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Reflection: In search of Gen. Nathaniel Lyon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 11, 2011 - This summer in the Ozarks has been incredibly hot. One hundred and fifty years ago it was even hotter.

Not temperature wise. Fiery emotions, politics, mayhem and all the gore of war.

The second major battle of the Civil War erupted south of Springfield, Mo., on Aug. 10. Thousands of casualties. One general killed, the first to go down in the War Between the States, as the conflict is also called in some parts.

On a ridge above Ashfield, Mass., though, a stone marks the names of local boys felled in the "War of Nationalities."

It stopped me in my tracks. I had never heard it called that, but isn't that what it was? A bloody conflict about what makes or unmakes a nation?

Almost every town square in New England has a statue of a Union soldier as a monument to those who served or died. The same is true of the South. This year, I recognized these commemorations more than usual. The Civil War began in April 150 years ago.

Many Ozark counties and towns have been celebrating sesquicentennials in recent years. Most of our political institutions began shortly before the Civil War. Some places have longer histories, but this is when the flood of folks from the East and South started filling up much of the Ozarks.

These relatively new settlers began fighting and killing each other, often with great gusto. This confusing period of history has always seemed too depressing and bloody for me to want to study it.

'Lyon Memorial'

This summer I could not avoid it. My wife pleaded to leave Ozark ticks and the worst of summer's heat for a few weeks. We haven't seen family and friends in New England for almost a decade, so we hopped onto Amtrak from St. Louis and borrowed a car in Beantown. In planning who to see and where to go, I noticed the "Lyon Memorial" marked on several maps, enough to pique my curiosity. How would this quiet northeast corner of Connecticut serve as the final resting spot of the "Savior of Missouri"?

That's what Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was called back then. At least by Yankee sympathizers. The rebels had other names for him. But now he seems almost forgotten in his home state.

You can't fault New Englanders: The Civil War wasn't fought up here and the region's history begins much earlier than 150 years before this conflict. Many other more fascinating events and places attract visitors than this somewhat overgrown graveyard along the Still River by the Pilfershire Road near Phoenixville.

Yet, Gen. Lyon's graveyard may be one of the most powerful plots that any Missourian can visit away from home. After all, it is the burial place of an ultimate Missourian, an ultimate Ozarker, a true American hero who courageously took a stand. Lyon almost willingly and consciously gave his life to keep Missouri in the Union.

Nathaniel Lyon always inspired controversy. You can easily find new and old biographies as well as detailed accounts of the battle at Wilson's Creek, which is now a beautiful National Park just south of Springfield. This weekend Aug. 12-14 battle re-enactments have been planned with a variety of other related activities; check out www.wilsonscreek150.com for further details.

Nathan Hale

Little or nothing has been planned in the Nutmeg State. There are plenty of other heroes. Connecticut's official State Hero is Nathan Hale, known as the "Martyr-Spy of the Revolution." Hale was hung at 21 years of age in September 1776 when caught behind enemy lines in New York. Remember what the young school teacher reportedly said before the noose tightened?

The Hale homestead is now a 17-acre State Landmark and apparently a hugely popular historic site. Cathy and I stopped by in early August in my quest to learn more about how national heroes are remembered.

It was a chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon. One pasture was filled with hundreds of vehicles, another with scores of tents for what appeared to be a popular farmer's market. Rain didn't slow anyone down from shopping, visiting and exploring the ancient farmstead.

"Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye," an enthusiastic volunteer in historic costume hollered out every half-hour. "One and all are invited to tour the famous Nathan Hale homestead in five minutes," she bellowed. People dutifully lined up for the $5 visit to the ample two-story Colonial farmhouse. If historic homes have problems attracting visitors during this Great Recession, administrators of this Connecticut landmark have found a sure-fire way to attract crowds: don't be shy and have lots going on.

This particular farmer's market featured dogs. All the way from local police who showed their German shepherds at work apprehending bad guys to Lorie Herbert and her three-year-old French poodle, Natalie. They weren't letting the rain bother their demonstration of creative grooming.

"See these vines and flowers?' Ms. Herbert pointed to colorful designs clipped into the poodle's fur. "Once I have the patterns in Natalie's coat, we can use all kinds of non-permanent colors to bring the pictures to life."

Never have I seen such an obedient dog. She was like a beauty queen on her perch showing off shades of psychedelic colors, which glowed like neon against the pup's natural white coat.

"I'm going to South Carolina for classes to become a Master Certified Feline Groomer soon," Ms. Hebert said.

"You mean you can do these same clipping and colors with cats?"

"Almost ... it depends on the kitty," she said.

Ms. Hebert could coax a cat to do almost anything. The rain and the crowds just made her demonstration of creative grooming all the more convincing. I could see Natalie with an American flag clipped and colored into her coat at some future event at the State Hero's homestead. Multihued exuberance has always seemed a big part of America.

Lyon Birthplace

Our next stop involved tromping around an antediluvian cemetery behind the old Ashford Academy, which we learned was the headquarters for the township's historical society. Mainly a farming and milling community, Ashford was Nathaniel Lyon's birthplace in 1818. Later his home was incorporated into Eastford.

Lyon went to West Point to become a career military man with a long list of battle commands. Many accounts say he became a strong Republican and somewhat of an abolitionist in the 1850s. His career rarely gave him a chance to return to Connecticut, and he never married.

Finding traces of the general in his home state is not easy. The old Ashford cemetery seemed forlorn with high grass, some gravestones damaged and many on carved ancient slate so weathered that names or dates could not be read. These gravestones were works of art with engraved ghostly skulls, heavenly angels and exhortations to right livelihood. Many of the deceased predated the American Revolution. Centuries had scoured their final resting place nearly back to wilderness.

None of these stones had the surname "Lyon." Nathaniel's father, Amasa Lyon, is recorded as a Revolutionary War veteran, so it was disappointing not to find any signs of the family here.

Lyon Burial Grounds

We next continued east toward Phoenixville, a crossroads with a small general store. A woman there told us how to find where the general is buried.

Hot, muggy weather stifled the valley of the Still River when we parked where Gen. Lyon Road intersects Pilfershire Road. Saturday night an old-fashioned gully washer had swept across Connecticut. It felt sticky and slow like Ozark summer dog days. Cicadas whirled away high in the surrounding thick forest.

A new stone stands to mark what is now called Gen. Lyon Cemetery, which was noted on the marker to have been established about 1805. I walked in through a gate in a 500-yard, hip-high rock wall thick with lichen and moss. A natural amphitheater, the graveyard holds maybe 200 markers, most of which were still legible, being carved in granite as opposed to slate.

Gen. Lyon's obelisk features a carving showing him astride a white charger. Maybe 20-feet tall, the stone stands on a raised mound faced with cobbles and iron cannons buried barrel-down in the earth at the two front corners.

Along lines of gravestones, which flank Gen. Lyon's grave, at least a dozen had fresh American flags planted nearby. All these were for men killed during the Civil War. Each stone marked a name, birth and death date from the early 1860s as well as the place of death somewhere in the South.

Two stones with flags particularly stood out for me. Both were men also named Lyon, both killed in the Civil War. Were they brothers or cousins?

Then it struck me: What must it have been like for a rural farming community to have a dozen of its young men killed and more wounded or otherwise maimed and broken?

I remembered other Civil War cemeteries: especially Andersonville, Ga.; the Confederate Memorial at Higginsville, Mo.; Cane Hill, Ark. Or smaller ones: boys from Iowa buried in the city cemetery at Rolla, or other Union dead resting in a peaceful place above in Buffalo River in Arkansas.

All these burial grounds from the Civil War share a sadness that seems particularly modern. Their stones do not have the death heads, gentle lambs or soaring angels typical of the 1700s. The stone's lettering is more mechanical and less decorative. The killing of this war became more thorough thanks to new technology. The war spun out of control and killed not only hundreds of thousands of Americans but also little towns like Ashford and Phoenixville.

Pilfershire

In the 1998 biography "Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon," Christopher Phillips writes that the area where the Lyon family had established their homestead was known as Pilfershire because petty thievery was a problem. What a great name! It must have been a hard living. This is where we went next, east on a leafy back road, to search out Lyon's roots.

Pilfershire has now been incorporated into Natchaug State Forest, a second or third growth stand of timber on a rolling upland with feathery light green ferns everywhere. Hiking and horse trails are available. One major historic site remains in the forest.

A clearing of 10 or so acres holds the remnants of Gen. Lyon's boyhood home. It must have been as big as Nathan Hale's two-story home place judging from the huge fireplace, which is all that remains.

In this massive pile of stone can clearly be discerned three huge fireplaces all feeding into one large chimney. Early American homes on what then was newly settled land must have been fairly warm and toasty in winter. Once that mass of stones was warmed with big wood fires it would have radiated heat into the home for days. To have built such a huge heating system of local rock, to have cleared the forest for pasture and continuously built the surrounding stone walls shows what tough characters these early Americans must have been.

"Three fireplaces were fairly common in farmhouses of that period," Dagmar Noll, the official town historian for Eastford, explained when I called to ask about details on the home site. "It was common to have a somewhat formal parlor mainly used for special occasions, a large kitchen and a keeping room that also served for dining.

"I do not know if there will be any special observance for Gen. Lyon this year, but there have been some in the past," she said. "We have had re-enactors do special things occasionally. And we have a wealth of information in our archive on the general and his funeral in 1861. There were thousands who came here to that."

One thing bothered Mrs. Noll about the way Gen. Lyon has been remembered.

"They always say he was the first general to have been killed in the Civil War. To me what's more important was that his effort kept Missouri in the Union. His troops may have lost at Wilson's Creek where he was killed, but the rebels weren't able to follow up on their costly victory. They never were able to mount another successful campaign in Missouri. He deserves to be called the savior of Missouri."

During the Depression, from 1933 to 1942, this state forest served as a Civilian Conservation Corps camp. A system of roads and campgrounds remains along with the Lyon home place as a fitting relic of changing history and local needs.

A Mill and Heritage Farming

Our final stop in searching for the general's roots was the Brayton Grist Mill further east in the Mashamoquet Brook State Park.

The mill dates from 1719 when the first deed was recorded for waterpower on this stream. David Smutnick and his daughter Margo were volunteering for the Pomfert Historical Society, which operates the site in conjunction with the state.

Upstairs David and Margo showed off the Marcy Blacksmith Shop tool collection. It has one of the largest, most varied collections of horseshoes I have ever seen. The volunteers have created a well-interpreted collection, and having local people explain the artifacts adds greatly to a visit. Both the shop and mill were typical of local businesses in this rural area where Lyon grew up.

"This had been a fairly prosperous area before the Civil War, but it never developed the big industrial mills that you find up around Boston and Lowell," David said. His daughter said she knows young people in the area with the last name Lyon. This suggests the family still may have living roots here.

Because the small rivers, forests and farmlands of this region have such a strong rural feeling and resources, local governments have joined with state and federal planners to try to conserve the area's heritage. Established in 1994, it's officially called the Quinebaug and Shetucket Heritage Corridor but more commonly called "The Last Green Valley." Altogether this region has about 700,000 acres and represents one of the largest areas of relatively undeveloped land along the northern East Coast. The National Park Service is helping manage corridor planning but owns no real estate in this section of eastern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts.

One of the biggest efforts in The Last Green Valley is to encourage local agriculture. Special brochures and tours have been developed. The fields cleared of old growth timber in Nathaniel Lyon's time may again become productive farmland.

Lyon was a strong supporter of an active federal government. That's what he died for.

New England fields may once again become America's breadbasket and organic vegetable kingdom if the planners can slow down urban sprawl. I think Gen. Lyon would like that, even though he found the life of a farmer too boring in his own day.

Alex T. Primm, who lives in the Ozarks, is a freelance writer.

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