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Today in 1861 – General Lyon

Today in 1861, Eastford’s Nathaniel Lyon – a little-known figure the day before – instantly became one of the most celebrated figures in the United States when he was shot in the chest at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri, making him the first Union General to die in the Civil War.

Lyon’s death came as the mounted commander rallied Iowa troops against a much larger Confederate force. It was the kind of death one expects the Connecticut-born Lyon would have wanted. A West Point graduate and soldiers’ soldier, he had received three promotions for gallantry during the Mexican War, been a ruthless Indian fighter in Florida and California, and had recently been elevated to general for his actions protecting the federal arsenal at Saint Louis. A fearless commander with a fiery temper, Lyon’s aggressive military tactics have been credited with keeping Missouri from joining the southern cause.

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Contemporary engraving of Lyon at the moment he was fatally wounded. (Kansas City Public Library and Library of Congress)

News of Lyon’s heroic battlefield death, coming in the wake of the Union’s recent shameful rout at Bull Run, was seized upon by press and politicians alike, for it gave the north a much-needed cause for honorable mourning.  As plans were made to return Lyon’s body to his native Connecticut, city after city planned solemn commemorations. Saint Louis, houses draped in mourning, provided an “immense” military escort. In Cincinnati, Lyon lay in state, protected by a military honor guard. At Pittsburgh, and again in 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. There, too, a rosewood-painted metal casket replaced the wooden one that had been “considerably shattered” in transit.

In Hartford, though it rained “as if the gates of Heaven had broken loose”, a huge procession accompanied Lyon’s body from Union Station to the (Old) State House, where it lay overnight in the Senate Chamber.  The next day a special train transported Lyon’s corpse to Willimantic.  From there,  over 300 wagons carried the funeral contingent 12 miles to Eastford.  People young and old lined the roads and bells tolled solemnly as the three-mile-long wagon train inched towards Lyon’s birth town. Nearing Eastford after dark, they  found the road into town illuminated with “myriads of lights, candles, lanterns, and rushes.”  Minute guns sounded, church bells tolled and the procession played the “Dead March in Saul” as the body was placed in the Congregational church.

Lyon’s Grave Monument. (Connecticut Historical Society)

Lyon’s funeral services, held outdoors the next day, were attended by 20,000 people. His pallbearers included the governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island and two army generals. Orators included the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Gerusha Grow of Pennsylvania, a former Ashford native, Governors Buckingham (CT) and Sprague (RI) and many other dignitaries, whose solemn and patriotic remembrances filled the day.  Late in the afternoon, the procession made its final journey to the small Phoenixville Cemetery. At 5:00pm on September 5th, as soldiers ringed the grave and thousands lined the hills, cannons and muskets volleyed 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.”

This story is taken from Walter W. Woodward’s column “From the State Historian” in the  Spring 2011 issue of Connecticut Explored magazine. Subscribe at