The Lybarger family legend about my great-grandfather’s experience at Missionary Ridge in 1863 makes an exciting story — but what really happened is even better.
In the 1990s, my aunt wrote a “Biographical Sketch of Hon. Edwin Lewis Lybarger,” recounting his service in the Forty-third Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War, and his many accomplishments after the war. Presumably from the stories her father told her about her grandfather, she wrote:
“Lybarger participated in the battle of Missionary Ridge in the Chattanooga campaign. He notes in his diary that those in his company knew the battle of Lookout Mountain (the “Battle Above the Clouds”) on November 24, 1863, was in progress across the valley. They could hear it and see the smoke, but the clouds were so thick they could not tell whether the Union troops were succeeding or failing. The next day, under General Grant’s command, they stormed the heights and took Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863.”
A decade later, in a box of Civil War papers and memorabilia unopened for years, I discovered the first clue that this account might not be true: a 4″x6″ thin, single sheet of paper with a handwritten invitation from Col. Wager Swayne, commander of the 43rd OVI.
Headquarters 43rd O.V.I., Nov. 25th 1863
Lieutenant, Will you do me the favor to dine with me tomorrow at 2 P.M.
Very respectfully, Your obedient servant
Wager Swayne, Co. 43rdOhio
I knew that my great-grandfather revered Col. Swayne, since he named his only son Harry Swayne Lybarger, and they corresponded for years. But why would he keep a dinner invitation for the rest of his life?
The letter was written from “Hdqts, 43rd OVI,” on Nov. 25, for a dinner to be served on Nov. 26, a Thursday. The fourth Thursday of November.
I remember shivering with the thrill of discovery — that this date was the first official Thanksgiving Day. The colonel was gathering the regiment’s officers to comply with President Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving, issued Oct. 3, 1863. I felt like I was almost touching a paper that Lincoln had touched.
But if the 43rd OVI was calmly in headquarters in Prospect, Tennessee planning a Thanksgiving dinner, it couldn’t have been in battle the next day, 300 miles away in Chattanooga.
Entries in Edwin Lybarger’s daily journal for 1863 confirmed my conclusion:
Nov. 17: In camp at Prospect, Tenn. Heavy details at work repairing rail road bridge.
Nov. 18: Nothing of importance going. Have plenty to eat and nothing much to do but write letters and study logic.
Nov. 25: Two years in the service today. Received in invitation to dine with Col. Swayne tomorrow. Accepted.
Nov. 26: “Thanksgiving day.” Dined with Col. Swayne together with all the officers of the 43d. & Col. Fuller our brigad[e] commander. Had a splendid dinner, served up in good style, to which I think I did ample justice.
I don’t know if my aunt heard the Missionary Ridge story from my grandfather, or read it in another account of the war. In any case, Edwin Lybarger participated in numerous Civil War battles, but not the one on Lookout Mountain.
In a biography for his children, my grandfather Harry Swayne Lybarger wrote:
“My father never said much about his war experience, but he kept a diary in four little books, which are in the safe and should never be destroyed. They are very matter of fact and he didn’t seem to yield to any literary flaire. He did not hate the South but he felt pretty keenly the injustice of the war that the south began, and never visited it again.”
Late in life, my aunt remembered the diaries, but not where they were, perhaps loaned to someone and never returned. By accident, cleaning out her closet, I found four small black books lying in the bottom of a cardboard box. Eureka. I also found my aunt’s start at transcription, unfinished. Grumbling that my great-grandfather’s a’s and o’s all looked like u’s, and that the crossing of a T never matched the upright, I nevertheless managed to transcribe all four diaries. I think I must have been the only member of the family to actually read every entry. And I loved the discovery that when he published “Leaves from my Diary,” containing his account of the March to the Sea and war’s end, he edited out any disparaging remark he made about the conduct and discipline of fellow soldiers.