Friday, July 12, 2013

William H. Lytle: Remembering gallant poet-warrior who fell at Chickamauga

Brig. Gen. William Haines Lytle, son of pioneers, man of letters, warrior of old, spoke these gallant words as a horde of Confederates surrounded his brigade on the bloody battlefield at Chickamauga:

"If I must die, I will die as a gentleman. All right, men, we can die but once. This is the time and place. Let us charge."

Lytle, on horseback, led a determined but doomed counterattack on Sept. 20, 1863. He was shot in the spine and subsequently in the head. The Cincinnati, Ohio, hero and popular poet-warrior handed his sword to a soldier before dying of his wounds.

His Union comrades were forced from the field, leaving Lytle’s remains lying among the Georgia pines.

And then something remarkable happened.

Confederate troops, some of whom he knew from service in the Mexican-American War, posted an honor guard around Lytle’s remains before they were returned to Federals. His poems were reportedly read around campfires that evening.

Lytle had been twice wounded in previous Civil War battles and was a prisoner of war for a brief time. Admiring officers from the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, with whom Lytle served at the beginning of the conflict, only weeks before the Battle of Chickamauga had presented him a gold meal, decorated with an emerald and a star of diamonds.

Lytle's coat (Cincinnati Museum Center)
It wasn’t just his bravery that accorded such an honor at Chickamauga.

Lytle, 36, was known across North and South for his poetry, much of which was composed before the war. The general continued to write during the war.

Lytle’s most famous composition, “Antony and Cleopatra,” was published a few years before Confederate guns opened up on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

I am dying, Egypt, dying;
Hark!  the insulting foeman's cry;
They are coming; quick, my falchion !
Let me front them ere I die.
Ah, no more amid the battle
Shall my heart exulting swell;
Isis and Osiris guard thee,
Cleopatra, Rome, farewell!

Lytle’s messages of mortality and man were popular during the Victorian era.

The area on the Chickamauga battlefield where the general led his brigade is known appropriately as Lytle Hill.

The setting is serene, says Patrice Glass, executive director of Friends of the Park, which is financially helping the National Park Service restore Lytle’s monument at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park.

Courtesy of SUVCW, Lytle Camp
The monument, a pyramid of artillery shells, is down to one level after years of vandalism and the use of some of the cannonballs to repair other memorials.

This Sept. 20, the fully restored monument will be dedicated at a solemn ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the momentous battle in northern Georgia, which ended in a Southern victory.

Among those attending will be members of the General William H. Lytle Camp #10 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCV), which also raised money for the project.

That contingent may be bringing descendants of the Lytle family, which was among the founding fathers of Cincinnati. Lytle was a bachelor.

Glass and others say the treatment accorded to Lytle’s body is an early example of North and South coming together.

“That’s a great story and it goes to the heart of what happened here after the battle – reunification,” she recently told the Civil War Picket.

Lytle tactic books, medal (Cincinnati Museum Center)
The Cincinnati Museum Center, beginning last weekend and continuing through Oct. 27, has an exhibit of items from its collection marking the city’s involvement in the Civil War during 1863.

Among the Lytle items are his frock coat, sword, gold medal, liquor cabinet and tall boots.

Lytle was a lawyer and politician before the Civil War. His grandfather founded Williamsburg, Ohio, and his father was a well-known orator and Ohio congressman.

“Called Will by friends and family, Lytle was described as slight in build, but well developed with gray eyes and a resolute character,” according to a 2008 article in the Murfreesboro (Tenn,) Post.

The article said the chivalrous Lytle received is gift of prose from his mother and his eloquence from his father. Lytle provided vivid details of his wartime service in Mexico and other aspects of his life and studies.

From “When the Long Shadows”:

Ah! whereso'er the closing scene may find me,
'Mid friends or foemen or in deserts lone,
May there be some of those I leave behind me
To shed a tear for me when I am gone. 

Lytle liquor cabinet, boots (Cincinnati Museum Center)
Lytle was wounded in September 1861 at Carnifex Ferry and in October 1862 at Perryville, where he was taken prisoner before an exchange shortly afterward. The Ohioan was given brigade command in November 1862.

The poet-warrior’s funeral in Cincinnati weeks after the Battle of Chickamauga  was a major event, said Kerry Langdon, past commander of the Lytle Camp of the SUVCV.

“His family is a favorite family in the history of Cincinnati, Ohio,” said Langdon. “He was a learned man, a very articulate poet.”

Lytle Park is among several Cincinnati venues named for the general.

Langdon said the Sept. 20 ceremony will include a tribute to Lytle’s poetry.

From “Lines to My Sisters”:

“In vain for me the applause of men,
The Laurel won by sword or pen,
But for the hope, so dear and sweet,
To lay my trophies at your feet.”

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