Henry Harrison Lyman: Citizen, soldier, public servant

A portrait of Oswego County’s H. H. Lyman: “Although born into humble surroundings, H. H. Lyman achieved respect, esteem, and high honors on account of his honesty, integrity, and hard work.” -New York State Military Museum.

OSWEGO — Today’s Labor Day celebration provides a good opportunity to review the life and career of one of Oswego County’s foremost residents: Henry Harrison “H. H.” Lyman.

Born to Silas and Cynthia Waugh Lyman in Lorraine, NY on April 15, 1841, he was the youngest of nine children.  His parents were pioneer settlers in Jefferson County and his book, “Memories of the Old Homestead,” vividly describes the hardships associated with those early days.  

Lyman’s childhood in Jefferson County included education in the local schools and graduation from Pulaski Academy.  He taught briefly and studied surveying and civil engineering.  By 1862 he was the proprietor of a hardware store in Pulaski and married to his first wife, Flora Clark.  When the 147th Regiment was organized that summer he enlisted and was mustered in as sergeant of Co. C.  

Over the next three years he rose in the ranks until he was appointed adjutant.  He was captured, along with Col. Frank Miller, at the battle of the Wilderness on May 5, 1864 and spent 11 months in Georgia and South Carolina POW camps.  He was finally exchanged in March 1865 and discharged in May.

His association with the military did not end there.  In 1866 Governor Fenton gave him the rank of lieutenant colonel and asked him to organize a regiment of National Guard in Oswego.  

Although the venture ultimately came to naught, for the rest of his life Lyman was referred to as “the colonel.”

Lyman returned to his hardware store after the war but his days as a businessman were brief.  In 1871 and 1872 he served as supervisor for the town of Richland.  An ardent Lincoln Republican, he stood for and was elected sheriff in 1873.  He next served as deputy county clerk, then deputy port collector, and finally port collector, an office he held for several years.  His honesty and efficiency did not escape the notice of state officials and in 1895 he was appointed head of the newly consolidated Fisheries, Game, and Forests Commission.

When the controversial Raines Law was passed in early 1896, Governor Levi Morton selected Lyman to organize the department and fill the posts of deputy commissioners.  Although a committed “party man” Lyman showed his independence when Republican Party “boss” Thomas C. Platt insisted that the deputies be chosen from Republican ranks.  Lyman said he would be happy to appoint such men – provided they were competent to hold the position.  For the next five years Lyman’s main concern was organizing his department and ensuring that the provisions of the Raines Law were enforced.  He was chiefly concerned with collecting excise taxes on saloons and taverns which aided every county in the state.  Although it had been feared that Lyman would use his office for the benefit of the Republican Party his honesty and integrity in carrying out his duties meant that no such charge was ever leveled at him or his deputies.  Shortly before Lyman’s death, newly elected Governor Benjamin B. Odell reappointed him to the post.  He was confirmed by the state Senate the same day.

Lyman was widely considered one of the leaders of the Republican Party in Oswego County, working in concert with John Mott, Patrick W. Cullinan, and Nevada N. Stranahan.  He was not afraid to get “down and dirty” at district meetings and conventions and contemporary news accounts demonstrate clearly that he could hold his own in the rough and tumble world of late nineteenth century politics.  He was for years a delegate to local and state political conventions.

His interests were wide ranging.  He had moved his family to Oswego City when elected sheriff and he became involved in city affairs.  He was superintendent and secretary of the Oswego Water Works

Company for several years.  He held directorships in both the First National Bank of Oswego and in the Oswego City Savings Bank.  

He did not forget his time as a soldier and was an active member of Post O’Brian No. 65 GAR in Oswego.  For many years he was the secretary of the 147th Regiment Reunion Association and when he no longer felt he could serve in that capacity the members elected him president out of respect for his devoted service to the organization.  

When it was determined to erect a Civil War monument in Oswego, Lyman, together with Thomas Moore, a veteran of the 110th Regiment, and Alexander Penfield, from the 147th, was chosen for the committee.  

Nor did he forget Elmina Spencer, the nurse who had accompanied the 147th Regiment to war, and to whom many veterans were indebted for her care and concern.  He lobbied hard to have her portrait carved into the wall of the State Capitol.  

Despite a busy schedule, Lyman found time for rest and recreation.  He was a regular attendant at the Church of the Evangelists in Oswego.  He was a member of the Fortnightly Club and the City Club.  He was an esteemed member of Pulaski Lodge # 415 F. & A. M.  He also enjoyed memberships in the Loyal Legion and the Fort Orange Club of Albany.

When asked to participate in the study of the battlefield at Gettysburg, Lyman contributed a sketch of the 147th Regiment, which is both entertaining and educational.  His description of the famous “mud march” of January 1863, for example, graphically describes the foolhardiness of attempting to move an entire army during the winter in Virginia.

For many years a controversy reigned over where and when the 147th Regiment joined battle with the Confederates at Gettysburg.  Lyman participated in this argument by writing several articles for The National Tribune and by contributing to The Bachelder Papers:  Gettysburg in Their Own Words.

In addition to the memoir about his childhood in Lorraine, he also published A Cruise Among the Bermudas, which detailed a trip he and his wife took.  His interest in genealogy led him to compile a history of the Lyman family, which was circulated privately.

Flora Lyman died in 1866 and the next year H.H. married Emily Vorce Bennett.  They were the parents of three daughters, Anna, Mary Jennette, and Lydia.

In early 1901 Lyman fell ill, ultimately succumbing to heart disease.  His death on May 4, 1901 was widely reported across the state and it was generally believed that his work at the Excise Commission had greatly debilitated him.  Mrs. Lyman received letters of condolence from persons from all walks of life, beginning with the governor himself.  She even received a letter from Lieutenant F. S. Johnson, CSA, who had confiscated her husband’s sword when he was captured in 1864 and had returned it years later.  The local newspapers were filled with biographical material, reactions to the man’s death, and descriptions of the funeral.  Veterans of the 147th were invited to attend the service in a body.  Dignitaries from across the state descended upon Oswego to show their respect.  Among the lesser known, but equally sincere, mourners was a black man named George Washington whom Lyman had met during the war and had brought to Oswego County.  He had ensured the young man received an education and had employed him in his hardware store.  

H. H. and Emily, who died on July 12, 1938, are buried in Riverside Cemetery, not far from the gravesite of Captain Delos Gary and several other members of the 147th Regiment.  Of him it may truly be said that his entire adult life was spent in the service of others, to which he probably would have responded, with characteristic modesty, that it had been a labor of love.   

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