Among the interesting stories to review during this sesquicentennial of the Civil War are those of North Country families who paid an unusually high price. In covering such tragic tales, the principal difficulty lies in getting it right―no small task when the main event occurred 150 years ago. In many cases, we may never be sure exactly what happened, but the availability of digitized records has changed the game. The truth sometimes emerges to replace embellishments that appeared in the long-accepted, oft-repeated version of a story.
The Tupper family of Pierrepont in St. Lawrence County offers a fine example. There’s no question they suffered tragic losses during the Civil War, but parts of their story may well have been juiced up by reporters hoping to inspire deep empathy or poignancy.
The Tupper saga was recounted among dozens of newspapers in 1898, 1904, 1918, 1925, 1930, 1933, 1940, 1943, 1947, and several times since. For the most part, writers described the terrible suffering of a mother who sent four sons off to war, with only one returning.
The story was basically regurgitated from earlier printings, but even then, the most important facts were sometimes revised. In 1933, it was reported that three sons were killed and a fourth was wounded. Ten years later, it was worse: “Four sons of a Tupper family enlisted, and none of them returned alive.” In 1947, a revised version said of the Tuppers, “… four sons went away to war and two did not return.”
All three of those stories had one thing right: four Tupper brothers represented the North in the Civil War. In May 1863, Sylvester, oldest of the brothers and a veteran of Antietam, was killed in action at Chancellorsville. Union troops were in the act of withdrawing when, according to an officer in the field, Sylvester took a bullet to the head and fell dead. He was 27 years old and had served less than two years.
Six months later, Lyman Tupper, 23, was badly wounded at Ringgold, Georgia, and spent an extended period in the hospital. His survival appeared doubtful, and the Tupper family stood the chance of losing a second son to the war, but it didn’t seem to faze the remaining brothers.
Just three weeks after Lyman was shot, 17-year-old Alvin Tupper enlisted. Over the years, it was routinely reported that he died in Virginia in the famous Battle of the Wilderness. However, that encounter took place four months before Alvin passed away in a Washington hospital. Despite reports that he died in battle, official records make no mention of any injuries. His passing was attributed to a less glamorous cause: chronic diarrhea.
That’s not to belittle his death: many, many soldiers died in service, but not in battle. Sylvester’s quick demise from a bullet to the head was no doubt less painful than Alvin’s lengthy struggle against an illness that killed him on September 11, 1864― just four months past his eighteenth birthday.
Tragically, only thirty-nine days later, Mrs. Tupper lost another son to the war. Twenty-two-year-old Jason had served for two years in the 11th NY Cavalry, better known as Scott’s 900. The regiment’s casualty record is revealing about the nature of war deaths: of 344 men lost, 25 were killed in action, while 256 died of diseases.
Jason was among the latter group, although anecdotal evidence awarded him the passing of a hero. One example: “Jason was mortally wounded at Doyal’s Plantation, surviving his wounds by about two weeks … dying the victim of the crude surgical skill of those war days, the burning sun, and the lack of antiseptics.” The suggestion is that he was wounded, operated on, and was then left lying on the battlefield for some time.
Much of that description appears to have been fabricated. According to official records, Jason had served for two years before falling ill at New Orleans, where he was hospitalized. Rebel troops captured the camp, and patients were among the prisoners taken. Many of them, including Jason, were freed a short time later, courtesy of a prisoner exchange.
A book detailing the adventures of the 11th NY Cavalry offers a slightly different version of events, placing Jason’s capture at Doyal’s Plantation, about 60 miles west of New Orleans. Despite the long-told newspaper version of his wounding, surgery, and subsequent death, three records of service indicate that he fell ill, was sent home to Pierrepont on sick furlough, and died shortly after (in late October 1864).
Having lost two sons in 39 days, Mrs. Tupper gained a small but welcome measure of solace less than three weeks after Jason’s death. Word arrived that Lyman was coming home after a year spent in the hospital, recovering from serious battle wounds. A broken arm, a bout with typhoid fever, and critical injuries from a sniper’s bullet had all been overcome. Of four Tupper sons who went to war, Lyman was the only survivor. He died in late December 1922, at the age of 82.
In summary, four sons of Mandrick (or Mandrake) and Betsey Tupper fought in the Civil War. One was badly wounded, and three others died in service to their country. Their sacrifice has since been noted many times during Pierrepont events honoring the town’s patriotic ancestors.
Photo: Headline from 1918.