Exploring The Last Green Valley: General Lyon’s birthplace and burial along Natchaug Trail
It was during a Walktober event led by State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni that I first learned about General Nathaniel Lyon of Eastford.
Bellantoni took us along the Natchaug Trail in the Natchaug Forest to Nathaniel Lyon Memorial Park and the remains of Lyon’s birthplace home and then to his grave at the Phoenixville Cemetery on General Lyon Road in Eastford. I retraced those steps this week and rediscovered the fascinating and heroic life of the Civil War general.
Lyon was born in 1818 in a section of Ashford that is now part of Eastford. His ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War and he followed their footsteps by enrolling in the United States Military Academy in 1837. His military service included the Seminole Wars and Mexican American War. He served in the western frontier during the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 and in Kansas during the border wars known as “Bleeding Kansas.” At the dawn of the Civil War, in 1861, he arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, along with Company D of the 2nd U.S. Infantry.
Missouri was a neutral state in the dispute between the North and South, however, Gov. Claiborne Jackson supported the South. Lyon was concerned the large arsenal of federal weapons in St. Louis would be seized by Jackson and sent to the southern states. By secret maneuvers, Lyon seized the weapons, armed a pro-North organization, the Wide Awakes, and safely moved most of the weapons to Illinois. Lyon’s efforts led to riots, killings, espionage, the pursuit of the governor’s pro-South Missouri State Guard and the eventual takeover of state government by Lyon and installation of pro-North leadership.
His quick actions prevented Missouri from joining the Confederate States and resulted in Lyon’s promotion to general. The final conflict for Lyon came Aug. 10, 1861 at the battle of Wilson’s Creek. He was mortally wounded as he rallied his men in the charge against a superior Confederate force. He was the first Union general to die in battle.
The 2011 essay “The Final Journey of Nathaniel Lyon,” by Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward for the state’s history magazine Connecticut Explored, depicts the outpouring of grief and gratitude for the heroic actions of the fallen Eastford hero.
“News of Lyon’s heroic death, coming in the wake of the Union’s shameful rout at Bull Run, gave the North a cause for honorable mourning. Plans were made to return Lyon’s body to Connecticut, and city after city along the way staged solemn commemorations. St. Louis, draped in mourning, provided an “immense” military escort, according to an account in The Herald of St. Louis. In Cincinnati, Lyon lay in state, protected by a military honor guard. At Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, hundreds of soldiers met the casket and accompanied it through town. In New York, Lyon again lay in state — in the Governor’s Room of City Hall — and was visited by more than 15,000 mourners.
“In Hartford, though it rained ‘as if the gates of Heaven had broken loose,’ according to “The Last Political Writings of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon”, a huge procession accompanied Lyon’s body from Union Station to the State House, where it lay overnight in the Senate Chamber. The next day a special train transported Lyon’s corpse to Willimantic, from which more than 300 wagons carried the funeral contingent 12 miles to Eastford. People young and old lined the roads as the three-mile-long wagon train inched toward Lyon’s birth town. Nearing Eastford after dark, they found the road lined with ‘myriads of lights, candles, lanterns, and rushes’ to illuminate the path. Minute guns sounded, church bells tolled, and the procession played the ‘Dead March in Saul’ as the body was placed in the Congregational church.
“Twenty-thousand people attended Lyon’s outdoor funeral service the next day. Orators included the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Gerusha Grow of Pennsylvania and an Ashford native, governors Buckingham of Connecticut and Sprague of Rhode Island, and many other dignitaries, whose solemn and patriotic remembrances filled the day. Late that afternoon, the procession made its final journey to the Phoenixville cemetery. At 5 p.m., as soldiers lined the graveside, thousands watched from the hills, cannon and musket fire filled the air, and the band played ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ Nathaniel Lyon’s life journey ended.
″‘Nathaniel Lyon, though slain, will live forever in the memory of his countrymen,’ Speaker Grow had proclaimed. ‘His body is interred in his native soil, his monument is the granite hills, and his headstone a nation’s grief.’”
If you’re interested in in visiting the Nathaniel Lyon Memorial Park, his birthplace and his burial site at the Phoenixville Cemetery, I suggest you connect these two historic locations with a hike on the blue-blazed Natchaug Trail.
Lyon Memorial Park is located on Kingsbury Road in Eastford (GPS coordinates 41.847847 -72.080948). You’ll find the Natchaug Trail in the northwest corner of the park. From there it is a beautiful, woodsy hike for 2.5-miles to Pilfershire Road, across the Still River bridge, then right on General Lyon Road to the Phoenixville Cemetery (GPS coordinates are 41.871752 -72.087965).
My outing to the Lyon birthplace and burial ground connected my two passions — history and hiking. The Natchaug Trail is one of my favorites in the region, traversing through both the Natchaug and Nipmuck Forest and along the beautiful Natchaug River.
I hope you’ll join me and others as we enjoy our beautiful natural resources, forests and trails and discover the fascinating people who came from our region. Together we can care for, enjoy and pass on the places and stories that make The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor such a wonderful place to live.
Information for this column comes from the TLGV publication, “Notables and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley,” which can be found at https://bit.ly/2Z7q2J0. Walter Woodward’s essay can be found at https://bit.ly/2x7ttB5.
Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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