The wheels of justice — and of bureaucracy — grind exceedingly slow, but almost 150 years after George Adams Harriman of Orland enlisted to fight the Confederacy, descendants located a few branches across the Harriman family tree have confirmed which military service he joined.
And now they have marked his Orland grave with a memorial stone that honors his Civil War service.
On Saturday, April 14, about a dozen people gathered at Evergreen Cemetery in Orland to dedicate the memorial stone to Harriman. Cousins Emeric Spooner and Peter Spooner, grand nephews a few generations removed from Harriman, cleared plant growth from his grave site before leveling and resetting his original gravestone, which had fallen.
Then Oliva Jacques, the chaplain at Bucksport’s American Legion Post 93, conducted a brief dedication ceremony to honor Harriman.
“I think it’s just amazing,” said Alice Clair of Bar Harbor, whose ancestors include a Harriman sibling. “I’m proud just to be part of it …to have that family connection,” yet “I had never heard about George when I was growing up.”
Harriman’s 94-year-old grand niece, Doris Soper Clair, possesses a Civil War-era photo of Harriman that identifies him as a captain in the United State Army. When Emeric Spooner, a Bucksport librarian, discovered Harriman’s flag-marked grave while researching other Civil War veterans buried in Evergreen Cemetery, he, too, initially believed that Harriman was a soldier.
Even his Orland gravestone identified him as “Capt.”
Then Spooner discovered that Harriman actually was a blue-water sailor, and an obscure Navy record recently set the record straight and earned Harriman the VA memorial stone.
In a document witnessed on May 19, 1862 by Charles F. Sleeper, a Middlesex County (Mass.) justice of the peace, Harriman agreed that “I do solemnly swear that I will support, protect, and defend the Constitution and Government of the United States … so help me God.” In signing the document, he became “an Acting Master’s Mate in the U.S. Navy on temporary service.”
Born in Orland on Nov. 15, 1833 to Henry and Olive Harriman, George Adams Harriman later went to sea as a merchant sailor. He was actually summoned to naval service in March 1862, but as he explained to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles in a May 19 letter, “at the time my appointment” arrived at the Boston Navy Yard, “I was in the West Indies.”
Welles forgave Harriman the delay, and Harriman served aboard three warships and became an acting ensign. In Navy parlance, “ensign” and “captain” represent opposite ends of the officerial book shelf, but Harriman served capably and earned an honorable discharge in December 1865. After his death, he was buried in Orland, and his name passed into relative obscurity.
After confirming Harriman’s status as a veteran, Spooner learned that Doris Clair was the de facto Harriman family historian. She “worked on genealogy all her life” and gathered the few available records about Harriman, said Alice Clair, who is Doris’ niece.
Spooner contacted Doris Clair about Harriman “on a Tuesday way back last summer,” and Alice drove her to meet him at the Buck Memorial Library three days later, he recalled. “I gave them the VA form to apply for the [memorial] stone” and provided contact information for the VA and the National Archives, which supposedly had Harriman’s service records.
Frustration built as Alice Clair mailed paperwork, the VA rejected her request due to missing signatures, and the National Archives claimed that “the Navy did not officers’ [service] records until 1902,” Spooner said. He emailed various government officials to seek their assistance; a VA response explained the problem about the missing signatories, and Alice Clair quickly ameliorated that situation.
“I kept running into stone walls at the National Archives” until last November, she said. Then Clair found a sympathetic ear in Kim McKeithan, an archives specialist.
“She was the only one who seemed to listen to what I was requesting,” Clair said. “A few weeks later, I opened my mailbox, and there is this packet of letters in his [Harriman’s] own handwriting, which was so beautiful.”
In her Nov. 29, 2011 letter to Clair, McKeithan confirmed that “the Navy Department did not maintain personnel files for officers until 1902.” However, she had found copies of Harriman’s correspondence related to his Civil War enlistment and a Feb. 26, 1883 Navy Department report that detailed his wartime service.
Clair supplied photocopies of these records to the VA, which approved Harriman’s memorial stone in March 2012. Engraved by the Veterans Monument Co. in Columbus, Miss., the 160-pound, 13-inch-by-42-inch granite stone was shipped via truck, which first stopped to deliver supplies at the Verso Paper Co. mill in Bucksport on April 2.
Later that day, the truck driver “called me and said, ‘I’m supposed to deliver a gravestone to a library?’,” Spooner recalled. The trucker did, and on April 14, that stone was set in place at Harriman’s grave. Unfortunately Doris Clair suffered a stroke last November; she could not attend the dedication ceremony, but relatives took photos to share with her.
The VA provided the memorial stone at no cost, according to Alice Clair. “It’s a great program,” she said. “I don’t think many people know it’s available.”
The memorial stone indicates that Harriman was an “Act[ing] Ens[ign] US Navy” and lists his birth and death dates. Inlaid on the stone is a shield emblem that the VA has not used for some decades, Spooner indicated. “The stone they sent, it’s a rare one,” he explained. “They used that style 20 to 30 years ago, but it’s starting to come back in with the sesquicentennial of the [Civil] war.”
For more information about the VA program that provides headstones or markers for the graves of deceased veterans, log onto www.cem.va.gov/hm_hm.asp.