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SGT: OVILA CAYER of the 14th US Infantry of Company A, Medal of Honor Recipient
Civil War Veteran of Monterey County. 
Ovila Cayer was born in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada on February 9th, 1844. He moved to Malone, New York where he enlisted in Company A of the 14th U.S. Army Infantry Regiment on August 6th, 1861 as a Private, Cayer participated in the Second Battle of Bull Run at Manasses, Virginia on August 1862, and reportedly saved the National Colors at Gettysburg in July of 1863. He received a medal for conspicuous gallantry for his action at Gettysburg and was promoted to Color Sergeant. On August 18th, 1864, SGT: Ovila Cayer participated with the Union Corps as the descended on the Weldon Railroad in Virginia, driving off the Confederate pickets. The following day the rebs returned in force in an effort to dislodge the Federal forces in an all day battle. During the battle, all of the officers of the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment were killed or wounded. Sgt: Ovila Cayer, seeing this desperate situation, gallantly took command of his regiment and led it throughout the day in repelling the confederate attacks. The fighting at Weldon Railroad continued from August 19th through the 21st. Sgt: Ovila Cayer was one of the ten men to earn the “MEDAL OF HONOR” for their above and beyond call of duty as well as absolute bravery at Weldon Railroad, Virginia. SGT Ovila Cayer was mustered out on February 27th, 1867 as a Color Sergeant in Arizona. He came to the Salinas Valley in the early 1870’s. Ovila Cayer died on February 7th, 1909 in Salinas, California and is buried at the IOOF Cemetery in Salinas, California.

The following is a transcription for the obituary that appeared in the “Salinas Daily Index” newspaper, issue February 8, 1909. CAYER, OVILA (1842-1909) SALINASIOOF Cemetery 

(Salinas Daily Index February 8, 1909) 
Capt. Ovila Cayer Has Passed Away 
He Was a Gallant Defender of The Union in His Youth 
A capable Business Man during His Riper Years- He was a Mason, Elk and Odd Fellow 
Captain Ovila Cayer died at the Jim Bardin Hospital last evening quite suddenly and unexpectedly. 
Some weeks ago he was taken with serious intestinal trouble at his home out at Ranch 3 of the Spreckels Sugar Company, and was brought to the hospital. He seemed to be getting better and the last few days were very cheerful and hopeful, although at first he had feared for the worst. He received every attention and was visited frequently by some of his friends. J.J. Kelly was almost a daily visitor. On Saturday he rejoiced over his seeming recovery and spoke of his hope soon to go out home and have a drink of fine water there. Mr. Kelly called on him yesterday forenoon and took a bottle of mineral water to him, and he then seemed to be improving and confident of again getting out in a short time, but soon after noon he was seized with a pain in his intestines. He soon became unconscious and passed away at 6:30 o’clock in the presence of Mr. Kelly, his physician and the nurses. Ovila Cayer was born at Malone, N.Y. February 9, 1842, according to hid discharge papers from the United States army. Accordingly had he lived until tomorrow he would have been sixty seven years old. The record of his discharge reads: 

“Ovila Cayer, born at Malone, N.Y.. February 9, 1842: occupation, farmer, enlisted at Malone, N.Y. August 6 1861; private Company a Fourteenth United States Infantry; discharged in Arizona February 27 1867, as a color sergeant, tern of service 5 years and 6 months; wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness; taken prisoner at Petersburg, Virginia in April 1865. Captain Cayer’s age as given in his military record is incorrect. That gives the year of his birth as 1842. the explanation comes with the story of his enlistment. IN 1861 he was living in Canada. His grandmother made him a suit of homespun clothes, of which he was proud. He went down to Malone, New York, to see his brother. When his brother saw him in the new clothes, he joked him and offered to go out and buy a new suit. He went out and, meeting a recruiting officer, enlisted. He made his age fit his size by moving back the calendar two years. He would have been sixty five years old tomorrow. Captain Cayer was a good soldier. Congress voted him a medal for gallantry at the Battle of Gettysburg, where Confederate cavalry cut his regiment to pieces. the color sergeant fell land the colors were lost. Cayer went back and got them, and the general commanding issued an order to be read before the regiment when the medal for his gallant conduct was pinned on to his coat. Captain Cayer’s service was in the Army of the Potomac and he saw much fighting. On his discharge from the army he came to San Francisco. He first got employment on a farm in Alameda county. Later he went to Stanislaus county, where he was a foreman on a big ranching proposition. IN the early seventies he came to Salinas. He owned a cigar store here at one time and at others he took other employment and everywhere made friends. Later he became foreman on the Spence ranch, with which he was connected for more than twenty years before his death. When the Spence ranch was sold to the Spreckels Sugar Company Captain Cayer was retained as its superintendent and was also given supervision over other ranch operations conducted by the company. 

Captain Cayer, who was affectionately known to everybody as “Frenchy” was a man of most estimable qualities, and he had the esteem and respect of all who knew him. He was open hearted, open handed and a rare entertainer. His good nature was infectious and his generosity unlimited. He took a deep and kindly interest in the young people whom he saw grow from childhood to maturity in Salinas, and one hears him spoken of only in the most affectionate terms. He was a member of Salinas Lodge No. 204 F and A.M.; Salinas Chapter No. 59 R.A.M.; of Reveille Chapter No. 47, O.E.S. and of Watsonville Commandry No. 22, Knights Templars; also of Salinas Lodge No 614 B.P.O Elks and compromise encampment No. 27 I.O.O.F. 
The funeral will be under the auspices of the Masonic fraternity, from Masonic hall, in which the remains will lie in state on Wednesday at 2 o’clock p.m. Interment in I.O.O.F. cemetery Watsonville Commandery Knights Templar, will act as escort. Captain Cayer has no relatives in this State, but he has a brother and a niece living in Syracuse, New York. 
Dr. Gordon and Edwards held an autopsy this forenoon and found that the cause of death was an abscess that broke into the large bowel. 

(E-mail Tad Campbell 10/31/02) 
Bro. Charles E. Sharrock of Denver, Colo. just telephoned me regarding a Medal of Honor recipient that is buried at the Garden of Memories in Salinas. Evidently, Charles ran across the headstone recently when he was visiting a relative's grave. Here's the info that I've been able to "dig up" on him: 
Sgt. Ovila Cayer Enlisted at Malone, New York as a Sergeant (date unknown) in Company A, 14th U.S. Volunteers. Date of discharge unknown. Born 9 Feb 1844 at St. Remi, Canada. Died 7 Feb 1909 at Salinas, California. Buried at Garden Park Cemetery (alias Garden of Memories), Salinas, California. 
Awarded the Medal of Honor for action on 19 Aug 1864 at Weldon Railroad, Virginia, where he saved the regimental colors and commanded the regiment, all of the officers being disabled. His medal was issued on 15 Feb 1867.

Compiled and Submitted: by Tim P. Reese, PCC  
Camp Abe Lincoln #10 based out of Santa Cruz, Ca  
Dept. of Calif. and Pacific  
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War  
Sep 2009

Frenchy Cayer was a Civil War hero
By Jim Albanese

The man they called "Frenchy" didn't have a family outside of a brother in New York but made up for it by joining just about every civic and fraternal organization in Salinas in the 1870s. He rarely spoke of his exploits before moving to town, so it took an effort in 1909 to compose a proper obituary for Ovila Cayer.

Well, maybe it was the case that uncommon valor was such a common virtue during the Civil War that Cayer's exploits on the battlefield didn't seem all that special even to him. Yet now, 100 years after his death, with all that we know now, you have to wonder why streets, schools and community centers in Salinas were never named in Cayer's honor.

Cayer was a recipient of the Medal of Honor — later known as the Congressional Medal of Honor — for heroism Aug. 19, 1864, in the Battle of Weldon Railroad. The battle was part of the siege of Petersburg, Va., and helped Union forces tighten the noose around the defending Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Petersburg was the key to the Confederate capital at Richmond, and though it took another eight months to pry the rebels loose, the Weldon battle marked the turning of the tide for Union forces.

Cayer's unit, Co. A of the 14th U.S. volunteers, drove the Confederates out of vital railroad and supply junction, then dug in for the expected rebel counterattacks. The attacks were fierce and before long all of the officers in Cayer's company were either killed or wounded. With the issue still very much in doubt, Cayer, a sergeant, took command and managed to defeat every attempt to dislodge the federal soldiers. The fighting continued another two days before the 14th was relieved.

But that's just the tip of the historic iceberg.

Cayer almost certainly fibbed about his age when he enlisted in the Union army in August of 1861, launching a remarkable military career. He was captured in the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. On July 2, 1863, the second day of the climactic Battle of Gettysburg, his company was shattered by a Confederate cavalry attack. The unit's color sergeant was killed and the federals were about to be swept from the field when Cayer grabbed the flag and rallied the 14th. The attack was repulsed and the Union cause was saved. In the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864, he was wounded.

It was suggested in Cayer's obituary that he may have been highly decorated for his heroism at Gettysburg as well as the engagement at Weldon Railroad, making him possibly a double Medal of Honor hero. The record's neither clear nor complete and he wasn't one to brag about his service. In any case, he remained in the military until 1867, two years after the end of the war, when he was discharged in Arizona.

Canadian-born Cayer took the long route to Salinas, landing first in San Francisco then taking up farming in Alameda then, later, Stanislaus counties. In Salinas, Cayer opened a cigar store. Along the way he became foreman at the Spence Ranch, later part of the Spreckels Sugar Co. empire.

In February of 1909, Cayer was taken to bed at Jim Bardin Hospital with intestinal trouble. He was recovering nicely and joking with friends. The next day, the man who'd stood up to Confederate lead for the length and breadth of the Civil War suddenly died. He was mourned by his friends and buried with full Masonic rites. Interred with him was all memory of his military exploits.

Jump ahead to 2005: San Jose genealogist and military historian Debbie Peevyhouse has made it her life's mission to secure recognition for California's 41 Medal of Honor winners. Some Civil War-era heroes didn't even have gravemarkers. Cayer had a large gravestone at the Garden of Memories. What was missing was any mention of his military service.

Peevyhouse enlisted the help of the cemetery, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars and on Sept. 22, 2005, the heroic annotation "Medal of Honor" was made.

Jim Albanese is a former editor for The Salinas Californian (published here with permission from Jim)

(click on photos for larger view)


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Headstone Monument A Hero's Remembrance Rededication Program
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