William Haines Lytle was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 2, 1826, the scion of one of the most prominent Cincinnati families. He graduated from Cincinnati College (now the University of Cincinnati) and passed the bar. He started a law firm, but soon enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, serving in the Mexican-American War, where he rose to the rank of captain.
After the war, he resumed his law practice and began a political career, winning election to the Ohio legislature as a Democrat. He ran for Lieutenant Governor in 1857, losing by just a few hundred votes. He also lost a race for his party's nomination for his district's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1860.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Lytle was serving as a major general in the Ohio state militia. Although he was a pro-states' rights Democrat, Lytle chose to defend his country and was sent to the newly-established Camp Harrison to train the Ohio volunteers who answered Lincoln's call for troops to put down the rebellion.
Through his military and political connections Lytle was commissioned as colonel of the 10th Ohio Infantry, and assigned to William Rosecrans's forces in western Virginia. He soon rose to command a brigade, but was severely wounded in the leg at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry on September 10, 1861.
After a convalescent period, Lytle briefly commanded a training camp at Bardstown, Kentucky, then was given command of a brigade in the Army of the Ohio, first under Ormsby Mitchel, then in Lovell Rousseau's division. Lytle was again severely wounded at the Battle of Perrysville on October 8, 1862, and left for dead. He did not die, but was captured by the Confederates. On November 29, 1862, while still in captivity, Lytle was promoted to brigadier general.
In February of 1863, Lytle was paroled and rejoined the army, now named the Army of the Cumberland under the command of William Rosecrans. He was given command of the 1st Brigade of the Third Division (Sheridan's) of XX Corps (McCook's).
Lytle's brigade did not reach the battlefield at Chickamauga until after dark on September 19, 1863, after marching for seventeen days straight with the corps's baggage. They were positioned near the Widow Glenn's. The next day he was ordered by Sheridan to march to the north to join George Thomas's position on the left side of the line. Lytle had barely begun the movement when Confederates broke through the Union line directly in front of him. Lytle quickly formed his men into battle lines, but they were quickly overwhelmed. Seeing that his situation was hopeless, Lytle ordered a counterattack in a vain attempt to slow the Confederate advance. To his regiment, Lytle said, "All right, men, we can die but once. This is the time and place. Let us charge." Lytle had barely begun his charge when a bullet struck him near the spine, but he stayed on his horse in the front of his men. Then, three bullets struck him almost at once. One, which struck him in the face, was mortal. He was 36.
From the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"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 (a) 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."
"Antony and Cleopatra"
I am Dying, Egypt, dying,At the Chickamauga battlefield, the spots where high-ranking officers died are marked by pyramids of cannonballs. Over the years, cannonballs were removed from Lytle's pyramid to replace those that were damaged by vandalism in more visible parts of the park. Lytle's pyramid was eventually reconfigured to be just a simple triangle marking the spot on what is now Lytle Hill where he died. After a fundraising campaign, Lytle's pyramid was restored and re-dedicated on the 150th anniversary of his death, September 20, 2013.
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 Actuim'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 Caesar'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 Caesar 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!