In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The death of poet Gen. William H. Lytle

There were myriad brave men who performed remarkable deeds on the Chickamauga battlefield, on September 18-20, 1863. One stirring example is Federal Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle, also a renown American poet.

As the Federals fled the Chickamauga battle line in the face of Longstreet's breakthrough this afternoon in 1863, not all the soldiers ran. Before Thomas made his famous stand on Horseshoe Ridge, Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle, commander of the First Brigade of Sheridan's division, led his men forward in a desperate charge to stem the overwhelming Rebel torrent.

Wiliam Lytle was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1826, to the son of a U.S. Congressman, directly descended from a distinguished Ohio pioneer family. After establishing a law firm, Lytle followed his family's tradition of military service, joining the army to fight in the Mexican-American War. He served with distinction during the war. While in Mexico, Lytle’s writing abilities became evident as he penned a series of letters, which were much admired for their poetic tone, and beautiful description of the Mexican scenery. Friends and family shared his letters, and some were published in Cincinnati newspapers.1 

After returning from the war to his law practice, Lytle was elected an Ohio state legislator. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Lytle, now a major general of his state's militia, was commissioned colonel of 10th Ohio Infantry. While commanding a brigade in Virginia, he received a severe leg wound, requiring convalescence at home. After a 4-month recuperation, he returned to duty, fighting in the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, where he was again wounded and also taken prisoner. He was released in a prisoner exchange and returned to Rosecrans's army where he was soon promoted to brigadier general. One of the most beloved brigade commanders Lytle continued to serve in Rosecrans's Army of the Cumberland up through his mortal wounding on today's date in Battle of Chickamauga.

Brig. Gen. William H. Lytle monument at Chickamauga
as it looked originally. The monument has since been
severely vandalized. Efforts are underway to restore it
through contributions to Friends of the Park.
Around noon, as the battle turned into a Federal rout, Brig. Gen. Lytle tried to hold his First Brigade in a brave but doomed hope of blunting the Confederate onslaught. "All right, men! We can die but once! This is the time and place. Let us charge!,” his men recalled him shouting as he attacked.

Leading from horseback, Lytle was struck in the spine and then the left side of his face before falling from his horse. One of his officers helped ease him to the ground. Then, wading through the lethal enemy fire, his men moved the general to a large tree where he died moments later. By now, the brigade had broken up and fled, leaving their fallen leader to the victors.

As Providence would have it, the general was killed by fire from the brigade of his old friend, Gen. Patton Anderson. Soldiers were posted to guard the body on what is now called "Lytle's Hill." Through the day, other Confederate officers stopped to pay their respect. That evening, soldiers paid tribute by reciting Lytle's poetry over campfires.

Later, during a truce between the armies at Chattanooga, Lytle's body was recovered and returned to Cincinnati. There funeral services were held on October 22, 1863, the largest such ceremony in that city until that time.

Already a celebrated American poet by the start of the war, by his death Lytle was one of the most famous generals in the Federal army. His most renown poem, "Antony and Cleopatra," published in 1857 in the Yale Book of American Verse,2  was beloved by Americans on both sides of the struggle. No doubt the ballad was one of those recited on the battlefield in his honor on this date. The poem was based on a scene from the Shakespearean tragedy as dying Mark Antony speaks to Cleopatra:
I am dying, Egypt, dying!
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast;
Let thine arm, 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 scarred and veteran legions
Bear their eagles high no more,
And my wrecked and scattered 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;
'T was no foeman's arm that felled him,
'T was his own that struck the blow:
His who, pillowed on thy bosom,
Turned aside from glory's ray—
His who, drunk with thy caresses,
Madly threw the world away.

Should the base plebeian rabble
Dare assail my name at Rome,
Where the noble spouse Octavia
Weeps within her widowed 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.

And for thee, star-eyed Egyptian—
Glorious sorceress of the Nile!
Light the path to Stygian horrors,
With the splendor 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—
2  Lytle's poetry is available on Kindle in Poems of William Haines Lytle.

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