Raised in eastern Connecticut, the 43-year-old West Point graduate was killed while commanding the Union forces at the Battle of Wilson's Creek near Springfield, Mo., on Aug. 10, 1861.
Lyon's body, recovered several days after the battle, was brought home by train, the coffin displayed at major cities along the route where thousands of citizens paid homage.
After lying in state in the Senate Room of the Old State House in Hartford, the remains traveled by rail to Willimantic. There, a cortege of carriages formed for the final 16-mile trek to the general's hometown of Eastford, where a staggering crowd of 10,000 to 15,000, including the governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, gathered Sept. 5, 1861, for services on the green outside the Congregational Church.
It was a public catharsis.
"At the moment when the Union's expectations had been crushed — this romantic notion of taking Richmond in 30 days — the death of Lyon provided an antidote for the shame, a ready-made hero who took the sting out of Bull Run,'' said Connecticut State Historian Walter Woodward, who recently published an account of the Lyon funeral.
In 1862, Lyon was the subject of a laudatory biography, and his sacrifice was noted in Stephen Foster's patriotic song, "Better Times Are Coming." But as the war dragged on, and the carnage mounted, the national profile of the man dubbed "The Savior of Missouri" began to fade.
Today, Nathaniel Lyon's name remains largely unknown — even in Connecticut — outside of his hometown of Eastford, where he is buried beneath the obelisk that dominates the small General Lyon Cemetery on General Lyon Road.
"We have the General Lyon Inn, which is now apartments, in the center of town. There is the General Lyon Road, the General Lyon birthplace. It's the Lyon cemetery. He's the big local hero," said Kathy Healey, chairwoman of the Eastford Historical Society.
A Soldier's Life
On the last night of his life, Nathaniel Lyon was bedding down in a rocky hollow, catching a few hours of sleep before the next day's battle. A subordinate asked him how he was feeling. "I'm quite all right,'' the general replied. "Back in Connecticut, where I come from, I was born and bred among rocks."
Lyon was born July 14, 1818, on a family farm in the rocky hills near the Natchaug River in what was then part of the town of Ashford. His parents, Amasa Lyon and Kezia Knowlton Lyon, were children of Revolutionary War veterans. His mother's uncle, Thomas Knowlton, whose statue stands outside the state Capitol, was one of Connecticut's greatest heroes of the War of Independence.
After attending local schools, Lyon secured an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy. The discipline of military life suited him. He graduated in June 1841, 11th in a class of 53, then began what proved a lifelong career in the U.S. Army, one characterized by bravura success and tempestuous, often self-inflicted controversy.
Postings in Florida and upstate New York were followed by service in the Mexican War, and Lyon saw extensive action in the campaign to capture Mexico City, where he was wounded and decorated for bravery.
Following that war, he was posted to California and led a bloody, punitive expedition against American Indians in the region of Clear Lake. An attack on native villages became a massacre, killing 200 and 400, mostly women and children.
A tough, aggressive officer, short of stature with fiery red hair and a volcanic temper, Lyon was at his best whenever decisive action was warranted. At other times, his quarrelsome bent, short fuse and intolerance provoked antagonism and run-ins with his superiors. A harsh disciplinarian and exacting drill master, he had acquired a reputation as "the most tyrannical officer in the Army,'' according to his most recent biographer, Christopher Phillips.
Lyon hated slavery, and his views toward slaveholders and the society they represented hardened during his service in "Bleeding Kansas" during the 1850s. By February 1861, then Capt. Lyon was fully prepared to take on the secessionists when he left Fort Leavenworth, Kan., with eight companies of infantry to buttress the defenses of the important federal arsenal in St. Louis.
"I shall not hesitate to rejoice at the triumph of my principles, though this triumph may involve an issue in which I certainly expect to expose and very likely lose my life. We shall rejoice, though in martyrdom, if need be,'' Lyon wrote on the eve of his departure.