[CSA War Veteran Marker placed next to grave of John H. Thurmon (1843 – 1919) in Pittsford Cemetery, Photo: David Kramer 4/23/21]
In The Small Flag at the Bottom of the Trunk, Michael J. Nighan tells the story of his donation to the Penelope Barker House Welcome Center in Edenton, North Carolina of a small Confederate flag given to his great grandfather during the Civil War and held for generations by Michael’s family
Nighan’s tale inspired me to explore what other connections exist between our region and the old Confederacy.
While our region is dotted with Civil War monuments and gravesites, sprinkled about are the graves of six Confederate soldiers, including Major Philemon Tracy (CSA) in the Batavia Cemetery, John H. Thurmon (CSA) in the Pittsford Cemetery and Sergeant DeWitt Clinton Guy (CSA) in Spencerport’s Fairfield Cemetery. (SEE POSTSCRIPT I, CIVIL WAR MONUMENTS IN ROCHESTER)
Arch Merrill’s 1958 Democrat and Chronicle article, “Long Gray Line,” discusses the six Confederates.
Furthermore, Merrill describes the curious case of Rochester-born Howard Kemp, Jr. who became postmaster at Pineville, South Carolina.
In a kind of reversal to Nighan’s gesture but on a much larger scale, beginning in 1952, Kemp sent Merrill Confederate flags to be placed at the soldiers’ graves on Memorial Day. And the flags kept coming.
In what Merrill dubbed “Operation Rebel Flags,” each May Merrill saw to it that the banners were “placed on the graves of the men who wore the gray in that long-ago war.” Today, Merrill’s seeming enthusiasm for the Great Lost Cause feels rather dubious.
Partly as a Rochestarian whose city lost hundreds of men suppressing succession and ultimately ending slavery, I am no fan of the Confederate flag that to me represents the slaveholding old Confederacy. (Neither is Nighan a particular fan of the Stars and Bars.)In 2015, when Congress voted to ban Confederate flags at federal cemeteries and national parks — “adding the voice of this House to ending the promotion of the cruel, racist legacy of the Confederacy” — I approved.
Still, I don’t necessarily object to the recognition of the six Conderates in private graveyards scattered across our region, itself hardly a bastion of southern sympathizers. I mused about their strange afterlives buried so far north in Yankee territory. A Georgia native, Philemon Tracey, killed at Antietam, could scarcely imagine he would lie eternally in a Batavia, NY cemetery as an object of curiosity for Civil War buffs. DeWitt Clinton Guy — originally buried in Lynchburg, VA and who until his death claimed to be part of “Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy” — may have spun in his grave when his body was exhumed and re-interred beside his wife in Spencerport. If anything, the graves, set against those of Union soldiers, highlight that the slaveholding old Confederacy was on the wrong side of history.
Philemon Tracy (1831 – 1862)
Of the three Major Philemon Tracey is the most famous. Raised in Macon, Georgia and later educated at Yale, Tracey’s connection with western New York was slight, only spending some summers with his uncle Judge Phileas L. Tracy in Batavia where Philemon Tracy is now buried.
When Georgia seceded, Tracy enthusiastically joined the rebellion, later killed at the Battle of Antietam.
An August, 1916 story in the Buffalo Courier on the death of Batavia’s Henry Tarbox discussed the extraordinary journey of Tracey’s body from Antietam to Batavia:
While [Henry Tarbox] was at Antietam word was received that Maj. Philemon Tracy of the Confederate army had been killed at Sharpsburg, Md on September 17, 1862. Maj. Tracy was a. nephew of the late Judge Phileas L. Tracy of Batavia, who, when he learned of the soldier’s death, asked Maj. Tarbox if he knew what disposition was made of the body. The answer was in the negative, but Maj. Tarbox learned later, while in Batavia on a furlough, that Maj. Tracy’s body had been recovered, shipped to Batavia and Interred In the Tracy lot.
Animosity engendered by the war was bitter at that time and the removal of the Confederate’s body through the Union lines was full of danger. Great secrecy was observed in the preparations, the body being passed through the northern lines as that of a Union officer who had fallen in the late bloody battle. On its arrival in Batavia, Episcopal services were read at the grave, and subsequently a simple stone was erected to mark the southerner’s last resting place. Only his name, age and date of death appeared on the stone.
Through this unlikely intervention, Tracy became perhaps the only Confederate officer moved from a battlefield and buried on Northern soil.
As mentioned in the 1916 account, Tracy’s role in war was largely unacknowledged. However, 11 years earlier, a chapter of the Children or the Confederacy sent a laurel wreath to be placed on Tracy’s grave on Memorial Day.
Apparently, the gesture of the Julia Jackson Chapter was not repeated on subsequent Memorial Days.
Finally, in 1990 the marker was placed at Tracy’s grave site. In a June 26th, 2011 Macon Telegraph (Macon, GA) article, columnist Ed Grisamore told Tracey’s story,“How a Macon Confederate ended up buried in New York,” to his Georgia audience who may have heard of Tracey but not that he was buried further up north than perhaps any other slain Confederate:
Local historians in Batavia have long claimed Tracy holds the distinction of being buried farther north of the Mason-Dixon line than any Confederate soldier killed during the war. He is also believed to be the only Confederate officer moved from a battlefield and buried on Northern soil. For 128 years, his military service was never acknowledged on his head-stone at the Bavaria Cemetery on Harvester Avenue. His grave carried only his name, the date of his death and his age at 31 years and three months. No mention that he was a Rebel with a cause, and a thousand miles from home.
Through the efforts of veterans groups and historians, a marker was placed at the grave site in 1990. More than 200 people attended the ceremony, and a Civil War re-enactment group played taps. Every Memorial Day, a small, Confederate flag is placed between the marker and headstone. Yes, Philemon Tracy has become part of local lore in this town of about 15,000 in western New York.
DeWitt Clinton Guy (1842 – 1889)
Guy was born in Lockport where his father worked on the Erie Canal, but the family later returned to its native Virginia. Like Tracey, Guy was an ardent supporter of secession with a “Confederate heart to the very end” who “was true to his colors and never apologized for the part he took in the lost cause.”
A facebook posting, “A Confederate Soldier Whose Heart was in the North,”(These Old Bones, 2/26/20), discusses Guy’s wartime service for the Confederacy.
At the age of nineteen, DeWitt Clinton Guy answered the call that thousands of young men throughout the South heard. He enlisted in the Eleventh Virginia Infantry, Company G,on April 23, 1861. His brother John enlisted a year later. DeWitt carried a family Bible with him when he went off to war. In the Bible, he kept a journal. The first entry that he wrote was on the first day he saw fighting on the battlefield. According to the entries, he was wounded in the Battles of Seven Pines in Virginia, Drewry’s Bluff in Chesterfield County, Virginia, and Gettysburg as part Pickett’s Charge.As often as he could, he wrote in that sacred journal. He marched thousands of miles through the mountains of Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The final entry was made when he was held as a prisoner of war at the Union-run Camp Hoffman at Point Lookout, Maryland. The Civil War ended when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. Camp Hoffman closed in June of that year, and the survivors made their way back home to the arms of their loved ones . . . DeWitt Clinton had a Confederate’s heart until the very end. On his deathbed in 1889, even after the war was long over and lost, he still claimed to be part of “Jefferson Davis’s Confederacy.” In his obituary, published in the Lynchburg Daily Virginian on January 7, 1889, DeWitt was “true to his colors and never apologized for the part he took in the lost cause.” At the age of forty-seven, he was laid to rest at Spring Hill Cemetery. Martha was broken-hearted and returned to her family in New York. She lived out her days in Ogden until her death in 1891, just two years after her husband. Martha and DeWitt would not be apart for long.
Soon after his wife’s death, his body was exhumed and buried beside her at Fairfield Cemetery . . . DeWitt Clinton is one of the few Confederate soldiers buried in New York State.
Whether Guy spun in his grave when exiled to Spencerport is up to spiritualists who speak with the dead. No doubt Guy never imagined in 2001 he would become an honorary member of the Guy-Thurmon Camp No. 1928 of Sons of Confederate Veterans in Rochester.
John H. Thurmon (1843 – 1919)
On Friday, I visited Thurmon’s well preserved grave and war veteran marker in Pittsford Cemetery.Of the three, Thurmon knew we would be buried in the north, having moved to Rochester from Missouri in the late 1900’s.The Pittsford Cemetery website provides background on Thurmon.
A Confederate soldier buried in Union territory? YES! John was born in 1842 in Missouri and enlisted as a private in the 2nd Missouri Cavalry, Confederate States of America. He was wounded at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, but survived the war.In the late 1800s, John came north with his wife, Ann Eliza, and six children to work at the Merchants Despatch Corporation in East Rochester producing railroad cars. He was also a carpenter who built many of the houses in East Rochester.
John marched in his Confederate uniform alongside Union soldiers during Memorial Day parades. The crowds would cheer as he walked by. He and his family were warmly welcomed into the community.
Especially after 1898, that Rochester crowds would cheer an old soldier in a Rebel uniform is not surprising. Historians note that the Spanish-American War of 1898 was heralded as the final end of the Civil War as southern and northern boys marched arm in arm against a common enemy (Spain). Aging Confederate and Union officers even re-enlisted with some commanding side-by-side in the Cuban Campaign.
When researching, I discovered that our region is actually home to a very small number of “fervent Confederate loyalists” (Democrat and Chronicle Gary McLendon’s term) for whom Tracy, Thurmon and Guy are heroes.
McLendon’s April 2001, “Boy fights for Confederacy,” explains that in January 2001 the Rochester Sons of Confederate Veterans was formed by William S. Poulton of Henrietta. At that time, the chapter had twelve members, including Mark Dolby, 14, of Churchville.
At that time, Mark served as the historian for the Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp in Rochester — the Guy-Thurmon Camp No. 1928. When lecturing in schools, Mark upheld the SVC’s fundamental claim that the preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Civil War.
On Friday, I spoke with Mark’s mother Jackie Dolby, originally from Churchville and now retired in South Carolina. While the Guy-Thurmon Camp no longer exists, Jackie continues to educate on the history of Confederate soldiers, especially the harsh treatment received in prisoner of war camps in Elmira, NY and Point Lookout, Maryland (described by Jackie as one of the most haunted places in the United States). Often, she leaves Confederate flags in the Woodlawn National Cemetery, home to Confederate prisoners who died in the the Federal Confederate Prisoner of War Camp at Elmira, sometimes called the Death Camp of the North.
Jackie first became interested in southern history in 1990 when she discovered 52 Confederate ancestors on her mother’s side. When Jackie first talked with previously unknown relatives, those conversations were the first time she’d ever heard a southern accent. Before moving to South Carolina, Jackie visited many of her new found relatives as well as her ancestors’ grave sites, often restoring dilapidated headstones.
I was not in Rochester during the short-lived Guy-Thurmon Camp No. 1928 of Sons of Confederate Veterans in Rochester. I doubt I would have joined, but to each his or her own.
POSTSCRIPT I- CIVIL WAR MONUMENTS IN ROCHESTER¹POSTSCRIPT II — THE CURIOUS CASE OF SIMEON BRUNSON LYON (CSA) WHO WENT INSANE AND WAS STRANGLED TO DEATH BY HIS BROTHER
In the 1958 article “Long Gray Line,” Arch Merrill mentions Simeon Brunson Lyon who also fought for the Confederacy and is buried in the Rose Ridge Cemetery in Naples. One flag sent by Howard Kemp was placed at Brunson’s grave, so arranged by Merrill via Howard Tellier, the historically-minded editor of the Naples Record.
Simeon Bronson Lyon was a native of Naples who went South in his youth and there joined the gray-clad army. On his tombstone under a cluster of tall pines is this legend:
SIMEON BRUNSON LYON Soldier C.S.A. 1835-1885
The Lyon family is a numerous one in and around Naples, the village ringed by magnificent hills and vast vineyards, but facts on the Lyon who was a “Johnny Reb” are meager.
Mrs. Frank Widmer, a member of the Lyon clan, was able to obtain little information about Simeon Lyon, other than he left three daughters. Apparently he lived most of his days in the South. It is ironical that only a few feet from the tomb of the Confederate soldier is the last resting place of a cousin, Ira D. Lyon of the Fourth New York Artillery, the grandfather of Mrs. Widmer. His story is chiseled on his headstone: “Enlisted 1861. Taken prisoner at Reams Station Aug. 25, 1864. Confined in slave pens at Salisbury 6 mos. When liberated he was so emaciated that he was only able to reach Baltimore where he died, aged 35 years.” Mrs. Widmer said Ira Lyon’s wife went to Baltimore to meet him and the shock of seeing his pitiable condition and his death combined to send her to her grave a few weeks after her soldier husband. I left the Confederate flag in good hands those of Howard Tellier, the historically-minded editor of the Naples Record, who will see that it decks Simeon Lyon’s grave at Memorial Day time.
Merrill laments that the facts on Lyon are meager. Mrs. Frank Widmer, a member of the Lyon clan, was able to obtain little information about Simeon Lyon, other than he left three daughters.
Alas, Merrill did not prove to a dogged investigative journalist. There is a reason so little is left in the historical record on Simeon Brunson Lyon. Under murky circumstances, Lyon had apparently gone insane, leaving his brother no recourse but to choke him to death!
The FindaGrave site provides this account from the Geneva Gazette on June 12th 1885:
A NAPLES TRAGEDY – An Insane Man Strangled by His Brother!
Special Dispatch to the Rochester Union. Canandaigua, June 10 — Ontario county was yesterday the scene of another tragedy. Mr. Simeon B. Lyon of Naples had for some three months previous to yesterday’s fatal affray exhibited signs of insanity. He refused to do anything about the work on his farm, giving as a reason that the spirits had told him that the fruit had all been destroyed by frost. He had become irritable and violent, having assaulted several people in the vicinity. Last Sunday his wife sent for her husband’s brother, Mr. Irving M. Lyon, and consulted with him as to what should be done, as her husband was becoming dangerous. Yesterday at 3 o’clock Irving sent for Mr. J. B. Frazier, Superintendent of the Poor, to come over and see about it. They went to the house of the deranged man and were admitted by a daughter of Lyon, who informed them that her father was in and would see them directly. Lyon soon came into the room and went into a frenzy immediately. He glared at Frazier, exclaiming, “Damn you, you rake, get out of here.” He then turned back into the dining room as if looking for a third party. He soon returned, and making a dive for Frazier, grappled with him and threw him backward, striking his head against the window and breaking the glass. Irving M. Lyon came to the rescue and the two attempted to tie the infuriated man with straps. Frazier went out to wash the blood from his eyes, and while he was gone Irving M. Lyon had a terrible struggle with the crazy man and was compelled to choke him in order to free his hand from his mouth. When Frazier returned Irving exclaimed that “he was afraid he was gone.”
A doctor who was at work in a field near by was immediately summoned, who pronounced the man dead. Coroner Jewett, at this place, was sent for and a jury was impanelled. Their verdict was that the deceased came to his death from excitement caused by the struggle and that Irving M. Lyon and J. B. Frazier acted in justifiable self-defense. Irving M. Lyon is Supervisor of the town. Simeon B. Lyon leaves a wife and three daughters. He was an active business man, extensively engaged in grape growing.
Perhaps Lyon suffered from “Soldier’s Heart” (the Civil War equivalent to PTSD) caused by his war experience, leading to psychic breakdown. Nonetheless, the episode must have been a family embarrassment, and remained so hidden that Merrill was left in the dark over 70 years later. [Note: Simeon was the first cousin of Ira Nelson Deyo, also buried in Rose Ridge Cemetery in Naples and featured in Nighan’s article, see The Small Flag at the Bottom of the Trunk.]