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An Eye of Silver: The Life and Times of Andrew D. Lytle

Death and Afterlife

Shortly before his death, A.D. sat for this portrait. Over eighty years old, widowed nineteen years before, having outlived three sons and his namesake grandson, Lytle spent his last years with his daughter and surviving grandchildren.

Well-known in Baton Rouge, his work remained relatively unknown outside the city until 1911, when the publication of the ten-volume Photographic History of the Civil War brought his name and photographs before the nation. Lytle had sold his glass plate negatives of Baton Rouge during the Civil War to an agent of the publisher. A great number of other glass plates remained in his home, unused and gathering dust.

Andrew David Lytle, Sr., died on 8 June 1917. The nation was embroiled in the First World War; photography no longer required bulky, heavy equipment and years of experience to capture an image; the “snapshot” replaced professional photographers; life moved on.

Late in her life, a granddaughter of Lytle told a haunting story of a childhood memory. A few years after the photographer’s death, with family members watching, A.D.’s daughter took many of his remaining glass plate negatives to the well behind the family home and threw them down the dark shaft, laughing at the sound of her father’s life’s work, his eye of silver, crashing into oblivion.

After A.D. died, his work fell into obscurity. However, a new picture of the man began to form and take on mythic proportions, a myth of mystery and intrigue. For the 1892 edition of Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana, a “vanity” publication in which individuals wrote their own biographical sketch for publication, Lytle wrote, “in the progress of the conflict [the Civil War] he attached himself to the Confederate Signal service, with which he was connected at the fall of Port Hudson.” In 1911, when contacted by the publisher’s agent from New York, Andrew’s son Howard embellished the story to include his father’s active participation in spy operations, signaling from high points around town to his co-conspirators, and smuggling photographic chemicals through enemy lines. Over the next sixty years the story grew, took on new vigor, and passed into the realm of fantasy.

Historical evidence suggests the Confederate forces at Port Hudson had a loosely organized information gathering network but no “spy” agency. Most of the information passed between lines verbally, as official orders of the day record. Photographic chemicals openly passed from North to South under official orders from Washington, occasionally with President Lincoln’s signature. Further research may reveal some factual evidence of Lytle’s activities, but current research indicates he had no need to smuggle, no one to pass photographs to.

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