Sunday, August 23, 2015

A visit to grave of first Union general killed during Civil War

General Nathaniel Lyon was buried in his hometown of Eastford, Conn., on Sept. 5, 1861. 
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No day in Eastford, Conn., has surpassed the late-summer day in 1861 when the body of native son Nathaniel Lyon -- the first Union general to die during the Civil War -- was returned home for burial. "The funeral brought together more people than the town ever saw convened within its limits before," the Hartford Daily Courant reported on Sept. 6, 1861, "or will again for many years to come."

Nearly four weeks earlier, on Aug. 10, 1861, the commander of the Army of the West died from a bullet wound to the chest at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri. A West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Lyon was only 43.

Throughout the North, the general was mourned. In St. Louis, where Lyon's remains arrived on Aug. 26, "the whole city seemed buried in the profoundest grief." In Cincinnati, thousands passed by Lyon's body as he lay in state Aug. 29, and in New York, flags were placed at half-mast throughout the city after his remains arrived there.

Lyon suffered three wounds at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. 
A bullet  to the chest  proved fatal. (Library of Congress)
When Lyon's body was transported from the train station in Hartford to lay in state at the Senate Chamber, the bell of the State House tolled and minute guns were fired. Two days later, on Sept. 4, 1861, Lyon's remains traveled by special train to Willimantic, Conn., where flags were at half-mast, bells tolled and "every balcony and windows [were] filled with people." During the four-hour, 12-mile journey from Willimantic to Eastford, mourners lined the roads to view the 300-wagon procession, and in a poignant moment, a disabled girl was carried from her house to the roadside to witness the historic event. At about nightfall, men, women and children, some carrying lamps or candles, followed Lyon's hearse as it arrived in Eastford.

At sunrise the next morning --  a "bright and cool" Thursday  -- "people began to pour into the village in continuous streams," noted an observer. "For miles around, the principal roads were filled with long and nearly unbroken lines of conveyances." At the 10 a.m. memorial service at the Eastford Congregational Church, thousands gathered and a booth was set up on a slope outside the church for speakers. Among the dignitaries who attended were the governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island, an ex-governor of Connecticut, a U.S. Senator, the mayor of Hartford, army generals and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, who also was an Eastford native.

"Windham County opened hospitable doors," the Daily Courant reported, "and the extraordinary tax upon the capacity of the community was duly honored. All the guests were well cared for by willing people, with willing hearts."

Atop Lyon's coffin in front of the pulpit lay the general's hat and sword, and flowers were strewn on its lid. A "banner which he had followed so devotedly, and upheld so gloriously," wrote an observer, "threw its graceful fold over the head of the sleeping warrior."

Lyon's casket remained closed, no doubt a wise move given the time elapsed since his death and the treatment of his remains after he was killed. After the battle, doctors tried to preserve the body with injections of arsenic but were apparently unsuccessful. And the news got worse: the Union army twice lost track of Lyon's body, which first was placed in an outdoor cellar and covered with straw on the farm of a staunch Unionist. Later, the woman had the remains buried on another part of her property. Thankfully, the Union army eventually took custody of the body.

For the 2 1/2--mile journey from the Congregational Church to old Phoenixville Cemetery, Lyon's body was placed in a hearse trimmed with American flags and built by noted Hartford undertaker William Roberts. The cemetery grounds formed a "perfect amphitheater,"  a witness wrote, for a crowd estimated at up to 15,000 people.  Pall bearers that afternoon were Connecticut Gov. William Buckingham, Rhode Island Gov. William Sprague and two generals. A three-volley salute was fired by the Hartford City Guards and Lyon was lowered into a grave in the family plot.

"When the last echoes of the musketry over Lyon's grave rattled through the ravines of Windham County," the Daily Courant reported, "there was not one of all the throng who did not leave the sacred place with a sadder, even if not a better and more patriotic heart."

(See below for the complete account of Lyon's funeral in the Hartford Daily Courant on Sept. 6, 1861.)

An illustration in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, a popular Civil War newspaper, depicts 
Lyon's wounding at the Battle of Wilson's Creek on Aug. 10, 1861. Lyon is on horseback.

Hartford Courant, Sept. 6, 1861

The escort accompanying the body of Gen. Lyon left Hartford, by special train, at 12 1/2 o'clock Wednesday noon. In addition to the special escort detailed from the Army in Missouri, and the friends of Gen. Lyon, which we mentioned Tuesday, there were present at this time the Hartford City Guard, Capt. Prentice, with 60 men, and Colt's Armory Band; the Hartford Light Guard, Lieut. Kipplin, with 40 men; Col. Burnham, of the First Regiment Connecticut Volunteers; Capts. Gore and Durivage, and Lieut. Merrills, of the Second.

The train arrived in due season at Willimantic, and found the people gathered there by thousands. All the buildings in the vicinity of the depot were covered, and every balcony and windows filled with people. The flags were dressed in mourning and drooped at half-mast, and the bells of the village were tolled. The procession started at 3 1/2 o'clock for Eastford, which was reached in about four hours.

From the time the body left Hartford, to the hour when it was deposited in the Congregational Church in Eastford, all classes and conditions of people paid it, in sundry ways, some token of respect.

A  service for Lyon was held at the Eastford Congregational Church
on Sept. 5, 1861. Thousands gathered here to pay

 their respects to the general.
It was nearly dark when the procession wound over the hills in the vicinity of Eastford, and found the flags in sable trimming plentifully displayed. The groups which had been a feature of the route, now grew more frequent. At one house, a young woman who has been an invalid for fifteen years, was brought out upon the bank by the roadside, that she might see the train go past. As the village lights were seen in the distance, the military formed in line and preceded the corpse to the centre. Here it was followed by the crowd, men, women and children, some carrying lighted lamps, and some lighted candles, up the hill to the church, where the body was laid for the night.

Windham County opened hospitable doors, and the extraordinary tax upon the capacity of the community was duly honored. All the guests were well cared for by willing people, with willing hearts.

Thursday was bright and cool, a beautiful day being promised -- a promise which was fulfilled subsequently. Soon after sunrise the people of the County came flocking in, and a continual stream of carriages continued for hours. The churches and some of the other buildings of the town were covered with black. A booth for the speakers and invited guests was erected on the slope east of the Congregational Church, and in front of and around this the thousands gathered. Col. Sabin came in with a company of one hundred horsemen from Woodstock. The Tiger Engine Company, of Southbridge, preceded by a band, and the Home Guard, of the same place, were among the organizations present. Among the guests were Gov. Buckingham, Adjt.-Gen. Williams, Senator Foster, Hon. A.A. Burnham, M.C. from the Third District; Major-Gen. Pratt, Mayor Deming and Postmaster Cleveland, of Hartford; Major Warner and Lieut. Holcomb, of the Third Connecticut Regiment, and Lieut.-Col. Young, of the Second, from Connecticut; Gov. Sprague and Staff, Col. Gardiner, Col. Frieze, Col. Harris, Col. Sprague, Col. Knight and Attorney-General Burges, from Rhode Island; Adjt.-Gen. Schouler and Lieut.-Col. Witherell, of Gov. Andrew's Staff, from Massachusetts; Hon. Richard Busteed, of New-York; Hon. Galusa A. Grow, of Pennsylvania; Col. Casey, of the U.S. Army, and Paymaster Adams, of the U.S. Navy; Lieut. J.B. Dunlap, Thirty-eighth New-York Regiment; Hon. J.B. Colt, of Missouri.

On Sept. 5, 1861, a crowd estimated at 15,000 people gathered at old 
Phoenixville Cemetery  for Lyon's graveside service. 
(Click on image for full-screen interactive panorama.)

At sunrise a gun was fired by a detachment of the Hartford City Guard, and this was followed by a signal gun at 9 o'clock. At the time the multitude, arriving on foot, or by all manner of conveyances, begun to gather on the slope in front of the church. It was nearly 11 o'clock when the City and Light Guards came from the direction of Danielsonville, towards which they had gone to meet Gov. Sprague and suite. The exercises of the day commenced soon afterwards, Ex-Gov. Cleveland presiding.

The choir sang the hymn, "Hark from the tombs a mournful sound."

A West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran, Lyon
was 43 when he died at Wilson's Creek.
Rev. Mr. Willians, of Chaplin, made a prayer; the choir sang "America;" and Judge Carpenter, of Killingly, was called to the stand. He gave a brief review of the life and character of Gen. Lyon.

Hon. Galusha A. Grow followed. He eulogized Gen. Lyon as a true patriot and brave man.

In a similar strain, Gov. Buckingham, Gov. Sprague, and Judge Colt, of St. Louis, spoke. Remarks were also made by Capt. Edgar, Maj. Conant, and others of the Army in Missouri, and by Messrs. Deming, Busteed, Schouler, and Senator Foster. After the speeches, the exercises of the forenoon were finished. The military and guests were marched to a grove and collated.

In the afternoon, the line was formed and marched to the grove. The body was conveyed in the splendid hearse of Roberts, of this city. The vehicle was decorated with silver trappings, trimmed with American flags, surmounted by plumes, and drawn by four black horses. By its side walked the citizens who came with the body from St. Louis, and whose mission was now coming to a close, and the honorary bearers designated by Ex-Gov. Cleveland, consisting of Gov. Buckingham, Gov. Sprague, Gen. Pratt, and Gen. Casey. As the procession neared the grove, the detachment of the City Guard fired a National salute from a high hill near at hand.

After arrival at the grave, the Episcopal burial service was read by Rev. C.C. Adams, the Methodist Clergyman of Eastford. The body was lowered into the earth, the City Guard fired three volleys over the place, and the vast assembly dispersed.

Gen. Lyon was literally buried with his fathers in the family burial-ground, in the town of Eastford, near the Ashford line. The funeral brought together more people than the town ever saw convened within its limits before, or will again for many years to come. The estimation in which Lyon was held by all patriot people, amounting almost to idolization, was shown by the multitude who gathered to pay this last tribute of respect and affection to his remains. It is estimated that 15,000 were present; and when the last echoes of the musketry over Lyon's grave rattled through the ravines of Windham County, there was not one of all the throng who did not leave the sacred place with a sadder, even if not a better and more patriotic heart.

The date the monument was placed in old Phoenixville Cemetery is unknown.
When he was shot at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, Lyon was on horseback, leading Iowa troops.
This is a close-up of the front of the memorial.
Another close-up of the front of Nathaniel Lyon's memorial in Eastford, Conn.
Crossed swords and cannons and a shield on the front of Lyon's monument.
General Lyon Cemetery was formerly known as Phoenixville Cemetery.


  1. As a true Civil War "nerd" I have traveled to many battlefields and Wilson's Creek was my very first. The spot where Gen. Lyon was killed always remained in my mind. I very much enjoyed this read. Thank you for the posting. Rich

  2. I appreciate the information and the well detailed descriptions. As this information is of quite importance to me. General Lyon was my Great Uncle.

    Thank you, sincerely Treat A Romick