Your News: Bourne lads fought in American Civil War

John Rate's younger son Edward (bearded centre), who was two years old when he left Bourne and became an American citizen in 1874, pictured with his wife and family on the front steps of their home in the Bronx
John Rate's younger son Edward (bearded centre), who was two years old when he left Bourne and became an American citizen in 1874, pictured with his wife and family on the front steps of their home in the Bronx

One of the most disastrous events in the history of the United States was the American Civil War of 1861-65 which split families and set father against son and brother against brother.

Four years of bloody combat on the fractious issue of slavery left 600,000 soldiers dead from the battles between the Union or North and the Confederacy or South.

This was the scenario in which a Bourne family found itself after emigrating to the New World earlier in the 19th century but were powerless to prevent the events that followed.

Their story began in Bourne where John Rate was in business as a fellmonger with extensive premises in Eastgate at a time when the Bourne Eau which ran nearby was navigable for the transport of cargoes bound for the east coast ports and even the Continent. A fellmonger was a dealer in hides or skins, particularly sheepskins which were prepared for tanning, and at this time the town had become an important source of these commodities which were moved to customers by both road and sea.

Rate’s tannery business also provided work for many local people while he and his family prospered, living in a large house nearby, beautifully furnished and equipped and employing several servants with carriages and horses to take them around the district.

But Rate, a married man with three young children, had not been prudent in his affairs and by 1842 he found himself in financial difficulties. Eventually, he owed so much that his creditors called a meeting to seek redress and in July that year he was declared bankrupt by the Insolvency Court at Lincoln. He was then instructed to declare his assets which were insufficient to meet his debts and the court ordered confiscation of his possessions to be disposed of by public auction without reserve in a two-day sale which was held on July 11 and 12.

These included all items from his stock and trade, his household furniture including his bed and even his pet dog. A list of the items advertised in the local newspaper indicates that he had been living in some style with mahogany furniture, luxury carpets, a Broadwood piano, clocks, maps, pottery and porcelain, framed prints, cut glass and decanters, while outside there were horses, waggons and carts, brewing equipment, land with standing corn, wool and skins, all of which were sold at knock-down prices. His house and business premises were sold privately the following year but were heavily mortgaged and so could not have produced much capital.

Disillusioned by the experience, Rate decided to emigrate and managed to find sufficient funds to leave the country and at the age of 44, he booked a passage for New York, sailing in 1845 with his wife, Sarah, their daughter Louisa and sons John and Edward. He settled in the Bronx, then an area of small rural farms supplying the city markets, where he found work and the children grew up but John, the elder of the two sons, separated from the family when he decided to move south.

Thus it was in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out.

John, by then 23, joined the army for the Confederacy while Edward, his younger brother, had enlisted for the Union at the age of 18, and so they found themselves on opposing sides. Edward survived the war but John died from his wounds on the battlefields of Virginia in 1862, identified among the thousands of dead by his personal bible which he had carried everywhere.

In later years, Edward recalled their last heart-rending meeting. “Our regiment was marching in column and halted at a ruined bridge over a creek while preparations were made to ford the stream”, he said. “A few feet away from where I was standing, I noticed a wounded Confederate soldier sitting on a log reading a little book with a peculiar plain cloth cover.

“The soldier’s legs, shattered by a bursting shell, were dangling from the log and blood was trickling though the dirty bandages. The dying soldier started when he saw me and tried to rise. His lips moved but I did not catch the sound. I seemed to recognise the features of someone I had known in that lean face, powder grimed and twisted with pain. I felt an impulse to leave the ranks and go to him but just then the order came ‘Forward march’. I never saw him again.”

But the Rate family survives, spread throughout America, all proudly happy to tell of their valiant ancestors, the two Bourne lads who fought in a dreadful war on opposing sides but only one lived to tell the tale.

Edward Rate returned to civilian life and worked making piano cases for the Steinway company but was to recount these events at regimental reunions held in the Bronx where he lived to be 81. His story has been told to me by his great granddaughter, Jill Borman, of Plainfield, New Jersey, who is busy tracing her ancestors from Lincolnshire while compiling a family tree and is anxious to find out more about John Rate before he left for the New World 170 years ago.

In Bourne, the tannery John Rate had owned in Eastgate was sold to William Mays (1794-1889) who expanded its interests and when his grandson, Thomas, died in 1934, the now extensive business passed to his son, Raymond Mays (1899-1980), who made his name in the world of international racing as a driver and designer of the world championship BRM. But the firm’s prosperity was not to last and today nothing is left of the company that had flourished in the town for almost two centuries.

The fellmongery trade had attracted many owners over the years but the warehouses that once occupied the bank of the Bourne Eau have been dismantled and the former tannery buildings converted into flats while much of the Eastgate area is now occupied by private housing.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at