Finding Private Lyon

Presented by the Historical Society of Easton

Research for this article began over two years ago when I learned of an Easton Civil War soldier who perished while being held captive as a prisoner of war in a Confederate prison camp. My quest to discover more about Private Olius Lyon, whose memory is honored by the memorial headstone that appears with this article, turned into an intricate adventure of tracking down the tale of a young twenty-two year old volunteer who never made it back to Connecticut after surviving the bloody battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia on the 19th day of October, 1864. Like so many other faceless young men who served in that deadly conflict, his story has remained largely untold for over a hundred and fifty years.

Olius Levi Lyon was born in 1842 to Orva and Chloe Ann Lyon. By the age of four, his father was already dead and buried, his twenty-four year old mother a widow with two young children. By the time the young lad was six, his mother was remarried to a local bootmaker by the name of George Platt and the family was living on Rockhouse Road in the northern part of recently incorporated Easton. At eighteen, Olius was a blacksmith’s apprentice, working in a shop in Bethel that was owned by carriage builder Stephen Chase. Like many young men of the era, by the early winter of 1861, Olius heeded the call to arms to defend the Union as the War of the Rebellion was raging in the South. He enlisted in the 12th Regiment of the Connecticut Volunteers and was assigned to Company E on the 13th of January 1862.

Lyon set sail with his regiment on February 24, 1862, arriving at Ship Island in Mississippi on March 9th of that year. The regiment saw its first action at the siege of Fort Saint Philip and Fort Jackson on the Mississippi River at Plaquemines Parrish, Louisiana in April of 1862, in a prelude to the Union Army’s eventual taking of New Orleans. The Connecticut 12th then participated in the occupation of New Orleans during the summer of 1862. April of 1863 saw Lyon’s regiment still in Louisiana, first fighting in the Battle of Irish Bend in April and then involved with the Siege of Port Hudson between May 25th and July 9th.

The Connecticut 12th marched north to Virginia in the spring of 1864. Lyon’s group was stationed at the Fortress Monroe before heading out into battle in the early autumn. The Battle of Opequan at Winchester on September 19th saw more than 39,000 Union soldiers drive back Brigadier General Jubal Early’s Confederate forces. Three days later, the Connecticut 12th and Private Lyon were involved another battle at Fisher’s Hill. It was another setback for Early’s troops, but the general wasn’t done dealing with Lyon’s regiment quite yet.

It was around 5:00 AM on Wednesday morning, October 19, 1864 at Cedar Creek outside of Strasburg, Virginia when General Jubal Early’s Confederate troops quietly marched through the fog and surprised the still sleeping Union troops. By 10 o’clock, Early’s army had overrun the enemy and captured some thirteen hundred Union soldiers. Among them was twenty-two-year-old Private Olius Lyon. Along with his comrades, Lyon immediately began the 310-mile forced march to the Salisbury Prison in North Carolina.

Earlier in the war, on November 2, 1861, the Confederate government had agreed to purchase about 16 acres in Salisbury, North Carolina to be used as a prison. The property included an abandoned three-story cotton mill, a boiler house, six tenements, a superintendent’s house, and several smaller buildings. A stockade was erected around the buildings and the first 120 Union prisoners of war arrived on December 9th of that year from Richmond, Virginia in the effort to reduce the number of captured enemy soldiers being held there. Designed to hold about 2,500 persons, the prison had originally been intended to house only Confederate soldiers who had committed military offenses and were then prisoners of the state.

From the National Parks Service website: “During the early years of the war, prisoners at Salisbury received adequate shelter, rations, water and sanitation.”

1863 Lithograph of Salisbury Prison in North Carolina depicting prisoners playing baseball when conditions were still satisfactory

Conditions at Salisbury throughout 1862, 1863, and much of 1864 were about as good as could have been expected in any prison camp. A lithograph done in the summer of 1863 shows the prisoners enjoying a game of baseball while officers look on. If it were not for the stockade walls surrounding the yard, it might appear to be an ordinary military encampment. But by the time that Olius Lyon would arrive, the scenario was far different.

“The situation changed rapidly on 5 October 1864, with the transfer of 5,000 prisoners of war to Salisbury. By the end of the month, more than 10,000 men were incarcerated in the prison.”

By the time that Lyon and his comrades marched through the gates of Salisbury Prison in late October, the only space remaining to billet was out in the open. The only man-made shelter from the weather would have been any tents they would have salvaged and been able to carry with them after they had been overrun back in Virginia.

Lithograph of Salisbury Prison depicting the buildings in February of 1864 when the prison held less than 3,000 prisoners

By then, the Union blockade of Southern ports and the Confederacy’s already collapsing economy had led to serious shortages of food, clothing, and medicine for Confederate soldiers. The captured Union prisoners of war fared even worse than their ragged Confederate counterparts. At least a third of those prisoners had to create dugouts in the ground to escape the beginnings of the cold and wet winter weather. The then sporadic food rations were inadequate to sustain a prisoner even if he was healthy, clothed and sheltered – a rarity given the overcrowded conditions at Salisbury. When rations were handed out, they might have consisted of half a loaf of bread and a small tin cup of rice soup that was often covered with flies. Reportedly, one prisoner claimed to have lost more than half of his body weight after being in captivity at Salisbury for less than three months, ending up weighing less than 90 pounds by the time he was released in February of 1865.

“Overwhelmed by a population four times larger than intended, the prison quartered prisoners in every available space. Those without shelter dug burrows in an attempt to stay warm and dry. Rations and potable water were scarce. Adding to the poor conditions was an unusually cold and wet winter. Disease and starvation began to claim lives, and all buildings within the stockade were converted to hospitals to care for the sick.”

By December, the number of deaths reported at Salisbury had climbed to nearly one in three prisoners. Diarrhea, along with smallpox, typhus, and pneumonia were the major causes of death. Due to the of the dearth of medical care and supplies along with the cold, many prisoners developed gangrene, which often led to the loss of limbs. The dead were stripped of their clothing so that it could be used by surviving prisoners.

Trench graves were dug to bury prisoners once conditions deteriorated in late 1864. This photo shows similar activity at Andersonville Prison during that same year.

“Each morning, the dead were gathered from the grounds and placed in the ‘dead house.’ Later, they were removed for burial in trench graves located in a cornfield west of the prison.”

Prior to October of 1864, the dead had been placed in coffins and buried individually, but the death rate became so high that a “dead wagon” soon carried the bodies for trench burial outside the walled prison grounds. Today, those 18 burial trenches are within the grounds of the Salisbury National Military Cemetery. Prisoners who died from contagious diseases, such as typhoid or smallpox, were originally buried at the Old Lutheran Cemetery near the prison and were eventually exhumed, and then re-interred at the new national cemetery after the war.

Although no complete burial lists for the prison exist and no headboards were used to mark the graves, records indicate that approximately 3,700 men died between October 1864 and February 1865. Surviving prisoners were released at the end of February when a prisoner of war exchange was carried out. Union forces burned down the prison in April 1865.”

Records show that Private Olius Levi Lyon succumbed to dysentery on December 11, 1864 at Salisbury Prison at the age of only twenty-two. His body likely still rests in one of those trench graves in North Carolina. His skeletal remains have never been identified, but today there is a memorial headstone near the grave of his father in Lyon Cemetery on Sport Hill Road. A sad reminder of a young man’s ultimate sacrifice during one of America’s darkest hours.

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