The Lytle Legacy

It was the Battle of Chickamauga, September 20th, 1863.  Confederate forces led by General Braxton Bragg and Union forces led by General William Rosecrans clashed on bloody Georgian soil.  On the slight ridge west of the Dyer field close to the Widow Glenn House, brigadier General William Haines Lytle, a Cincinnati native, met fearsome Confederate forces on the battlefield.  Leading from the front of his men, he valiantly put himself head first into danger; a ball launched from the steely bowels of a Confederate musket entered the left corner of Lytle’s mouth and left through his right temple, brutally knocking him from his horse.  At merely 36 years old, General William Haines Lytle, esteemed poet and commander of Union soldiers in the goriest war in American history, died within minutes.  When the enemy realized who he was, they protected him and later read Lytle’s poetry over his body in an unofficial funeral service.  Lytle was admired by Northerners and Southerners alike due to the poetry he had published over the course of his lifetime.  He never married and never had any children.  He has no direct descendants.

But as Cincinnatians, I can't help but feel we’re all partially responsible for carrying on the legacy of William Haines Lytle.  According to legend, after his funeral at Christ Church Cathedral on 4th, people lined the streets to pay their respects in such great numbers that it stalled the funeral procession and his casket wasn’t delivered to Spring Grove until sundown.  He was beloved for myriad reasons and affected the lives of enough Cincinnatians to warrant that turnout.  But time has a way of lessening the potency of emotions, and since he was killed 152 years ago, many of us today don’t remember him.  It’s not out of disrespect, it’s simply because he’s not in the public eye to the degree he was in the mid-19th century.  Many may only know ‘Lytle’ as the park in front of the Taft Museum without knowing about the man behind the namesake.  That’s why it’s important to spread the word and tell his tale.  William Haines Lytle is an essential piece of Cincinnati history and we would be remiss to forget him.

I want to share a poem he wrote in 1858.  In William Henry Venable’s book Beginnings of literary culture in the Ohio valley: historical and biographical sketches, which can be found in the Cincinnati Public Library’s Cincinnati Room, the rare book depository full of incredible artifacts (including this one), he details the story behind the making of Lytle’s most revered poem, Antony and Cleopatra:

“Antony and Cleopatra was written at the Lytle Homestead, Lawrence street, Cincinnati, in July, 1858.  The author dashed it off in a glow of poetic excitement, and left the manuscript lying upon the writing-table, in his private room, where it was found by his friend, Wm. W. Fosdick, the poet.  'Who wrote that, Lytle?' inquired Fodsick.  'Why, I did,' answered Lytle, 'How do you like it?'  Fosdick expressed admiration for the poem, and taking the liberty of a literary comrade, he carried the manuscript away, and sent it to the edition of the Cincinnati Commercial...” [source]

So here’s to remembering William Haines Lytle, the poet, the civil war general, and Cincinnatian.  Continue to rest in peace, friend.

 

Antony and Cleopatra

by William Haines Lytle, 1858

 

I AM dying, Egypt, dying.

Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,

And the dark Plutonian shadows

Gather on the evening blast;

Let thine arms, O Queen, enfold me,

Hush thy sobs and bow thine ear;

Listen to the great heart-secrets,

Thou, and thou alone, must hear.

 

Though my scarr'd and veteran legions

Bear their eagles high no more,

And my wreck'd and scatter'd galleys

Strew dark Actium's fatal shore,

Though no glittering guards surround me,

Prompt to do their master's will,

I must perish like a Roman,

Die the great Triumvir still.

 

Let not Cæsar's servile minions

Mock the lion thus laid low;

'Twas no foeman's arm that fell'd him,

'Twas his own that struck the blow;

His who, pillow'd on thy bosom,

Turn'd aside from glory's ray,

His who, drunk with thy caresses,

Madly threw a world away.

 

Should the base plebeian rabble

Dare assail my name at Rome,

Where my noble spouse, Octavia,

Weeps within her widow'd home,

Seek her; say the gods bear witness--

Altars, augurs, circling wings--

That her blood, with mine commingled,

Yet shall mount the throne of kings.

 

As for thee, star-eyed Egyptian,

Glorious sorceress of the Nile,

Light the path to Stygian horrors

With the splendors of thy smile.

Give the Cæsar crowns and arches,

Let his brow the laurel twine;

I can scorn the Senate's triumphs,

Triumphing in love like thine.

 

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!