Thursday, December 5, 2019

Review - "General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West" by Dan Lee

[General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West by Dan Lee (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). Hardcover, 2 maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xvi,222/296. ISBN:978-1-62190-487-8. $47]

Brigadier General Hylan Benton Lyon's Confederate Army career embraced all three service branches, but he would achieve his greatest success and notoriety as a cavalry brigade commander under Nathan Bedford Forrest. A fresh treatment of a deserving figure, Dan Lee's General Hylan B. Lyon: A Kentucky Confederate and the War in the West offers readers the first comprehensive military biography of Lyon.

Though his American antecedents hailed from Vermont, by the time of his birth near Eddyville, Kentucky in 1836 Hylan Benton Lyon's family was firmly established in slaveholding business and farming pursuits at a level that nearly placed them in the planter class. An 1856 graduate of West Point, Lyon's first posting was with the 2nd U.S. Artillery, where he saw action against the Seminoles before being transferred out west to Fort Yuma. Not long after that, his unit was sent to Washington Territory to engage hostile tribes wreaking frontier havoc there.  At the end of the Coeur D'Alene conflict, Lyon was assigned to escort a military road construction project connecting the territory to the Missouri River. By the time he returned to Kentucky in 1860, war was looming and Lyon apparently had few qualms about resigning his commission and becoming a Confederate officer.

Lee's account of Lyon's Civil War career is thorough and engaging. The level of detail found in the study's rather good campaign and battle coverage is satisfactory, with the most telling flaw being a complete lack of map support (the two provided are just area maps of little value). Lyon first raised an infantry company, which was soon converted into an artillery company (what would become later known as Cobb's Battery). As was the case with so many other promising artillery officers, rank and promotion were best achieved in the other branches, and Lyon soon left the artillery. As a field grade officer in the infantry, Lyon first saw major action at Fort Donelson. After parole and reorganization, he was appointed colonel of the 8th Kentucky infantry regiment. Distinguishing himself during the early stages of the 1862-63 Vicksburg Campaign (particularly at Coffeeville), Lyon managed to escape Grant's closing ring and temporarily led mounted troops in the area until the second fall of Jackson, whereupon he was transferred yet again, this time to Joseph Wheeler's command in East Tennessee. Lyon worked in a staff position under General Wheeler until finally joining Forrest as a brigade commander in Abraham Buford's division. At Brice's Crossroads, Tupelo, Johnsonville, and other places, all events well covered in the text, Lyon's battlefield performance earned Forrest's respect and frequent commendation.

In one area—the treatment of black military prisoners, Lee does try to draw a meaningful connection between Lyon's antebellum Old Army and Civil War Confederate Army experiences. During the punitive campaign in Washington Territory, Lyon witnessed the execution of captives on the order of General George Wright. The moral disgust felt and expressed by Lyon over that episode briefly led him to consider leaving the army altogether, and the author suggests the possibility that that feeling of disillusionment likely informed Lyon's own relatively benign treatment of the Confederate Army's most despised enemy in uniform.

Lyon's first real opportunity to prove himself as a general in a truly independent capacity would only come in late 1864, when he was placed at the head of a new administrative post in western Kentucky. There he was tasked with recruiting new troops, harassing Union occupation authorities, and paving the way for General Hood's ambitiously planned movement to the Ohio River. To this end, Lyon conducted the operation he is perhaps best known for, the roughly month-long raid into Kentucky from Paris, Tennessee that caused considerable disruption and material destruction in the Union rear. While otherwise conventional, the salient feature of Lyon's winter raid was his destruction of a number of Kentucky courthouses, acts that he justified through their use as enemy barracks and military strongpoints.

To his credit as a critical biographer, Lee, though high overall on Lyon's military performances in subordinate roles, finds disturbing flaws in Lyon's independent leadership during his infamous "Courthouse Raid." Even though Civil War armies regularly targeted public buildings used for military purposes and Lyon permitted all records to be removed before firing the courthouses, Lee condemns Lyon's path of destruction as having placed an unreasonable burden on the affected communities. Harsher assessment is reserved for the fact that Lyon did not make an effort to fulfill one of his primary objectives, to get the region's gristmills at full operation in anticipation of Hood's movement into the state. In Lee's judgment, Hood's crushing defeat in Middle Tennessee cannot mitigate the fact that Lyon failed to procure the supplies he was ordered to accumulate for Hood's use in the event of the army's arrival. The author also faults Lyon's side visits to his family for injecting personal, non-military objectives into the raid, with one trip in particular placing a large part of his command (along with the overall success of the mission) in jeopardy.

In early 1865, Lyon participated in the Confederate Army's failed attempts to block Union raids into the Deep South. After the losses of Selma and Tuscaloosa in Alabama, Lyon returned to Tennessee, where he learned of Robert E. Lee's Appomattox surrender. The book also briefly discusses Lyon's postwar life. Determined to evade arrest and escape the country, Lyon made it to Mexico. After a brief foreign exile, he returned to Kentucky, obtained a pardon, and regained some level of economic prosperity. Perhaps bringing a theme of his public service full circle, he even became a leading prison reformer. A single term as a state representative was the limit of his state-level political aspirations, but on the local level he was serving as the mayor of his hometown when he passed away in 1907 at the age of 71.

Though he did complete an unpublished autobiography late in life, Lyon seems, in the author's estimation, to have been a reluctant writer. Citing the general's many missing reports (particularly for most of 1863) and nondescript official writing, the author laments the relative dearth of wartime documents written from Lyon's own perspective. However, as evidenced by the quality of his biographical narrative, Lee works around the problem well enough using other sources.

Dan Lee's General Hylan B. Lyon does a fine job of integrating its subject's significant and frequently peripatetic Civil War service into the larger narrative of the conflict in the western theater. The study also satisfactorily fills in another gap in the literature's biographical coverage of low to middle ranking Confederate generals.

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