William Lytle: the poet-warrior

William H. Lytle was a man of many talents. He was a well-educated lawyer, politician, and soldier; however, it was Lytle’s poetry that made him famous prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. His most famous poem being “Antony and Cleopatra.” Lytle’s poems were compiled and published in book form by William Venable. You can access the book on Google Books.

Lytle was a fighter and had proven himself on the field of battle. At Chickamauga, Lytle commanded the First Brigade, Major General Philip Sheridan’s division, Major General McCook’s Twentieth Corps. One of the regiments in Lytle’s brigade was the 21st Michigan, which was commanded by Col. William McCreery.

As fate would have it, Lytle’s brigade faced an impossible situation on the second day of the battle, September 20, 1863. A communication error created a gaping hole in the Union line just as Longstreet unleashed a massive assault on the Union right. Lytle’s brigade was thrust into action to fill the void, but there was no holding back the Confederate tide.

While rallying his brigade, Lytle was shot twice; the second, fatal, bullet struck him in the face.  Col. McCreery, of the 21st Michigan, remained with Lytle’s body. McCreery was wounded and taken prisoner for his trouble. The men of the 21st assumed that both Lytle and McCreery had been killed. In the post-battle reports, Union officers praised the performance of Lytle’s brigade.

The advancing Confederates immediately recognized Lytle and guarded his body. Indeed, Lytle carried on pre-war acquaintances with his Confederate foes, Brig. Generals Anderson and Deas. The sullen victors sent a lock of Lytle’s hair and his belongings back to Ohio and properly buried Lytle on the field.

Though the Confederates won a tactical victory at Chickamauga, both sides sustained terrible losses. Chickamauga is behind only Gettysburg in terms of total casualties sustained during a single battle. As with Gettysburg, the Union was capable of taking the losses; the Confederates were not.

The story of General Lytle’s splendid career from the day when Fort Sumter yielded to the day of his death on the field of Chickamauga—a period of less than two years and eight months—covers the events of three principal campaigns, each signalized by a terrible battle. . . .The time was short, but long enough to develop many heroes; but not one more illustrious than William Haines Lytle, the poet-warrior.

William H. Venable, Poems of William Haines Lytle 14 (1894). 


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SOURCE: Charles E. Belknap, History of the Michigan Organizations at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge 1863 (Second Edition 1899).

Additional Resources:

Peter Cozzens, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (1992).

Charles E. Belknap, History of the Michigan Organizations at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge 1863 (Second Edition 1899).

Civil War Trust: Chickamauga


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