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Civil War soldier given his due: Solitary Salisbury grave finally put on map by two local veterans

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Posted on July 10, 2017 |
By John Flowers



gravestone7064.jpg
VETERANS HENRY HASKELL, above left, and Tom Scanlon have been busy tending to and researching this Salisbury gravestone, below, that marks the final resting place of Civil War veteran Phineas "Riley" Rice. Rice Served with the 14th Vermont Regiment at Gettysburg and died in 1879.

SALISBURY — For 138 years now, the solitary, lustrous marble marker off Salisbury’s Lower Plains Road has been a source of curiosity for generations of passersby.

Who chose eternal sleep at this unlikely spot?

Those intrigued enough to stop for a closer look have been rewarded with a glimpse of the final resting place of Phineas “Riley” Rice, whose patriotism prompted him to drop his shovel on a Vermont farm and pick up a rifle that he would carry onto the blood-soaked fields of Gettysburg, Pa., in July of 1863.

One could say that Riley Rice has been hidden in plain sight, for it was only due to the recent efforts of fellow local veteran Tom Scanlon that the grave site of the late farmhand-turned-soldier was accurately recorded in state and federal military annals. Meanwhile, Rice’s resting place has been respectfully tended by yet another Salisbury veteran, Henry Haskell. He is the most recent in a long line of residents who have been unofficial caretakers of the grave throughout the years.

“I passed by it for many years and never paid much attention to it,” Haskell, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran and local cemetery commissioner, said of the Rice plot.

“I felt that since I was living on (Lower Plains Road) and no one had taken over maintenance of the grave, that I should do it.”

Riley died at age 63 on Nov. 21, 1879, but it was only in March of last year that some momentum began to build for learning more about Rice’s orphaned grave. Scanlon and Haskell — both members of Salisbury’s board of civil authority — were counting ballots together on Town Meeting Day. Their conversations between the monotony of tallying ballots turned to Riley Rice.

“I thought it would be nice to learn something about him,” Scanlon said.

Scanlon is a Salisbury selectman, a U.S. Army veteran, and an enthusiastic genealogy researcher, having traced his family lineage back several generations to Ireland. He is also adjutant of Middlebury American Legion Post 27. Scanlon was aware of the storied bravery and effectiveness of the Vermont 14th during the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, where the regiment rescued a Union battery under attack and went on to assist in the repulse of the famous Pickett’s Charge.

Scanlon has walked the fields of Gettysburg in awe of the sacrifices made by thousands of soldiers hoping to reunite a nation divided. To think that a fellow Salisbury resident had been a part of the actual battle 154 years ago further whetted Scanlon’s appetite to learn more about the man and hopefully leave a more complete record for any of his descendants who were perhaps unaware of where he is buried.

For months, Scanlon searched high and low for any details about Rice. His contacts included Tom Ledoux of the Vermont Old Cemeteries Association (VOCA), which also maintains the state’s military database.

Here’s a brief summary of what Scanlon learned about Rice:

He was born in Schoharie County, New York, near Esperance, in 1816 to Riley and Sybil Rice. He worked mainly as a laborer or farmhand, which resulted in him moving around a lot as a young man. During his travels, he met and married Mary Estabrook, a native of Windham County, Vermont. In 1840, while living and working in Leicester, they had their first of two sons, Charles. In 1845, while living and working in Salisbury, their second son, Luther, was born. Sometime after the birth of their children, Riley and Mary moved their family to Mendon, Vt., where Mary died on May 23, 1860. 

Riley Rice enlisted in the Union Army at  age 46 in 1862, soon after President Abraham Lincoln called for more troops in August of that year. This led to the formation of the 14th Vermont Regiment. Rice joined Company H, which mustered out of Rutland.

The 14th Vermont was disbanded after nine action-packed months. A monument to the 14th Vermont Infantry stands at Gettysburg. Private Rice survived the ordeal, and it isn’t clear whether he immediately returned to Mendon or to Salisbury — though his sons remained in Mendon, according to Scanlon’s research.

Rice definitely relocated to Salisbury prior to 1870, Scanlon learned, and it was sometime around this time that he remarried another woman named Mary.  He worked as a farm laborer until his death in 1879.

Scanlon said it was not unusual in the 19th century for farm laborers to be buried on the property they worked, thus explaining why Rice was interred in isolation. But that isolation, Scanlon fears, has led to a cold trail for possible Rice family members.

“It’s a shame,” Scanlon said. “A lot of these veterans have relatives.”

Fortunately, Scanlon’s recent efforts will make it easier for those looking for Phineas “Riley” Rice.

As it turned out, VOCA had the wrong coordinates for Rice’s grave site. Scanlon corrected that information, and also created a “Findagrave.com” listing for what is now officially known as “Rice Cemetery.”

And Scanlon is not stopping there.

He is attempting to trace Rice’s lineage to current day, and has thus far painted a family portrait into the 1930s.

The hope is that some day, a Rice relative will pull over on Lower Plains Road and become posthumously acquainted with a man who voluntarily left the safety of a Vermont farm to survive the deadly volleys of hot lead in Gettysburg.

Until then, Haskell will make sure Rice’s grave is accorded the respect it deserves. He prunes back brush, mows, hits it with a leaf blower and makes sure it is adorned with a flag every Memorial Day. Last year, he took a toothbrush to all the letters on the marker. He is working to replace the small fence that encircles the grave.

“I’ve propped it up; it’s on its last legs,” he said of the current fence encircling what is now officially known as Salisbury’s fourth — and certainly smallest — cemetery.

“I’m glad,” Haskell said of the new recognition for Phineas “Riley” Rice. “A lot of people didn’t know he was here.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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