Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Faces of the Civil War: Edwin Ruthven Lee

Edwin Lee, a captain in the 11th Connecticut,  was killed at
New Bern, N.C. on March 14, 1862.

Nearly a month after a Confederate shell ripped open his abdomen and killed Edwin Lee on a North Carolina battlefield, his body lay in state at the City Guard Armory in Hartford.

Edwin Lee's final resting place is in Riverside Cemetery,
next  to Pleasant Valley United Methodist Church
in Barkhamsted, Conn.
A U.S. flag, "mingled with black and white," draped the walls inside the armory, the Hartford Courant reported, and "hundreds of sorrowing citizens" paid their respects to a young man who only a couple years earlier had worked at the nearby Colt Armory and Sharps Rifle Co. Members of the City Guard, a Connecticut militia group of which Lee was once an important member, stood watch all day that Thursday in mid-April 1862.

The 28-year-old captain's cap, sash, blood-stained sword, torn belt and his broken pistol, which was struck by the shell that killed him, were placed upon the coffin, likely closed because of Lee's terrible wounds. A canopy of stars and stripes over the bier was topped by a placard that included the final words Lee supposedly uttered:

"Go on For Your Country." (1)

Edwin Ruthven Lee, the well-respected captain of Company D in the 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, was home for good.

Ever since I first discovered Lee's impressive brownstone grave marker in a rural Connecticut cemetery on a gray winter day four years ago, I was eager to find out more about him.

Who was this man buried in Riverside Cemetery next to the small, white Methodist church near the Farmington River?
An account of Lee's funeral appeared in the
Hartford Courant on April 19, 1862.
The funeral was actually on April 18,
not April 19 as appears in the story.

Did his loved ones travel south to arrange for the return of his body back home, as many families of soldiers killed during the Civil War did? 

Who mourned for Edwin Lee?

Thanks to assistance from Paul Hart of the Barkhamsted Historical Society, Gordon Harmon of the Canton Historical Museum and some Internet detective work, I now have a more complete picture of Lee's life and death.

Before the Civil War, Lee was a major supporter of Abraham Lincoln, often giving speeches for the Republican candidate during the 1860 presidential campaign. Described as a "young man of a clear head and earnest convictions," Lee was employed as a riflemaker at Hartford's Colt Armory and later Sharps Rifle Co., both of which supplied a large number of small arms to the Union army during the Civil War.

On Sept. 27, 1861, a little more than five months after the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, Lee enlisted in the Union army in Hartford. He had raised a company of 19 men from Hartford, 19 from Canterbury and Winsted and the remainder from small towns west of the state capital. (2). The Lees, who came from Revolutionary stock, were a patriotic family -- two of Edwin's brothers also enlisted and another attempted to enlist but was rejected because of a disability. (Another brother was a sutler during the war.)

On  the morning of April 18, 1862, a crowd gathered at the Collinsville train depot to await
the arrival of the coffin containing Edwin Lee's remains. The depot, shown in a post-Civil War 
photo, no longer exists. At right, the site today. (Left photo courtesy Canton Historical Musuem.)
After drilling in Hartford, Lee and his comrades headed for New York, where the 11th Connecticut left by steamer on Dec. 17, 1861, bound for Annapolis, Md. The 11th Connecticut  broke camp in early January and sailed to North Carolina as part of Gen. Ambrose Burnside's Expedition. In early March, Lee and his comrades moved from Roanoke Island to fight in their second battle of the war, an attack near New Bern, N.C., an important link in the Confederate supply chain and thus a key military target.

As Rebel artillery fire shrieked through the air around 9 a.m. on March 14, 1862, Lee wheeled his men into line to attack an enemy behind entrenchments several hundred yards away. Suddenly, an artillery shell crashed into the captain, killing Lee and five other Union soldiers, according to one account.

Lee's funeral cortege went through New Hartford, Conn., a short distance
 from where he was buried. Flags were at  half-mast along the route that day.
Although it seems unlikely after being struck in the abdomen by an artillery shell, Lee reportedly uttered these final words: "Tell my brother I died at the post of duty. Good-by. Go on for your country!" (3) The last sentence was later carved on Lee's tombstone.

A day after the battle, Lee was buried on the bank of the Neuse River, a short distance from where he was killed. His body was later disinterred and then shipped back north by the army on April 11 aboard the transport ship U.S. Jersey Blue, under the care of Reverend George Soule, the chaplain for the 11th Connecticut. Rank has its privileges, even in death. Four days later, the Jersey Blue arrived in New York, where Lee's family or his friends in the City Guard likely arranged for the final leg of the sad journey to Hartford. (4)

On Friday morning, April 18, 1862 -- a day the Hartford Courant reporter described as "one of the finest of the spring" -- Lee's remains began the meandering journey by train from Hartford to his funeral in Barkhamsted, about 30 miles away. Nearly 50 of Lee's former co-workers at the Sharps Rifle Co. and 44 City Guards were aboard as the train slowly wound its way through New Britain, Plainville and Unionville before finally arriving in the small Farmington River manufacturing town of Collinsville. (The Collins Co. in Collinsville supplied pikes to John Brown that the abolitionst intended to use to help incite a slave rebellion in Harper's Ferry, Va., in 1859.)

By 10 a.m., a large crowd had gathered at the Collinsville train depot, including many of Lee's friends, and the soldier's coffin was loaded into a coach for the 10-mile journey to Barkhamsted. As the cortege traveled up the steep hills before descending into the valley, "the sun and dust conspired to make the trip rather uncomfortable," the Courant reporter wrote, and the journey became tedious. But all along the route, through the small towns of Pine Meadow and New Hartford, the U.S. flag was displayed at half-mast in respect for Lee.

Edwin Lee's coffin was placed on a bier in front of this Methodist church in
Barkhamsted, Conn. At top, an early 20th century photo of the church before it was
expanded in the 1990s. Lee's grave marker is just to the right of the big, leafy tree.
Bottom, the church today. (Top photo courtesy Barkhamsted Historical Society)
The funeral cortege finally arrived at Pleasant Valley Methodist Church at 1 p.m.. Edwin Lee's coffin was removed from the coach and placed on a bier on the grass in front of the church  A large crowd had gathered, including Lee's grief-stricken family, parents Henry and Mary, and his brothers and sister.

A choir sang "When Blooming Youth Is Snatched Away," and an address and a prayer were offered by two local reverends. Lee's coffin was then carried to his gravesite about 25 yards away. The diligent Courant reporter described the scene:
The City Guard fired a volley over the grave, and again formed in marching order. The Armory Band, which played a durge during the march to the grave, played a lively quickstep as the company went away. "The King is dead; long live the King."
(1) Hartford Courant, April 20, 1862, Page 2
(2) The Military and Civil History of Connecticut During the War of 1861-65, William Augustus Croffut, John Moses Morrism 1869, Page 129
(3) Ibid, Page 175
(4) New York Times, April 16, 1862


  1. Anonymous4:36 PM

    The Hartford Courant's account of Captain Edwin Lee's funeral procession to Barkhamsted is very well written. Read the article and you will feel like you are there.

  2. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Anonymous: You nailed that. Very good job by that reporter nearly 150 years ago. John Banks

  3. Very detailed. I felt like I was there, mourning too, the brave and loyal, Captain Edwin Lee.

  4. Thank you for this post. We salute and thank Captain Lee and his family for their sacrifice. Freedom is never free. It is borne in blood and sacrifice by those who came before us, and those who stand guard now. Thank you for bringing that fact to life for us.