Azor Howitt Nickerson
Major, United States Army
Second Lieutenant, 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 17 August 1861
First Lieutenant 30 April 1862
Captain, 20 January to 20 November 1863
Captain, Veterans Reserve Corps, 12 November 1763
Breveted Major of Volunteers, 13 March 1865 for gallant conduct in the battles of Antietam, Maryland, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Honorably mustered out of the volunteer service, 19 April 1866
Second Lieutenant and First Lieutenant, 14th U. S. Infantry, 23 February 1866
Transferred to the 23rd U. S. Infantry, 21 September 1866
Regimental Adjutant, 23 May 1867 to 8 July 1868
Captain, 8 July 1868 to 25 June 1878
Major, Assistant Adjutant General, 15 June 1878
Retired 28 June 1881
Resigned retired commission 15 November 1883
There's no evidence Azor Howett Nickerson ever visited Chatham. The Civil War soldier Indian fighter and friend to two presidents was born in Ohio and traveled the nation extensively during his career, but never made it to the town where his ancestor, William Nickerson, began the family dynasty in the New World. And no one would have much cared had not an old family tale been mentioned to an Illinois newspaperman.
The ensuing investigation not only brought Azor Nickerson out of obscurity, but also, finally, to Chatham, at least conceptually.
"The Tarnished Saber: Major Azor Nickerson, USA, His Life and Times," is a 184-page hard-cover book published by the Chatham-based Nickerson Family Association. Inc., and written by Angelo Juarez, a retired soldier and newspaper marketing executive. Juarez became interested in the story after a friend who was a descendant of Azor Nickerson related the family story about the Civil War hero being killed while fighting Apaches in Arizona. A cursory check of Ohio historical records led Juarez to Nickerson's military record and a mystery: not only had the soldier not been killed fighting Indians in Arizona, but he had resigned and retired from the military the same year, a strange situation that further piqued Juarez's interest.
"That just didn't sound right," Juarez said in a telephone interview from his home in Crete, Illinois. What he found when he began digging for information in earnest was a strange story of battle-field bravery, politics, scandal and intrigue involving a colorful man who appeared to have fallen through the cracks of history.
Nickerson was born in 1837 a member of the branch of the Nickerson clan that relocated to Ohio in the late 1700s. He was studying law when the Civil War erupted; he volunteered in August 1861 in the 8th Ohio infantry regiment and was appointed a second lieutenant. He. was promoted to captain, leading his company in the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg, getting wounded in both. In describing both battles, Juarez drew extensively on Nickerson's own writings, some of which were published in magazines later in his life.
After the war, he became aide de camp to Brigadier General George Crook and participated in numerous battles with Native American tribes in the Arizona Territory and Southern California. He fought Indians throughout the west, participating in the battle of Rosebud Canyon in Wyoming, which immediately preceded the battle at Little Big Horn, where General George Custer met his fate.
Through Crook, Nickerson began a correspondence with then-Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes. The relationship became a friendship and, when Hayes was elected president, Nickerson, by then a major, was appointed assistant adjutant general of the Army in Washington, D.C. This, Juarez writes, was unusual, given that Nickerson was not West Point-educated and was barely senior enough in rank to be considered for the position. Nickerson was ambitious, Juarez writes, and not above using his connections to further his career. But the appointment, which continued under president James Garfield, another Ohio native, probably made Nickerson some enemies, who capitalized on indiscretions in his personal life and caused his fall from grace.
Nickerson had fallen in love with his wife's dressmaker and concocted a scheme whereby he would send his wife and daughter to Europe and then sue her for divorce on grounds of desertion. Meanwhile, with Garfield's assassination, Nickerson's White House connection was severed and he decided to retire from the army. But his wife returned from Europe and filed a suit to annul the divorce, and the details of his philandering that were then aired began to tarnish what was otherwise a bright military record. The Army launched an investigation and it was concluded that Nickerson used fraud to obtain his divorce, conduct unbecoming an officer. Army officials notified the retired officer that court martial proceedings were imminent. Nickerson fled to Canada and was tracked down by the Pinkerton agency, but because no charges were ever formally filed, he could not be extradited.
Nickerson eventually cut a deal with the Army allowing him to resign his commission. He fought the rest of his days - he lived until 1910 - to have his name restored to the rolls of retired officers. That didn't happen until the week of his death, when Congress passed a bill restoring his commission.
Juarez located documents related to Nickerson through the Army's historical institute, but found that the official military records had either been destroyed or were still sealed. Perhaps this was because the entire episode was embarrassing to the Army, or that powerful enemies conspired to wipe out all traces of Nickerson in the official record. Juarez also speculated that Nickerson could have been involved in a plan to either peacefully annex or invade Canada, several of which were hatched around that time.
"I think the scandal triggered it," Juarez said of Nickerson's suddenly losing his military and political backing. "But there were also rumors that he had Jewish blood in him, which I couldn't verify. It almost sounded like another Dreyfus case. I also think there was jealousy because of his friendship with the president." The incongruous fact that the Army was eager to cut a deal with Nickerson still lingers in Juarez's mind. Was there something Nickerson knew that officials did not want coming out in court martial proceedings?
Juarez, whose background is in market research, was fascinated by the story and challenged by the research required to flesh it out. "It was hardly a chore for me. I enjoyed it," he said. "It took five years to complete the work and although his friend passed away before it was completed he decided to finish the project as a tribute.
He'd never intended to publish the manuscript, but while trying to track down Nickerson's grandfathers, Juarez came across the Nickerson Family Association's Web site. He wrote asking if the association had any information about Azor Nickerson. Vice president of genealogy Burton Derrick responded with a full genealogy of the eighth generation Nickerson, who, it turns out, was one of the first to join the family association when it was formed in the late 1800s. Juarez sent Derrick the manuscript and the association agreed to publish the book.
The research Juarez did brought out details of Azor's life that the association was not aware of, Derrick said. "All that intrigue Angelo uncovered was new information," he said. It added a new shade to a family history already imbued with colorful characters.
"To me what this does is show that each and every Nickerson in these files was a human being, with faults and foibles that all human beings have," Derrick said, pointing to the bank of filing cabinets filled with genealogical data at the association's Chathamport headquarters. Juarez added that the story shows how even heroes sometimes "have feet of clay. He was a hero at Gettysburg and Antietam, but when it came down to it he took the easy way out for him.
"But I have to respect the guy. He was an outstanding soldier, who soldiered on despite a terrible chest wound. He even volunteered for the Spanish American war. I'm sure if he was on his feet in 1917, he would have volunteered again."
Copies of "The Tarnished Saber" are available at Chatham's two bookstores and from the Nickerson Family Association. The cost is $20, which includes shipping. Write to the association at Box 296, North Chatham. MA, 02650, or call 508-398-3183. Learn more about the Nickerson Family Association at its Web site, www.nickersonassoc.org.
NICKERSON, AZOR H
MAJOR ASST ADJT GEN US ARMY
VETERAN SERVICE DATES: Unknown
DATE OF DEATH: 02/18/1910
DATE OF INTERMENT: Unknown
BURIED AT: SITE E.DIV S
ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY
NICKERSON, LENA D W/O AZOR H
Photo By M. R. Patterson, 23 April 2004