Book review

Desolating this Fair Country: the Civil War Diary and Letters of Lt.Henry G. Lyon, 34th New York

Edited by E.N. Radigan, pp209, McFarland & Co., Jefferson N.C., and London. Available at 20.65 from Shelwing Ltd, 127 Sandgate Road, Folkestone, Kent GT20 2BH. Tel. 01303-850501, Fax.01303-850162.

 

Reviewed by: Allan Paterson Milne

 

'We could not nominate W.H. Seward ...but we have got his principles exactly in honest 'Old Abe Lincoln' the Rail Splitter of Illinois.... Tell them we are going to elect him just as soon as election comes'

 

Henry C Lyon had a distinction rare among Civil War soldiers. He served as a New York State delegate to the convention that nominated Lincoln for the Presidency in 1860. He had gone to Chicago pledged to Seward but came back having voted for Lincoln. He could have used his political connections to secure a safer post for himself, but unlike some antislavery political activists, he was prepared to put his life on the line for what he believed in. On 22nd May 1861, he enlisted in the 34th New York Volunteer infantry and was elected First Sergeant. His story is told in the letters and diary entries published here.


His duties at Albany barracks were demanding enough- 'My duties are to oversee the men generally. Take them to their meals and see that they keep the room clean. To call the roll, detail guards, read orders, keep account of things, make out morning rolls etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. My duties are rather numerous I must confess, but I guess I can stand it. It is "orderly here, and orderly there", but I am tough'.

 

The most valuable material in the book however, is that on the Peninsula campaign in which Lyon served as Brevet Second Lieutenant - especially the Battle of Fair Oaks. From Lyon's account, it is clear that the rank and file saw the battle as a victory. 'I do not believe that ever a battle was waged fiercer through most of the forenoon when the enemy broke and ram The day was ours'. And he expressed a new confidence gained -

 

'I thank God that we stood the test. I confess that before the hour of trial came, I sometimes questioned in my own mind and even doubted the courage of the men individually ... there was a doubt or mistrust of abilities somewhere or somehow throughout the whole Regt. that seemed to make us feel that every rim would, as it were, fight on his own hook'.

 

But if the men were unshaken their commander was not. Retreat to Harrison's Landing followed. Yet if there is no sense of defeat in Lyon's writings, there is also, curiously, no loss of faith in Democrat General McClellan by Republican Sergeant Lyon.

 

'You have no idea what confidence the Soldiers have in this man. When so worn and tired as to be hardly able to stand, they always have a hearty cheer for the Gen'l when ever he makes his appearance - Oh! a man must have a fearful and an awful responsibility resting upon him who is thus loved and trusted'.

 

Perhaps that last point was exactly McClellan's problem.

 

We cannot tell if Lyon changed his view of McClellan after Antietam. Mortally wounded during Sedgwick's attack on the West Woods, he died on October 5th. His diary entry for September 12th prosaically records: 'Got up thoroughly drenched as we had no tent. After breakfast we started. Marched 4 or 5 miles and formed line of battle'. There were no grand thoughts. He could not know this entry would be his last.