Friday, October 19, 2012
By Bob Hurst
The Confederacy was blessed with many great generals and among those who dwelt on the Southern Olympus were such familiar names as Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Patrick Cleburne, Joe Wheeler and Edmund Kirby Smith. There were also many Confederate generals who performed outstandingly during the War but were not as well-known as these immortals. One such Confederate shining star was Brigadier General Hylan Benton Lyon.
Hylan Lyon was born in Caldwell County, Kentucky, into a family that was prominent in politics with members having served both in the state legislature and the national Congress. In fact, a new county was formed from a portion of Caldwell County and named Lyon County for a member of this family.
Hylan Lyon received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1852 and graduated in 1856 with the rank of 2nd lieutenant. After almost five years of service in the U.S. military, where he was posted from Florida to Montana, he resigned on April 30, 1861 to enter Confederate service.
Lyon made a name for himself as a capable, intelligent and dependable officer and was well thought of by the higher command. In November of 1861, Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman sent a request to General Albert Sidney Johnston, commander of Confederate forces in Kentucky, asking for Lyon to be transferred to Tilghman’s command as he would be invaluable there because of his abilities and his knowledge of the area. Proving the accuracy of this assessment, by the following February young Hylan Lyons was serving as lieutenant colonel of the 8th Kentucky Infantry.
Before the month had ended, Lyon’s regiment was engaged in a fierce encounter with a much larger contingent of Federal troops at Fort Donelson. While withdrawing from the area, Lyon was captured by Union forces. Despite his capture, Colonel John Simonton, Lyon’s brigade commander, wrote glowingly in his battle report of the gallantry of young Hylan Lyon.
Lyon was imprisoned for almost seven months, the majority of which was at Johnson’s Island, before he was exchanged for two Confederate-held prisoners in August. One can only imagine the anguish felt by this young officer as he endured this captivity.
When he returned to his regiment he returned with a vengeance. For the next year and a half he built an outstanding fighting record with involvement in the battles of Coffeeville, Port Hudson, Holly Springs, Vicksburg, Chattanooga and many smaller skirmishes. He especially received high praise for his actions at Brice’s Crossroads where he ordered his 800 troops, when confronted by a Union force of more than 1500, to dismount and charge the Federals. This surprising move confused the Union troops and forced their retreat. His Kentucky unit continued to charge and harass the enemy troops and played a major role in the Confederate victory.
In his report of this battle, the magnificent Nathan Bedford Forrest wrote with high praise of the actions of Colonel Lyon and stated that he had "displayed great gallantry during the day." Four days later, on June 14, 1864, Hylan Lyon was promoted to brigadier general.
Two months later Brigadier General Lyon received orders that would have removed him from the command of General Forrest and taken him out of Mississippi. Forrest immediately complained to the government in Richmond about this move and within two weeks the orders were rescinded and Lyon was returned to Forrest’s Corps. You just didn’t mess with Nathan Bedford Forrest.
General Lyon was immediately given command of a brigade consisting of the 3rd, 7th, 8th and 12th Kentucky regiments. This brigade was officially designated "Lyon’s Brigade" and for the next several months rode with Forrest in northern Alabama and central Tennessee.
Having recognized the abilities of General Lyon, Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon assigned Lyon to command of the department that had just been created in Kentucky. Western Kentucky was home territory for Hylan Lyon and the Confederate war department believed it would require someone with his background and knowledge of the area to regain control of the region from the Federals. General Lyon was not allowed to take his entire brigade to Kentucky . He was limited to the 8th Kentucky Infantry Regiment and a battery of artillery. He was also given the mission of recruiting more Kentuckians to the Confederate Cause.
General Lyon’s first objective in Kentucky was to take control of his hometown, Eddyville, away from the Federals. This was quickly accomplished but Federal troops in the area did something in retaliation that no Southerner would imagine doing – they took General Lyon’s wife captive. I’m sure that Hylan Lyon had not forgotten his incarceration at Johnson’s Island and now the Feds had taken his wife captive. General Lyon made arrangements to release eight captured Union officers in exchange for the release of his wife. I cannot help but think that this action on the part of the yankees made the fire in Hylan Lyon’s belly burn even hotter.
For the first three weeks of October, General Lyon and his troops rode all through western Kentucky. Federal troops frantically pursued him but could neither stop him or even find him. In late October Lyon again teamed up with Nathan Bedford Forrest who was in the area. Again this combination proved devastating to the yankees. Within the space of a week, the Confederates had destroyed 6 Union gunboats on the Tennessee River, 13 Union steamboats and several barges. Federal troops even began to burn their own vessels so that the supplies on the boats would not fall into the hands of the Confederates. For good measure, Lyon’s men also burned all the military buildings in Johnsonville which resulted in more than 2 million dollars of damage. This was just a harbinger of what was to come.
From the second week of December 1864 through the first week of January 1865, General Lyon was truly a man on a mission. On December 12, 1864, Lyon’s forces (including the conscripts he was picking up along the way) entered Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Knowing that Courthouses were often used by Federal troops as a center of operations, Lyon and his men went straight to the courthouse and burned it. They then conscripted some men and moved on. The nexy day, December 13, Lyon led his men due west into Cadiz, Kentucky, where they immediately went to the courthouse and torched it. The Union garrison had fled the building upon the advance of the Confederates. The Kentuckians then headed north.
On December 15, Lyon moved toward Princeton, Kentucky, and the Federal troops there fled into the countryside. As per the usual pattern, the courthouse was burned down. After conscripting more troops, Lyon and his men moved on, this time heading northeast.
Madisonville was next and on December 17 the courthouse went up in flames. It seemed that the Federals in the area could do nothing to stop Hylan Lyon and his men. Their mission of burning courthouses and plundering stores was having a devastating effect on the people of the area. Since many of these people were Union sympathizers the mission was having exactly the effect that Lyon desired.
Three days later, on December 20, Lyon’s legion reached the town of Hartford, northeast of Madisonville, and immediately took over the Federal garrison and freed the prisoners. They then proceeded to burn the courthouse. Later that same day, Lyon and his men burned a number of ferryboats along a 10-mile stretch of the Green River.
Three days later, on December 23, Lyon and his troops attacked a train near Elizabethton, east of Hartford, and captured 200 Union soldiers. That night they moved into Elizabethton and burned the stockade, the railroad depot and two bridges. Lyon then headed southeast.
On Christmas Day his troops reached Campbellsville and immediately burned the courthouse. After completing this raid, Lyon directed his troops due south toward the Tennessee line. He just couldn’t leave Kentucky without one more raid, though, and on January 3, 1865, led his men into Burkesville where, once again, the courthouse went up in flames. As the building burned, General Lyon and his men left Kentucky for good. But what a farewell it had been. During the period from December 12, 1864, through January 3, 1865, Lyon and his troops had burned 7 courthouses in Union-held towns, destroyed numerous river-going vessels, and created pure havoc in that area of southwestern Kentucky.
I would say that General Lyon did a fine job of getting even with the yankees for the months he was held in a federal prison and for the shameful arrest of his wife by Union soldiers.
As Hylan Lyon headed southward with his troops, he was captured while sleeping in a house near Red Hill, Alabama. Ever resourceful, Lyon was able to escape through some skulduggery whereby he was able, through shouting out orders to non-existent troops, to confuse his yankee captors to the degree that they fled from the non-existent soldiers and allowed him to escape.
General Lyon then headed south, far south, and spent the next year in Mexico where quite a group of Confederate officers and government officials had ended up. After a period of exile, he returned to Kentucky to his hometown of Eddyville to farm. The government eventually bought a portion of his land as the site for a penitentiary and he served a while on the State Penitentiary Commission. He was eventually elected to a seat in the Kentucky House of Representatives.
Hylan Lyon lived until 1907 and I’m sure during all that time after the end of the War he made many trips into those areas east of Eddyville where he had created so much havoc during the War. I’m quite certain that he often had a feeling of great satisfaction during those trips remembering the chaos he had created for those yankees who had taken over his part of Kentucky. I would also think that he often, during these trips, got a warm glow thinking about how successful he had been at getting even with the bluecoats and their sympathizers for what had been done to his wife and him back in the 60’s.
Brigadier General Hylan Benton Lyon was another in that legion of Confederate leaders who performed their duties magnificently with little fanfare or lasting recognition. As we say in the South, "He was a keeper."