Thursday, April 3, 2003

A general of interest

Lytle is a familiar name in Cincinnati, but few people know much about him

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] William Haines Lytle, wearing his Maltese cross, just weeks before he was killed in action.
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He was only 5-foot-6, but William Haines Lytle stood tall in the eyes of those he led onto bloody Civil War battlefields.

Officers of the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a mostly Irish regiment from the Cincinnati area, thought enough of the brigadier general to present him with a jeweled Maltese cross on Aug. 9, 1863. Six weeks later he died a hero's death at Chickamauga, Ga.

Lytle's cross, sword, uniform and other personal items are among more than 300 artifacts, archival documents, lithographs and photographs featured in Liberty on the Border: A Civil War Exhibit, which opens Saturday, and runs through Sept. 1 at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

The exhibit, designed by Museum Center staff and historians, examines the relationship between Ohio and Kentucky before, during and after the war. Cincinnati, perched on the northern shore of a ribbon of water separating a free state and slaveholding one, provided an interesting blend of Northern and Southern sensibilities.

"Cincinnati had economic ties to the South because of the river," says Scott L. Gampfer, director of history collections and preservation for the Museum Center. "And many Cincinnati families originally came from the South, so they had a very pro-Southern attitude.

"Kentucky on the other hand, although a slave state, never seceded from the Union and was never part of the Confederacy. In fact, more soldiers from Kentucky enlisted and fought for the Union army than for the Confederate army."

Lytle, too, was a product of this mixed bag of sentiment. He lived in Cincinnati but his family had close ties to Kentucky. A Democrat, he supported Stephen Douglas, rather than Abraham Lincoln, in the 1860 presidential election. Once the war started, though, Lytle fought vigorously to preserve the Union.

Much is known about his life because many of his letters and other documents, now known as the Lytle Papers, were saved by his family and donated to the Cincinnati Historical Society, based at the Museum Center. In 1999, Ruth C. Carter, a retired University of Pittsburgh librarian and Cincinnati native with a doctorate in history, compiled some of them for a book, For Honor Glory & Union: The Mexican & Civil War Letters of Brig. Gen. William Haines Lytle ($27.50; The University Press of Kentucky).

Ruth C. Carter, editor of For Honor Glory & Union: The Mexican & Civil War Letters of Brig. Gen. William Haines Lytle, is researching a history of the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. She asks that anyone with information about members of the Civil War regiment contact her at or write her at 121 Pikemont Drive, Wexford, PA, 15090.
"Although a native son of Ohio, Lytle had a personality and temperament more akin to that of a Southern cavalier than a Yankee," Carter writes in the book's introduction.

The Lytle name is, of course, familiar to anyone who knows Cincinnati. With only a little effort one can quickly visit the Lytle landmarks. Start at Lytle Tower at the corner of East Fourth and Broadway, walk a block east to Lytle Park, take the steps down to One Lytle Place apartments, then hop in a car and motor through the Lytle Tunnel.

When a dozen people enjoying a sunny lunch hour recently at Lytle Park were asked whether they knew anything about the park's namesake, none did.

Political backgrounds

But 140 years ago, everybody in Cincinnati knew of William Haines Lytle, member of a prominent, upper-class Queen City family.

His grandfather, William Lytle, established Williamsburg in Clermont County, and in 1809 moved to Cincinnati, where he became an entrepreneur and philanthropist. President Andrew Jackson appointed him U.S. surveyor general in 1830.

One of his sons, Robert Todd Lytle, served in the Ohio General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives and was U.S. surveyor general. Robert Todd's oldest child and only son was William Haines Lytle, born in Cincinnati on Nov. 2, 1826.

He lived in the family mansion, on land that now includes Lytle Park. He attended college and studied law in Cincinnati. At 21, he left to serve in the Mexican War, but missed most of the fighting. Back in Cincinnati, he successfully ran for the Ohio Assembly, served one term, then returned home to practice law. Throughout his life he enjoyed writing poetry.

Critical of abolition

His hometown was populated by a number of abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived in the city from 1832 to 1850. But many others held differing views, including Lytle. Carter writes: "He believed abolition would result in huge social and economic problems and criticized Republicans for asserting that abolition could be accomplished by peaceful or legal means."

In 1858 he ran for lieutenant governor of Ohio, and lost; two years later his bid for the Democratic nomination to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives also failed. Lytle stayed involved in politics, campaigning for Stephen Douglas for president in 1860.

By the eve of the War Between the States, Cincinnati was one of America's great cities, the largest in the Midwest. Lytle, though, had not reached his potential. Writes Carter: "He was a man without a fixed purpose in life when the Civil War and the call to his country's duty touched a deep need to devote himself to a cause."

Lytle's sympathy for the rights of Southern slave owners did not outweigh his strong, pro-Union stance. In May 1861, he accepted a commission as colonel in the 10th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

Lytle's first taste of battle came on Sept. 10, 1861 at Carnifex Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. While leading a charge on horseback, he caught a Confederate bullet in his left calf. He spent four months recovering in Cincinnati.

'Genuine leader'

After a series of assignments, in October 1862 he joined Union forces attempting to halt a Confederate advance into Kentucky. The armies met at the battle of Perryville, during which Lytle was shot behind the ear. Confederates captured him, and later released him on parole.

Lytle was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863 and given command of the First Brigade, Third Division, 20th Army Corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Six months later, on Sept. 19, he led troops into battle near Chickamauga Creek.

"He was always at the front," Gampfer says. "He was a genuine leader, and was thought of very highly by his men."

On the battle's second day, the 36-year-old general was indeed at the front, on horseback, leading a counterattack to stop Confederates who had broken through Union lines. Several bullets struck him and mortally wounded him.

City mourns

He had never married, and was the last male in the family to carry on the Lytle name. (His sisters married, however, and Lytle descendants recently funded a renovation of the Cincinnati Historical Society's genealogy room, now called the Lytle Library.)

"Reaction to Lytle's death in Cincinnati was remarkable," Gampfer says. "It was the biggest military funeral procession in the history of the city." He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Six weeks before his death, when presented the Maltese cross by members of his old regiment, Lytle ended a speech this way:

"That the day of ultimate triumph for the Union arms, sooner or later, will come, I do not doubt, for I have faith in the courage, the wisdom, and the justice of the people. It may not be for all of us here today to listen to the chants that greet the victor, nor to hear the brazen bells ring out the new nuptials of the States.

"But those who do survive can tell, at least, to the people, how their old comrades, whether in the skirmish or the charge ... died with their harness on, in the great war for Union and Liberty."


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