A Civil War Poem

Have you any old grudges you would like to pay,
Any wrongs lad up from a bygone day?
Gather them now and lay them away
When Christmas comes.

Hard thoughts are heavy to carry, my friend,
And life is short from beginning to end;
Be kind to yourself, leave nothing to mend
When Christmas comes.

William Haines Lytle

I ran across this poem while I was researching material for the Advent book I edited, Wondrous Light. I was curious about the author. What I learned was surprising.

William Haines Lytle

William Haines Lytle (1826 –1863) was a politician in Ohio, renowned poet, and military officer in the United States Army during both the Mexican–American War and American Civil Wa. He was a brigadier general when he was killed in action in the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia in 1863.

Attorney, Politician, Poet, Soldier

Lytle was born in Cincinnat, Ohio, to one of city’s prominent families. Upon passing the bar exam, he established a law firm in Cincinnati. Shortly after, he enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and served as a captain in the Mexican-American War.

After the war, Lytle resumed and expanded his legal practice. He entered politics and was elected to the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat. He ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1857. He lost the election by just a few hundred votes.

He was a celebrated American poet before the Civil War. Lytle’s most famous poem, “Antony and Cleopatra” (published in 1857), was beloved by both North and South in antebellum America. Lytle was appointed as a major general in the Ohio state militia. In 1860, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for his district’s seat in the United States House of Representatives. He campaigned in Ohio for Stephen A. Douglas in the 1860 Presidential Election.

The Civil War

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, through his political and military connections, Lytle was commissioned as colonel of the 10th Ohio Infantry. He and his brigade were assigned to western Virginia (now West Virginia), where they engaged in a series of small engagements in a campaign that led to the withdrawal of Confederate forces in that region, helping pave the way for statehood. Lytle was given command of a brigade of infantry. He was severely wounded in his left calf muscle in a fight at Carnifex Ferry on September 10, 1861, and was sent home to recover. After a four-month recuperation, Lytle was assigned commander of the Bardstown, Kentuckymilitary training camp. Returning to field duty, he led a brigade in Maj. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel‘s division. He participated in Mitchel’s operations along the Memphis and Chattanooga Railroad. Lytle was again wounded and taken prisoner at the Battle of Perryville in Kentucky on October 8, 1862. He was soon exchanged and rejoined the army. On November 29, Lytle was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers, and led his brigade in numerous engagements in the army of William S. Rosecrans. Admiring officers from his old 10th OVI presented him with a jeweled Maltese cross in September 1863, just eleven days before his death.

The Battle of Chickamauga

Lytle was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia while leading a counterattack on horseback. Once his identity was known, Confederates placed a guard around his body, and many recited his poetry over their evening campfires.[2] The hill where he died is now known as “Lytle Hill” in the Chickamauga National Military Park.

The Aftermath

Although considered a “win” for the Confederates, the two-day battle was damaging to both sides in proportions roughly equal to the size of the armies: Union losses were 16,170 (1,657 killed, 9,756 wounded, and 4,757 captured or missing), Confederate 18,454 (2,312 killed, 14,674 wounded, and 1,468 captured or missing). They were the highest losses of any battle in the Western Theater during the war and, after Gettysburg, the second-highest of the war overall.

“Be of good cheer…. We have unabated confidence in you and your soldiers and officers. In the main, you must be the judge as to what is to be done. If I was to suggest, I would say save your army by taking strong positions until Burnside joins you.” 

Telegram sent by President Abraham Lincoln the day after the Battle of Chickamauga

Lytle’s Funeral

Lytle’s funeral was held in the early afternoon at Christ Church on Fourth Street in Cincinnati. So many people lined the streets that the funeral cortege did not reach Spring Grove Cemetery until dusk. Lytle’s monument, one of the most impressive ones there, is near the entrance to the cemetery.

Post Script

The alleged shooter of Lytle was never discovered. All that is known is that the shooter was a Confederate sniper who used a Whitworth .45 caliber percussion rifle.

However, according to history presented to The Daughters of The Confederacy, the shooter was Hillary Garrison Waldrep of Company B of the 16th Alabama Regiment of Infantry. In order to make the shot that was purportedly approved personally by General Bragg, Waldrep had to adjust the sights on his rifle for 200 yards beyond where they usually were. According to the account, once General Lytle fell to the ground, his horse was spooked and ran toward the Confederate soldiers. Bragg gave Hillary Garrison Waldrep General Lytle’s horse, bed-roll and equipment. Waldrep later sold the horse for $100.

My Conundrum

Trained in journalism, I would have liked to talk with General Lytle. I’d ask why he was drawn to politics but more importantly why was he drawn to war? Not just one war but two. He suffered injuries at least two times. He was captured and made a prisoner of war in a confederate prison camp. Still, he returns to the battlefields of Tennessee where he was fatally wounded.

How does a poet whose works were popular both in the North and in the South decide to go to war? He was a poet that had a successful following in syndicated newspapers. What inspired him to write this Christmas themed poem? We’ll never know other than it’s used in holiday greeting cards.

Between the two–being remembered as a brave Civil War general or a poet urging reconciliation between friends at Christmastime, how would you prefer to be remembered?

Debora Buerk
Writer, Editor. and
sometimes family historian