Herstory lesson

SHERIDAN – When discussing the history of the Civil War, many stories of women serving in combat are not well known. Residents in the town of Sheridan heard an account of how one local resident unofficially enlisted to serve alongside her husband.

The Sheridan Historical Society hosted Chautauqua County Historian Michelle Henry Monday evening to discuss Sarah (Sykes) Sinfield, who was one of the only women to receive a military pension. Sarah passed away in the town of Sheridan in the late 1800s at her home on Route 20. Sarah was born on Aug. 7, 1823 in England. At the age of 28, Sarah married William Sinfield in England and she never learned how to read or write. There is not much knowledge about Sarah prior coming to the United States, but Henry did find her on a ship manifest coming in to New York in October 1854.

She did not travel with William, but published accounts say he had previously emigrated and sent for Sarah.

By 1855, the couple settled in Dunkirk and William enlisted into the 72nd Regiment shortly thereafter. Since the Sinfields were living in a home with another couple and Sarah had no education, she wanted to join William while he served his country.

“For whatever reason she begged Captain (Patrick) Barrett to let her accompany her husband when he left. Of course, he said no. … She must have really pleaded with him because he checked with William to see if he had any objection to his wife joining the Regiment and he said no,” Henry said.

The regiment, which was under the supervision of Daniel Sickles, left in 1861 from Staten Island and went to Baltimore, Md. From there, the company marched to Washington, D.C. The first winter the soldiers camped in tents and that following spring, Sarah was told she had to go home due to upcoming battles. Once again, Sarah begged to stay with her husband.

“She said to him, ‘If you let me stay I promise I will leave the minute I become any burden to you or my husband. All you have to do is say the word and I’ll go home.’ Upon that promise, (the colonel) let her stay with the regiment. According to one of the men who wrote about her later, she then went and picked up one of the heavy camp bags and marched off down the road in front of the regiment to prove she was willing to go above and beyond. Supposedly the colonel rode his horse up to her and said ‘There goes the best soldier I have,'” Henry said.

Sarah served with the 72nd Regiment from the Battle of Bull Run through the Battle of Gettysburg. For those wounded in battle, Sarah was trying to tend to those who were injured. William was injured at Gettysburg and was sent to a hospital in Rhode Island to recover. Sarah, who traveled with her husband, was given a job as a nurse at the hospital where she worked during William’s eight-month stay. In 1864, the couple was back in Dunkirk where William was receiving $8 a month as a pension since his knee never completely healed.

William would eventually come to work as assistant lighthouse keeper at the Dunkirk Lighthouse where he and Sarah lived on the grounds. His duties included walking out to a smaller lighthouse on a pier near the former Niagara Mohawk facility every four hours. According to Henry, Sarah must have been completing the work for William since he was listed as crippled in the 1880 Census. Sarah eventually applied for a pension for herself and she received $15 a month and William’s pension increased to $16 per month.

William resigned from his position at the lighthouse in 1884 and moved into a house at the corner of Route 20 and Roberts Road in the town of Sheridan. Sarah died at that house on April 4, 1894 and the coroner’s report said she died from being “worn out.” William later died and was buried in Dayton, Ohio in 1899. Sarah is buried in Fredonia’s Forest Hill Cemetery but was denied a veteran’s marker since she was not officially enlisted and honorably discharged from the military. Through a private purchase, a veteran’s marker will be placed on Sarah’s grave this summer, Henry said. The presentation on Sarah will be given once again at the Dunkirk Lighthouse Festival in August. A dedication ceremony for the veteran’s marker is also being planned.

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