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa. — many veterans and others paid their respects to a man who died at age 79 after apparently losing all contact with his family in faraway Maine.
“It’s showing you’re not forgotten,” said Richard Haste, a 56-year-old Navy veteran who spoke at the South Hadley event.
Twenty-one rifle shots were fired at South Hadley, a prayer was said, and the remains of Williams — who was a 21-year-old farmer when he was drafted in 1864 — embarked on the next leg of the 3,700-mile trek. Williams was not with the 20th Maine during its legendary stand at Gettysburg, but he was with the regiment when its soldiers witnessed the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 1865.
“It’s important to all of us that every soldier comes home,” said Mike Edgecomb, captain of the Patriot Guard Riders of Maine.
On Monday, the ashes reached the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta, Maine, where they will remain on public view until they are buried in a family plot in Hodgdon.
It’s a repatriation that will culminate in the soldier’s interment with his parents and a baby sister. Williams returned to Maine only briefly after the war and spent the rest of his life moving toward the Pacific Ocean.
He disappeared amid the vast migration of former soldiers who headed west in the hope of better opportunities. But his life’s journey — to Minnesota, Colorado, Washington state, and Oregon — did not bring him riches.
Williams had six children, married twice, and is believed to have worked as a carpenter, lumberjack, and laborer until he died at Oregon State Hospital, where his ashes were found among 3,500 unclaimed urns that were rediscovered by chance in 2004.
Thomas Desjardin, a special assistant to Governor Paul LePage of Maine, helped bring Williams out of the shadows. Research by Desjardin, an author and expert on the 20th Maine, led to Oregon death records that placed Williams at the insane asylum.
Excited by the discovery, Desjardin prepared to travel to Oregon to retrieve the remains. Instead, the Patriot Guard Riders stepped up, handing off the ashes to different chapters of the group at each state border.
“He’s become this national symbol of repatriating a veteran to home,” said Adria Horn, director of the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services. “This means more to people than we could have anticipated.”
The outpouring also shows the emotional pull of the Civil War after more than 150 years. “It was our bloodiest war and is the root of some of our social problems still today, some that haven’t been resolved,” Haste said.
The transcontinental trek stopped Aug. 18 at Appomattox, where a ceremony was held near the area where the 20th Maine had stood during the surrender.
“That was the day that the cause of their suffering ended, but not all their suffering,” said Desjardin, a former state education commissioner.
Williams, for example, transitioned like many fellow veterans into a life of near-constant struggle. His death certificate listed him as a laborer, but he continued to identify with his experiences in the war. Williams spoke about them to students in Oregon public schools from 1914 to 1919.
Maine officials initially did not know whether Williams had descendants in the Hodgdon area. However, a group of six siblings came forward with documentation that showed they are first cousins of the soldier, three times removed. Those siblings — three of whom live in Hodgdon — will be involved in the burial.
Tanya Marshall Pasquarelli, an amateur historian from the town, helped broker the connection between family and state. The memory of Williams had not disappeared completely from family lore, she said, but not much was known about the young soldier and his subsequent life.
Still, she said, the return of his remains will be profoundly evocative — not only for the family, but also for the remote but beautiful area where they live.
“All of Aroostook County is supportive, honored, and proud to have one of our own come back,” Pasquarelli said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.