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Coffin: Finding Tiger

Daniel Lillie - nicknamed Tiger by his men - was one of the most popular officers in the Civil War’s Vermont Brigade.

And on the fateful afternoon of May 5, 1864, with the rest of the brigade, he led his 4th Vermont Regiment's I Company into the jungle-like tangle of the Wilderness Battlefield. And soon after giving the order “forward” he was shot, as a heavy volley from hundreds of unseen Confederates slammed in.

One thousand Vermonters fell that day, holding a Virginia cross roads suddenly vital to the Army of the Potomac’s survival. The badly wounded Captain Lillie died a month later in a Washington military hospital; his body sent home to Barnard where his parents, eleven brothers and sisters, and fiancé Mariah Cox, waited. The funeral in the Universalist Church was the largest ever held in the upland town.

While researching my book Something Abides, I found the church, the Lillie home and on the south side of Route 12 between Barnard and Bethel, the red schoolhouse where Lillie had taught before the war. But search as I might through nearby burying grounds, I’d never found his grave.

Then this spring at a Sunday coffee hour at the United Church of Bethel, a local woman offered to show me a Civil War soldier’s gravestone recently unearthed in the dirt floor of her 1803 village home.

There, local historian and friend Janet Burnham and I were confronted by the sizeable marble tombstone of Vermont sharpshooter Wilbur Wheeler, who had died soon after enlisting in 1862. The stone had been unearthed during cellar renovations, along with stones for two of Wheeler’s siblings.

The thought came that the remains of three people might lie beneath our feet, until Janet recalled a Wheeler monument in the Cherry Hill Cemetery just outside the village. Apparently, the newly discovered stones had been placed in the cellar of the family home when the cemetery lot was redone.

We decided to visit the Wheeler plot and found a large central family memorial with smaller stones for the children. Among them was Wilbur's marker with Stone Union Flag. Then just down the slope, a fresh Stars and Stripes flapping in the sunshine beside a prominent obelisk caught my eye. The inscription told me that there rested Daniel Lillie.

At last I had found the grave of Tiger Lillie, ten miles from Barnard in the bright green of the 153rd Vermont spring since the fire and fury of the Wilderness brought him home too soon.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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