Sunday, September 13, 2015

Uncovering Civil War stories in General Lyon Cemetery

A Civil War-era illustration of the cemetery in Eastford, Conn., where Nathaniel Lyon was buried.
(Life of General Nathaniel Lyon)
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On Sept. 5, 1861, a crowd estimated at 15,000 gathered in a small cemetery in rural Eastford, Conn., for the funeral of Nathaniel Lyon, the first Union general to die during the Civil War. The sloping grounds formed a "perfect amphitheater" that Thursday, which one witness described as "singularly beautiful, even among the lovely autumnal days of New England."

Killed weeks earlier at the Battle of Wilson's Creek in Missouri, the 43-year-old native son of Connecticut was buried with great fanfare. Minute guns fired as Lyon's hearse, decorated with silver trappings" and an American flag and drawn by "four magnificent black horses," neared Phoenixville Cemetery. The governor of Connecticut and a former governor of the state served as pallbearers. After the general's remains were lowered into ground, near the graves of his parents, three volleys were fired by the City Guard of Hartford. A band played a dirge.

"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 Hartford Daily Courant reported the day after funeral.

On a humid, late-summer afternoon nearly 154 years later, the scene was quite different.

The throaty growl of motorcycles racing along a nearby road reverberated through the air. Only one visitor walked the grounds of the cemetery, long ago renamed for Lyon. Half-open ground in the summer of 1861, the three-acre graveyard was filled with markers, including many for the general's Union army comrades. Just yards from Lyon's grave, a headstone memorializes his nephew, a soldier in a Connecticut cavalry unit, who was killed during the war. Old, metal Grand Army of the Republic markers and small American flags denoted veterans' graves.

And at almost every turn, a Civil War story was waiting to be told.

Mortally wounded at Port Hudson, 26th Connecticut Sergeant Edwin Keyes is honored with a 
memorial in old Phoenixville Cemetery in Eastford, Conn. (Keyes image courtesy of  his descendant)

The battlefield wound that eventually killed Edwin Ruthven Keyes, a 37-year-old sergeant in the 26th Connecticut, was especially gruesome. "... caused by a rifle ball, or is believed to be so caused," the regimental surgeon noted, "resulting in serious injury to the mouth, throat and parts adjacent."

Edwin Keyes lies buried in Baton Rouge (La.) National Cemetery
 in Plot 20, Grave No. 1283.  The 37-year-old sergeant was
 mortallywounded in the jaw at the Siege of Port Hudson.
A well-regarded teacher and principal at Ashford Academy before the war, Keyes suffered the wound during the 26th Connecticut's ill-advised charge "through grape and canister" at Port Hudson, La.,  on May 27, 1863. The siege of the vast Rebel fortress along the steep banks of the Mississippi River claimed some of the regiment's best men. After orderly Sergeant Albert Smith was mortally wounded, he shook hands with his captain and said, "Good-by! Tell my friends I hope to meet them in Heaven." In the heat of battle, another officer tended to a mortally wounded Captain Jedediah Randall, who told the man, "I'm all right. Go and take care of the boys."

In an undated pension file document, Edwin Keyes' widow 
wrote, "I shall be glad of an increase of  pension in my 
declining years." (
A 2nd lieutenant in the 26th Connecticut, Hervey Jacobs was mortally wounded by the explosion of a 12-pound spherical case shot while leading a company during an assault at Port Hudson on June 14. The shell killed four and wounded 16 others. A 25-year-old bookkeeper, he died July 5 at the same hospital in Baton Rouge, La., in which  his brother, Wyman, a 21-year-old private in the 50th Massachusetts, died of disease two days later.

Suffering terribly, Keyes lingered at Convalescent Hospital in Baton Rouge until he died on June 12. Described as a "faithful, earnest, patriotic man," he left behind a 33-year-old wife named Louisa and four children: Ruthven, 8; Amy, 7; Ellen, 5; and a daughter he had never seen, Minnie, almost 3 months old. Nearly two months after his death, Rev. Walter Alexander eulogized Keyes during a sermon at the First Congregational Church in nearby Pomfret, Conn.

"The sacrifice he welcomed, in leaving a family to which he was devotedly attached to engage in our common defense, wins our admiration," Alexander said. "The Christian character he maintained till the last, against the pressure of iniquity, secures our grateful love. The death-scene so far away, unhallowed by the presence of wife and babes, calls not in vain for our warmest sympathy for the bereaved."

Shortly after her husband's death, Louisa Keyes filed for a widow's pension. Her claim was approved, and she initially received $8 a month from the government. By the time of her death in 1921, her monthly pension check was $20.  Louisa, who married Edwin on Nov. 26, 1851, never remarried. A weathered memorial 20 yards in front of  General Lyon's grave honors her husband, whose remains lie in Baton Rouge National Cemetery.
Keyes drew this image in 1855 while he attended the New Britain (Conn.) Normal School, a 
school for teachers. (Connecticut Historical Society collection)
Edwin Lyon was killed on Sept. 8, 1861, three days after the funeral for his uncle, Nathaniel Lyon.
Traveling at about 20 mph, a train packed with Union soldiers neared a curve about 19 miles from Baltimore. Suddenly, an axle snapped, sending cars crashing into one another and "smashing them almost literally to atoms."

At least three soldiers were killed and scores were injured. Among the dead were two soldiers from the 1st Connecticut Cavalry Squadron, part of the Harris Light Cavalry: William German, a private from Collinsville, and Edwin L. Lyon, a quartermaster sergeant from Eastford and nephew of General Nathaniel Lyon. Twenty-three-year-old Edwin's death on Sept. 8, 1861, came just three days after his uncle's funeral.

Soldiers thought the train wreck in Cockeysville, Md., was no accident. According to one contemporary account, the train's engineer was an "ardent rebel," who "made a desperate attempt to bring about a disaster by running the train at such a fearful rate of speed as to throw the rear cars from the track." Attempting to slow the train by manning the brakes of the rear car, German and Lyon were unable to keep their footing and were thrown from the train, killing them instantly.

Two days after the tragic event, the New York Times reported that the engineer, a man named Frank Gurbrick, had been reluctant to depart from Harrisburg, Pa., with the train full of soldiers. When Gurbrick began the journey south, the soldiers recalled that the engineer said "with considerable feeling" he would "run them to Baltimore or hell by 4 o'clock." A guard had been placed in the engine room to keep an eye on him.

Gurbrick denied the soldiers' claims, and the railroad company stood by its man, claiming the engineer was "one of their most trusty and skillful men."

But the soldiers would have none it.

"Great indignation was expressed against the engineer by the soldiers, who charge him with being the assassin of those who were killed, and the attempted murderer of the entire regiment," the Times reported.

The remains of German and Lyon were returned to Connecticut, where they both were buried.

State-issued markers for George and Henry Phillips. Their relationship is unclear.
Only 19, George W. Phillips didn't seem to mind being the youngest in his family. In fact, in at least two letters home to his widowed mother Harriet while he served in the Union army, he endearingly referred to himself as "your baby."

In a note dated April 12, 1862, 11th Connecticut Private 
George Phillips tells his mother he sent her $20. (
Mustered into Company F of the 11th Connecticut as a private in the fall of 1861, George experienced the trials of army life soon after the regiment arrived in Annapolis, Md., that winter. "I am well and enjoying myself first-rate," the soldier from Ashford, Conn., wrote on Jan. 5, 1862, "but there is a number in the regiment sick with the measels [sic]. There has three out of my tent gone to the hospital sick with them but I have not had them yet. I have forgot whether I have ever had them..."

Added George: "I like to forget to tell you that there had been one death in my company since we come here." Private Elisha Mowry Sr. of Pomfret, Conn., who "had been sick ever since he had enlisted," died of lung fever Dec. 9, 1861.

Eager to take care of his mother, who suffered from rheumatism, Phillips sent $15 of his army pay home via the Adams Express Co. "I want you to keep it and use if for what you want," he wrote in the letter on Jan. 5, 1862. "I had rather you would use it than to kill yourself washing for I may come home some time and when I come I shall want to see mother." In a short note to his mother, dated April 12, 1862, George told of sending her $20.

"...give my love to all & write soon. from your baby," Phillips concluded a letter to his 
mother on April 20, 1862. (

Private George W. Phillips' grave in the
 national cemetery in New Bern, N.C.
A cog in Burnside's Expedition, part of an effort to put a stranglehold on Southern ports, the 11th Connecticut sailed from Fortress Monroe in Virginia to North Carolina in early January 1862. On February 7-8, the regiment helped take Roanoke Island, near the Virginia border, and later joined forces that attacked and captured the strategic Rebel garrison at New Bern, N.C., on March 14, 1862. The Union army held the town for the remainder of the war.

"Once more I take my pen to drop you a few lines to let you know I am still alive," Phillips wrote to his mother from New Bern on April 20, 1862. In the letter, George recounted that one boy in his tent received in the mail a box full of delicacies, including a "whole cheese," a can of apple sauce, "a keg of pickels," butter and cakes. Phillips' tentmate graciously shared the bounty with his comrades. At the time, army life seemed good.

Later than month, however, sickness swept through New Bern. On April 30, George contracted typhoid fever and was sent "in very feeble condition," according to the regimental surgeon, to a hospital in town. He died there on May 13, 1862, and was buried nearby by a detail of men from his regiment.

After the war, Phillips' remains were disinterred and re-buried in Plot 2291 in the national cemetery in New Bern. In Lyon Cemetery, a plain, state-issued memorial honors George; next to his marker is a state-issued stone for another Phillips, a 14th Connecticut private named Henry, who suffered a severe wound in the right arm at the Battle of Deep Bottom Run (Va.) on Aug. 16, 1864. He died of his wounds in a hospital in Washington on Oct. 24, 1864, and is buried in Arlington Cemetery. Henry's relationship to George is unclear.

A memorial for Henry H. Adams, a 20-year-old private in the 16th Connecticut.

In his diary, prisoner of war Henry H. Adams recorded his experiences at Andersonville from his arrival there in early May 1864 through his confinement in another Rebel POW camp in Florence, S.C.. Adams, who survived without shelter at the camp in southwestern Georgia until the end his first month in captivity, wrote of the arrival of a steady stream of prisoners -- 100 on May 14, 700 on May 23, 900 on May 29 and 1,000 more on June 19.

Near the end of July, the 16th Connecticut private began to record deaths of his fellow prisoners at Andersonville. Harsh conditions at the most notorious POW camp of the war also took a toll on the 20-year-old soldier from Eastford, who had been wounded at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. On Aug. 18, Adams' leg "became lame" and five days later, he could not walk, so he made a cane to help him get around the squalid camp.

In mid-September, Adams reported that he was "getting very weak," and nearly two weeks later he was so incapacitated that he couldn't walk. On Oct. 8, the young soldier was transported to a camp in Florence, where he received medicine and, on Oct. 14, noted he was "getting along first-rate." Two days later, he wrote that he was "getting along very well but do not get enough to eat."

On Oct. 18, he recorded in his diary that "we have a Poor Hospital made of Bushes and out of sight of any houses." A day later, he wrote: "We heard a sermon preached in our ward. There is talk of an exchange of the sick but can't tell."

It was his final entry.

On Oct. 20 another man scrawled in the diary, "The writer of the foregoing Died at 9 o'clock pm." The cause of death was disease.

On his memorial in Lyon Cemetery, Adams' date of death is incorrectly inscribed Oct. 24. "Thy memory will be cherished," read the words at the bottom of the marker. His final resting place is likely in a burial trench in Florence National Cemetery along with the remains of other Union prisoners of war.

An unusual double-tombstone for 11th Connecticut Private Willard Botham and his wife. 

Levi Whitaker, Botham's comrade in the
 11th Connecticut, died in 1864 after he was released
 from Andersonville, the notorious Rebel
 prisoner-of-war camp.
A private in the 11th Connecticut, Willard Botham survived battles at Roanoke Island, Beaufort, New Bern and, according to the inscription on his gravestone, "Antietam and Sharpsburg." An overzealous, or perhaps misinformed, stone carver included the Union and Confederate names for the bloodiest day in American history on the gray, weather-worn tombstone.

Botham was captured at the Battle of Drewry's Bluff in Virginia on May 16, 1864, and spent six months in Rebel prisons. In his diary, one of Botham's 11th Connecticut comrades frequently mentioned his friend while they were imprisoned at Andersonville. "Botham is almost helpless & my legs & feet are both swelled," Private Levi Whitaker wrote on Oct. 13, 1864. "We are badly situated."

Botham survived the war, but Whitaker wasn't as fortunate. Also captured at Drewry's Bluff, he left Andersonville to be exchanged on Nov. 19, 1864. Emaciated, the 36-year-old private died almost a month later of chronic diarrhea at U.S. General Hospital in Annapolis, Md., leaving behind a wife named Susan and three young sons, George, Dwight and Clayton. Almost out of sight, Levi's gravestone is in the back corner of Lyon Cemetery. In ornate lettering, the word "Father" is inscribed at the top.

Botham outlived his wife by 18 months, dying in 1894. In a poignant touch, a carving of one hand touching another joins their unusual dual-tombstone. Together for eternity.

Hands join on the dual-tombstone for 11th Connecticut Private Willard Botham and his 
wife, Louisa. General Nathaniel Lyon's tall, white memorial appears in the background.

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