Ayres Family Letters

Finding Aid completed by Eric Roth, May 2002. Updated by Carrie Allmendinger July 2016
Inclusive Dates: 1839-1900
Bulk Dates: 1861-1863
Volume: .2 cu.ft.
Acquisition: Abel Quick and Virgil B. Dewitt
Access and Use: Unrestricted. Request for permission to publish materials from these records should be discussed with the Archivist and Director of Historic Huguenot Street.
Preferred Citation: [identification of item (author, title and date if known)], Ayres Family Letters, Historic Huguenot Street, New Paltz N.Y.
Abstract: Letters written by or to members of the Ayres family, primarily written by soldiers James Ayres and Alexander Ayres during the Civil War.
Language: English

Family Biographical Sketch


James and Alexander are the sons of Philip Ayres and Sarah Ann Requa. Philip and Sarah married in the Guilford Church on December 12, 1839. Sarah was the daughter of Gilbert Kipp Requa and Elizabeth Woolsey. Philip was died sometime between 1852 and 1855. Sarah married John Eyett by 1859, who James addresses letters to at this time.

 The Ayres family can be found in the 1850 United States Census.  Philip Ayres, a 30-year old carpenter livedin New Paltz with his wife, 29 year-old Sarah D. Ayres, three children, James N. (aged 9), Alexander (aged 7), and Albert (aged 1). Also listed is Elizabeth Requa, who is Sarah’s mother. The New York State Census of 1855, however, lists Sarah A. Ayres as a 36 year-old widow, working as a ‘tailoress’ in the town Lloyd, with two sons, Albert and Phillip. Alexander Ayres, aged 11, is living in the household of John and Hanna B. Requa in the town of Gardiner.

Beginning in 1859, letters written by James are addressed to John Eyett of New Paltz Landing (Town of Lloyd), who Sarah married second. In the 1865 Census, Sarah and John both claimed to have married twice, Sarah has claimed to have 10 children; this likely includes John’s children from his first marriage.

James Ayres joined Company F of the 52nd Illinois Infantry in 1861, was stationed at “Camp Sampson” and Cairo, Illinois, participated in the Battle of Corinth and the Battle of Pittsburgh, and died on October 19, aged 21. Alexander Ayres enlisted with Company I of the Second U.S. Infantry, was primarily stationed near Washington D.C. and died in July, 1863, aged 19. 

Collection Description

The letters fall into three main periods. The first period consists of few scattered letters predating the Civil War. These include two letters between Philip Ayres of Libertyville (town of New Paltz), Ulster County, New York and Thomas Requa of New York, New York, discuss their reminisces about childhood in Libertyville, family news, the weather, life in general, and steamboat travel to New Orleans on a ship named “Manchester.” Another early letter, probably dating from 1839, is addressed to Miss Sarah Anne Requa of Libertyville, care of Moses Wolsey (Woolsey) and discusses family news and visits. This letters is very fragile and barely legible.

The next group of letters dates from 1859 to 1864 and relate to James H. Ayres and Alexander Ayres. Most of these letters were written between the boys and their parents back home during their military careers, and describe various aspects of camp life, battles, hospital treatment, scenery, and the weather.  James H. Ayres spent most of his time in Carroll County, Illinois as a member of the 52nd Regiment of the Illinois Volunteers, although two letters from 1859 find him in Solen, Ohio discussing work prospects in civil engineering and the ‘good country’ in Ohio. In 1861 James H. Ayres writes about enlisting in the Union Army and relocating with his regiment to the Chicago area. At this point, he is optimistic and enthusiastic about the war and military service, remarking about his clothes and the ‘good spirits’ of the regiment.

 In letters from early 1862, James H. Ayres writes of his changing opinions about war after viewing battles, prisoner exchanges, and soldier burials, which he describes in some detail. On March 26, he writes that “this war will be a lesson to A great many boys me for one included if I get out of this alive I will know better another time.” In the Spring, James writes that he is growing weary of the war, and has contracted the measles, which has allowed him to temporarily leave the unit on a furlough. In the Summer, James writes home several times to discourage his younger brother Alexander from enlisting in the army, although Alexander later enlisted with the 2nd U.S. Infantry in Kingston, NY. On September 23, James writes from Camp Montgomery near Corrinth and says that “we are having verry good time now, but it rains nearly all the time, this dose not hurt us we are tough and constant.”

The next letter written home comes from a family friend near Argo named William H. Balcom informing the parents about the James’ death on October 19th from wounds he that he received on October 4th in the Battle of Corrinth. Several more letters from Balcom discuss his efforts to send James’ belongings and the ‘fatal bullet’ back home, to secure the wages owed to James’ family, and to find out more details the soldier’s death. Another letter sent to the parents from March 31, 1863 includes a badly faded albumen print photograph of James H. Ayres’ grave taken by the surviving members of his company.

In addition to corresponding with his parents, there are also letters between James and friends and family members serving in the army elsewhere. Letters written to James from Peter Holman describe the Battle of Pittsburgh and other friends and family in the service, including James Holman, James Hall, Delancey Kingon, Joseph Wallace, and Captain S.S. Dunn. During the Spring and Summer of 1862.

The letters of Alexander Ayres were written during the period of November 1862 to May 1863. Most of these letters were written from New York City and Long Island where Alexander was stationed from late November through February, although there are a few letters written from Kingston in early November 1862 and three letters written from Falmouth near Washington D.C. in March and April 1863. The subjects covered in these letters focus on Alexander’s impressions of camp life, mostly relating to food, drilling, the weather, a stay in a hospital on 319 Broadway in New York after contracting the measles, a riot in New York, Central Park, members of his regiment that became shipwrecked off Florida on their way to New Orleans, and skirmishes near Washington D.C. Alexander also briefly makes reference to working “in the mercantile business” for DuBois LeFevre, a hotel in Kingston owned by Nathaniel LeFevre, and a store owned by Josiah DuBois.

In August, a New York attorney named Adolphus Benedict writes to Alexander’s parents that he is “anxious about Alexander.” There are no further letters from or concerning Alexander, but it is known that he was killed in July. However, three more letters written by Benedict while acting under power of attorney discuss a lawsuit involving the Trinity Corporation and heirs of John Requa in 1866 and 1868. There are two other letters in the collection, one written in September 1871 from Sarah’s sister, signed A. Church, which is most likely her sister Angelina, and another written in 1900 from Albert to his brother, George, from the town of Highland.

Physical Condition and Arrangement

The physical condition of the letters varies, but many of the letters, particularly those dating from 1839-1862, are in poor condition and very fragile, showing signs of damage from yellowing, folding and creasing, stained, and torn. The print on some of the letters is badly faded, rendering the handwriting very difficult to read. The letters dating from 1863-1900 are in somewhat better condition. The handwriting itself varies greatly, since there are a number of different correspondents represented.  The letters of Alexander Ayres are the most difficult to read, but are not entirely illegible. All of the letters are arranged chronologically.

Related Materials

There are over twenty other collections maintained by the Huguenot Historical Society concerning the Civil War. The majority of these collections contain letters written by soldiers to family members and friends living in or around New Paltz. Other collections contain discharge notices, commission and promotion certificates, and pension papers, or relate to veteran groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic. Researchers interested in this topic may also want to access the Miscellaneous Photograph Collection, which contains photographs of Civil War soldiers.

 The New York Biographical Dictionary, compiled by William Heidgerd and kept at the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection in the Elting Memorial Library, New Paltz, contains information on these individuals. This notebook contains a mixture of handwritten and typewritten notes primarily taken from census records, church and cemetery records, and newspapers.

Contents Listing

Correspondence (1839?-1861 and undated)
Correspondence (1862)
Correspondence (1863-1900 scattered)