Charles Henry Axtell was born November 9, 1833, in Brookside, Morris County, New Jersey, the son of Jonathan Reeve Axtell (1812-1900) and Mary Smith (d. 1885).
New Jersey natives Jonathan and Mary Smith were married on October 31, 1832, probably in New Jersey, where they resided for many years. In 1849 Jonathan and Mary left New Jersey and moved westward, eventually settling in Michigan. By 1850 Charles was working as a mason with his father (both of whom followed that trade all their lives) and living in Detroit, Wayne County. From there the family moved to Howell, Livingston County, probably between 1851 and 1854, and by 1860 Jonathan was still living in Howell, and apparently lived there the remainder of his life.
Charles was possibly living in Ionia County when he married Mary “Mollie” Elizabeth Cornell, at the First Baptist church in Ionia, Ionia County on December 5, 1858; they had at least three children: Hattie Orpha (b. 1861), Willie Bertrand (1863-1910) and Fred Thomas Reeve (1880-1913). By 1860 they were living in Ionia where Charles was working as a mason with his younger brother John.
Charles stood 5’8” with blue eyes, sandy hair and a light complexion and was 27 years old and possibly still living in Ionia when he enlisted as a Musician in the Regimental Band on June 10, 1861; Charles probably played the cornet. (Two of his brothers, George and Samuel would eventually join the Fifth Michigan infantry, which as a sister regiment to the Third Michigan and the two units served side-by-side for some three years. Another brother, John would join Charles in the Custer Brigade as a member of the Band.)
Charles was reported as Musician First Class by the summer of 1862, although according to then-Regimental Adjutant Elisha O. Stevens, by June of 1862 Axtell had been “unfit for duty thirty (30) days with general debility and constitution broken down.” The Regimental surgeon, Dr. Zenas Bliss, wrote that he found Axtell “incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of chronic nephritis of eight months duration.” In fact Charles was discharged for general debility on June 5, 1862, near Fair Oaks, Virginia.
He returned to Michigan where he reentered the service as a musician in the Second Brigade Band, Third Cavalry Corps, on August 13, 1863, at Detroit, Wayne County, crediting Detroit, and was mustered the same day. He was sent to the Second cavalry Brigade on August 13, 1863, and was Bandmaster from the end of June pf 1864 until the end of December of 1864.
Charles was seriously injured in September of 1864. According to a statement he made many years later, Charles had apparently suffered an injury to his back in September of 1864. On September 19, “near Burns Ford on Oppaquan [sic] Creek, about two miles from Richmond,” during a charge his horse threw him into a dry ditch and then fell on top of him injuring his back, from which he claimed in 1893 to have never recovered.
In any case, he remained with the Brigade Band through the end of the war.
It appears that Charles kept a journal of sorts, at least towards the end of the war.
Feb. 27, : Bid good by to Mollie at Mrs. Anderson’s.
Winchester, Va Monday morning Feb. 27 at 6 a.m. Arrived at camp at 7. . . . Started at about 8 Struck the pike[?] about 2 miles above Kernstown [Virginia]. Moved on about 2 miles beyond Woodstock [Virginia] and went into camp. Weather very fine and everything perfect. . . .
Tues. Feb. 28: Broke camp at daylight. Weather very fine. Roads good and everybody feels fine. Moved on to within five miles of Harrisonburg [Virginia]. Camped for the night. The third div. in attempting to force the Shenandoah [river] lost two men and their horses drowned. The pontoons were finally laid.
Weds. Mar. 1: Broke camp at daylight. Raining quite hard. Moved on about daylight. Rained all day. [General] Custer in advance; went in camp about 6 miles of Staunton [?]
Thurs. Mar 2: Resumed our march at daylight. Left the pike at Staunton [Virginia]. Mud awful deep. Custer had a fight at Waynesboro [Virginia]. Camped near Fishville.
Fri. Mar 3: Broke camp at 8 a.m. Raining little. Came near being drowned out last night. Blankets and tents very wet. Passed through Rockfish Gap and camped 6 miles from Charlottesville. [Virginia]
Sat. March 4: Broke camp at 8 a.m. Rained all night. Reached the above place at about 3 p.m.
Sun Mar 5: . . . destroyed R.R. Weather fair.
Mon. Mar 6: Broke camp at sunup.
Tues. Mar 7: . . . busy . . . destroyed warehouses, canal and tobacco. Marched up the canal went in camped at New Market.
Wed. Mar 8: Broke camp at sunup. Burned building and tobacco. Marched to Ben [?] creek and then counter-marched back to New Market [?].
Thur Mar 9: Broke camp at about sunup. Formed at junction with the 3rd Div. Marched all night. Slept in the mud. . . .
Fri Mar 10: Marched to Columbia [?]. . . .
Sat. Mar 25: Broke camp at White House landing. At 4 a.m. command moved out [passing] through Charles City. We camped about 14 miles beyond . . . weather very pleasant and in camp at about 9 p.m.
Sun Mar 26: Reveille at 4 broke camp at daylight. Everybody in very good spirits. Weather very pleasant.
Weds. March 29: Broke camp at 2 a.m.. All marched at about 8; made one of the most tedious and tiresome marches; roads through pine swamps and very bad owing to road containing so much quicksand. . . . Night very dark. Brig. camped at half past 12 p.m. after getting supplies, return for the night. Rain set in but as good luck would have it I have taken the precaution to erect a tent.
Thurs. March 30: Broke camp at 5 a.m. Moved at 6. Rained all night and is raining still. Passed through Dinwiddie. Brig. moved on through to within 5 miles of Oak Grove had a brisk skirmish. Maj. Devin [?] of 1st Mich wounded. Lost some 2 men killed, captured 1 Lieut., 1 maj and several privates. Fell back about 2 miles and encamped. . . . Slept soundly.
Fri. March 31: Broke camp at sunup; was attacked at about 1 p.m. and driven back about 2 miles in good order to near the [Dinwiddie?] courthouse.
Sat. April 1: Whole camp advance 3rd Div on left, 1st [div] center and 5 corps on left wing. Met the enemy. . . . Fighting commenced at about 9 a.m. and continued on till dark. Yanks completely victorious captured 4000 prisoners and 8 pieces; our loss quite high.
Sun. April 2: Advanced and cut the south side [rail?]road, after which made advance to junction about 2 miles of the Appomattox river. Slight skirmishing all day but our loss slight.
After participating in the Grand Review in late May of 1865, in Washington, DC, Charles and the Brigade headed west for duty. He was honorably discharged as Band Master of the First Brigade, First cavalry Division, on October 12, 1865, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Charles returned to Michigan and was admitted to Harper Hospital in Detroit on May 11, 1865, cause unknown.
By 1870 Charles had returned to Ionia County and was working as a brick mason in Easton and living with his wife and two children. He may have moved to Lansing, Ingham County, by the mid-1870s when he worked with his father on a mason contracting job in Howell. in 1877 he resided briefly in Detroit. By the following year he was reportedly living in Lyons, Ionia County. In any case, Charles had apparently gone into business in Lansing with a Mr. Brigham and by December of 1878 they were listed as having been granted the brick work contract for the new Bardwell building in Lansing. Charles was still living with his wife and children in Lansing in 1880 working as a brick and stone mason. He and his family lived next door to the Hudson House Hotel in Lansing.
By early 1880 he was probably working as a mason in Kalamazoo, and he may have been living back in Ionia County. The Kalamazoo Gazette of January 14, 1880, mentioned Axtell as attending the meeting of the Grand Chapter of Masons of Ionia County, and in September he was reported to be living in Howell, Livingston County.
Sometime around 1881 Charles moved his family to Gratiot County, possibly to St. Louis; eventually settling in a house on N. State Street in Alma.
He lived in Alma for some years, and was reportedly a member of the Grand Army of the Republic William Moyer Post No. 152 in Alma, and at one time served as post commander. He was also a Republican and a member of the Order of Odd Fellows in Alma as well as the GAR Ely Post No. 158 in Elm Hall, Gratiot County and a Presbyterian. He was also a member of the Masonic Lodge, and in about 1882 was serving as “Grand High Priest” of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons in Michigan.
Charles probably remained in Alma until about 1886-1887. James Reed, a former member of the Third Michigan regimental band, wrote to the widow of Jacob Stegg, who had also played in the regimental band, that he believed Axtell was living in Ionia in 1886. At some point he worked as a guard at the State House of corrections in Ionia County; a position he apparently resigned from in 1887.
In addition to his work in masonry and contracting, which he would work at for most of his life, Charles also continued his interest in music. In 1879 he participated in the Knights Templar band in a band tournament held in Port Huron, Michigan. In fact Charles played with the Knight Templar Band from Lansing for many years.
Sometime around 1888 or 1889 Charles and his family moved out west, and by 1890 he was working as a contractor and living at 422 South Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California. By 1893 he was living in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, sometime before 1900 he moved to a house at 1212 Maple Avenue just a few blocks from his previous residence, and by 1908 he was in Sawtelle, Los Angeles County. (Sawtelle no longer exists and was apparently incorporated into the greater Los Angeles area.)
Sometime around 1906 Charles became a resident of the National Military Home (Pacific Branch) located in Los Angeles, and he was in and out of the Home for the rest of his life. In 1910 he was reportedly a resident of the Home as well as living at 132 1/2 N. Sixth Street in Sawtelle. He was also reported employed as a musician and was in fact a paid member of the National Home Band for some twelve years.
On January 10, 1910, from Sawtelle, he wrote to “My Dear Ones in Petoskey”,
I do not feel much like writing tonight, but feel it is my duty to do so. We buried your husband and father this p.m. in the family plot at what is called the Sunset Cemetery. It is a beautiful place high and dry. There were numerous floral pieces. He was buried from the Sawtelle Funeral parlor. Let’s see, it cost us, for bringing him from Redondo [Beach, CA], hearse, embalming, a suit of underwear, digging the grave, casket, a little over $100 but we had a very nice satisfactory funeral. Oh how hard it was, poor grandma could not bear to see him go. But “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” No one save them that have been with him as we have been can have any adequate idea of what he has suffered. Poor Frankie could not come. I telegraphed him at Frisco he said that he would try and come, but I suppose that it was impossible for him to get away, or raise the necessary amt. of money. I have not heard from him since I went up there but secured his address from a friend of his. 661 Filmore St., San Fransisco, c/o Tom Hutton. Alma that picture came too late. Shall I keep it or send it to Frankie? Accept love from Father & Grandpa.
That same day he also wrote to “Dear Mollie”,
By yesterday’s mail I sent a letter to Alma describing your father’s funeral, and now I will give you some idea. Your father was taken sick on the night of Jan. 5 -- that was Wednesday. We were called down there to Redondo on Thursday morning early. And on Friday at about eleven a.m. he died, that was the seventh. And yesterday we buried him. How proud he was of those pictures. I am glad you sent them as he no doubt thought of you people when he was dying. He did not talk much after he was taken sick. The effort appeared to aggravate his pain to some extent. Your grandma was by him when he died. You may know that we occupy a house of mourning now. By the way Mollie please tell me did you paint those two cards, one holding a fan & it does not seem possible that one so you could do such good portrait painting. If you did you could earn good money in Los Angeles painting china. But I do not feel like writing today. Please write to all of use who are so lonesome. Accept love Grandpa CH Axtell.
[P.S] Enclosed with this letter [is] a postcard to show you where your father died. The first building is the Bath House, now discarded and the next is an apartment house where we have stopped for several years past while at the beach in the second story up front is our suite of rooms two bedrooms and a kitchen all furnished, and in the first two windows, one on the front and one on the end, are the windows in the room where he took sick and died.
On November 19, 1914, he wrote to “Our Dear Daughter Eva,”
I have just finished a letter to my brother Johnnie who lives up in Montana. After finishing his letter I picked up your last one, and after reading it over the tenth time I concluded t write you a short letter. Now please do not get puffed up when I tell you that you write an excellent letter, so much better than you used to. Do your father and mother wear glasses yet? They are not as old as Mama and I are. Let’s see, I was 81 on the ninth of this month. And Mama will be 79 on the 21st of February next/ We are pretty old people. But I tell you Eva this knock-out was the nearest of any that I ever met with, ten weeks ago tomorrow. For several days I just hovered between life and death. But God was very good to us and left me with the folks for a little longer. I often wonder when our bad luck will have had it’s run. Just think of it -- first came Will’s death. Then Fred’s sickness and death. Will’s cost me $165.00 then came Fred’s which left me just about stranded. Following that came Mama’s long severe spell, over nine weeks and such suffering. But here God was so good, no one expected her to recover. Then came mine. I speak of all this because there are so many places that I would like to help out. Those little dears appealed to me so strongly but I am helpless. And there is Mollie struggling along all alone. It is too bad. But when can we do that is the question. But let’s change the subject to something more cheerful.
Do you remember Mate-Al, Al Yerrington’s widow, we expect her sometime next. (Yerrington, too, had served in the Third Michigan.) I received a letter from her at Santa Barbara a day or two ago and she said that she wanted to come and visit us if we would say yes and if we said no she would come anyhow and “we might take our medicine”. But my eyes are beginning to ache. so I will quit and give them a rest.
This is Friday, a.m., the 20th. I have had a good nap since lunch and now will write a few more words. Well Eva I should be glad to see you happily married. You have done nobly in keeping your girls together so long and are entitled to a whole lot of credit and should like very much to see you nicely located. How old is your prospective -- and what is his business -- and what are his habits, and how much of a family has he? Excuse me but I am very much interested in this matter. That is in a way I would be awfully sorry to see you unhappy. By the way should it happen could you not fit it so that he would bring you out to the coast on a wedding trip? But I must write one or two more letters. All join me in a message of love. Your loving father and all, C. H. Axtell
And on March 18, 1915, he wrote to “Our Dear Daughter”,
Eva your letter of the 10th came to us on the eve of the 16th with one also from Alma and we are glad to read them. I will reply to yours & then to Alma’s but will send them both in one envelope.
And now my dear daughter, our hearts go out to you in your deep affliction. [Her daughter Eva, Charles’ granddaughter, died in December of 1914.] As you say, we cannot understand why such deep afflictions are laid upon us. We can then sympthasize with you as we have in the past, through the deep, dark valley of mourning and we are still mourning for the lost ones. . . . I believe this because of the promise that we have “Blessed are they who die in the Lord”. . . . And we know that Fred [Charles’ brother] met with a complete change of heart weeks before he died [in 1913]. Oh how comforting that was to us. And it is my fervent prayer that we may sing praise to Him forever and ever more.
Now Eva about that picture of Mollie. It is no doubt a good one, but I would like a regular photograph of her.
And now on a somewhat delicate question. We all agree that there is a strong resemblance between you of twenty years ago, and that postal picture received by us in your or alma’s letter. And I know that the card doe snot do her justice. Oh, how sorry I am that Alma did not keep on with her lessons on the pipe organ work, her marrying need not as a matter of consequence stop everything else, of course not. You see pipe organ work is easily carried on in any community. Our two Grandsons [Fred and Artie] are both working in a large pipe organ factory over in San Fernando Valley, in a city called Van Nuys. They are putting out about two organs each month, all of them vary from one thousand dollars up to one and hundred and fifty thousand dollars. By the way why can’t she get busy & make sales rep there in of the churches? She would make a nice commission for her work. This is no snide affair but a thoroughly reliable firm. Beyond any question of course I am not writing with authority but I know that they will endorse anything I say. This is a business proposition and you can accept it as such. The boys Fred and Artie [and] also their father are working there. Of course alma this is to you & should you decide to undertake the work, why just drop them a line, tell them what you are doing & ask them for some literature. But you know the old saying, “It is the quiet pig that drinks the milk.” This letter is intended for the both of you. But the organ section to Alma.
Now Eva about those pictures that Will liked so well, do you mean those beach pictures? I suppose you do. As soon as we can get around to it & mother can segregate them we will send a pkg. I think it is very kind and thoughtful in the Martin family to call on your in your affliction and do you remember how much interest Mr. Martin manifested in Frankie’s death? Just as though he had been one of your own family, and again in Mollie’s death. He is sure a good man and make no mistake. That is the way we size him up. And we shall be glad to meet him as a friend of the Axtell family.
Now a word Alma. I forgot who it was that told me of your husband’s name, but think it was Hattie & that Mr. Chant that called on us from Petoskey may have told her. Now I will tell you how to get acquainted with us. Come pout to the Exposition this fall . . . & then you can make a formal introduction to all of us. You know that I have a brother in Honolulu, one in Montana & one in Michigan. They are planning to come to the coast along in Sept. Something may interfere or prevent it but I hope not. I have been trying to dig up your husband’s father’s name in connection with my Masonic work in Petoskey in 1882. I think it was I institute Emmet chapter 104 I think it was, & I installed its officers, & I call to mind the following names particularly. Mr. Cowan proprietor of the Clifton House. Also Brother James Buckley. Those are all of the names I can call to mind just now. But this I can say of the Boys, I was treated like a Prince. The office that I held at the time was Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch masons of Mich. This was on February seventh, 1882, thirty-three years ago, long time wasn’t it? I imagine this hoping that your Father or Grandfather may have been there. Should anyone of you know Mr. Buckley, please [give him] my very best. That order of the “White Shine” [?] is something entirely new to me.
In speaking of the Episcopalian Church, it must be what is called the Hy Church, as I have never seen he cross carried or used in the Laws [?] church during communion. Hattie & used to attend the Episcopalian Church when we lived in Lansing, we both sang in the choir there. I liked the service very much. We did not join the church however. I was Presbyterian & Hattie a Baptist. There is not Presbyterian Church here so we all joined the Baptist Church. Fred was not able to be invested but he was read into he church all the same. I think that all should unite with some church organization, and as to what proper form of baptism should be, must be left to the individual themselves. But as I said we should all unite with some particular church and help the cause along. According to out own individual ability, don’t you agree with me?
Well I have written a rambling letter, but please excuse imperfections and take the will for the deed. All join in a message of love. Always glad to hear from you.
On April 29, 1915, he wrote from Sawtelle to “Our Dear Daughter”,
Your excellent letter of the 12th came to hand -- please accept thanks for the same. We are all glad to hear form you. Oh how we do wish that you could come out to the coast this year. Nothing would please me more than to send you the money to buy your trip ticket. But I cannot, just think what we have had to take care of in the last three or four years. Will and Fred and then Mother’s sickness. And last but not least, my knock-down-and-out. Still walking on two crutched. But I did not intend to cry about anything. Now our dear daughter I am so glad that we have your respect, as we think very highly of you and Alma. If I had some of your father’s wealth, things would be different at this you rest assured. -- Would be different but we are not all alike if we were this would be a curious world. Maybe your prospective husband will want to come out to the coast. You speak of some Kodak [pictures?} We would like very much to get them. And also a picture of our new grandson. I am very glad that you have met Mr. Comstock. He was a very nice appearing man. and spoke very highly of the girls. lets see what is Alma’s husband’s business? I have forgotten what you said about that. I would like very much to send something to Lizz but you see all the income I have is my pension, thirty dollars a month. And it takes nearly all that to run this house. Lizz’s father is out of the business now is he? But his two brothers are at work on the R.R. are they not? Of course they have families of their own to support. When you happen to meet any of the Martins give them our best. They are a fine family I think. Artie is doing nicely now at work in the factory. And so is Fred and Charlie Hill. And our daughter we are always so glad to hear from you are any and all times. And would always be pleased to hear from Alma and her husband. Whenever you write have her drop in a few lines. You must remember this request that I make when you change your name permit us to call you Daughter. I may have told you about Fred’s divorced wife. She was with us during Fred’s sickness with the full consent of her husband until his death and during his last three hours, she and Hattie were with him. It was at Fred’s request; she stayed and went with us to the grave. I thought it was so nice of her and her husband. we correspond yet at regular intervals. But I will close as I have several other letters to write. Please accept love for the family, your mother & father, Mary & Charley
And on May 20, 1916, Charles wrote from Sawtelle to “Our Dear Daughter and All,”
This is a beautiful morning. Bright & sunny and makes a person feel thankful, in that we were permitted to locate in this beautiful country & in this connection, we have to regret that all members could not be with us. Oh how I do regret that you and Alma could not be out here, so that you could enjoy it with us. And your Mother how she would enjoy this country, as a place to live. But we must make the best of it and get along alone excepting Fred and Artie. By the way Art is married again and very happily so. His wife is a Kentucky girl, very highly educated and we think a whole lot of her & she appears to return the compliment. She was educated in a convent at Georgetown, Maryland. But she is very far from being a catholic today, not withstanding the fact that her father and mother are both Catholics, she had a beautiful name, I think its Vencentia, but we call her Vee for short, and when I write her I make it still shorter, “V”. they were married about a month ago and are now keeping house at a place over in Van Nuys in San Fernando Valley. If you have a late [recent] atlas you can readily find it right over the mountains north of Hollywood passing through the Cujunga [?] Pass. That name is pronounced “Cajanga” Pass. He is still at work with his father in that organ factory, about which I have previously written. That is something of a factory. They can put out a large pipe organ in from one week to ten days, and as large as four banks of keys [?] He gets $21.00 per week. He has recently bought a house where they will live but I rather think that they are living there now. That is a beautiful valley excepting they are times have quite severe sand storms, but, as the country is developed, they will abate. Now I am going to open your eyes somewhat. They have forty miles of roses set out and now growing and bearing the finest of roses. That industry was conceived and carried out by the land and water company. Electric lights on both sides of the roads & electric road in the center. But when you come out I will take you over there & then your eyes will open somewhat. But Mother says that dinner is ready & so am I. Now Mother thanks you very much for your good letter to her of recent date. Please call this an answer to your letter to her. When you see your mother please give her my best wishes. Our family, meaning Hattie, Mother and I send a bundle of love to you and Alma. Devoutly, your father C. H. Axtell
Charles received pension no. 848,355, and was drawing $6.00 in 1893 and $30.00 per month in 1912.
Charles died of heart disease on August 24, 1918, at the Los Angeles Soldier’s Home, and was buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery: plot 34 B 32. (pictured: Charles and his wife)