Henry Lawton: Let the Story Be Told


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“I must see what is going on at the firing line.”

-Henry Lawton, December 1899

          There is a very good book waiting to be published about Henry Ware Lawton, whose military career spanned the Civil War to the end of the 19th century. In fact, my good friend, Phil Keith, with whom I collaborated on All Blood Runs Red, has written such a book and it is looking for a publisher. Anyone reading this interested to learn more can contact Phil’s agency, Sobel-Weber Associates, in New York. It’s also a story that would lend itself quite well to a limited series.

It was 178 years ago that Lawton was born, near Toledo, Ohio. He grew up in Indiana and attended Fort Wayne Episcopal College but left before graduating in 1861 to enlist in the 9th Indiana Volunteers. He saw action in western Virginia in the early campaigns of the Civil War before heading home. Three weeks later, he joined the 30th Indiana Volunteers as a first lieutenant. Lawton was sure in the thick of things as his regiment participated in heavy fighting at the battles of Shiloh, Stone’s River, and Chickamauga. During the Atlanta campaign, Lawton was promoted to captain. On August 3, 1864, he led an assault on a key enemy position and held it against determined enemy counterattacks, and for his actions was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was later elevated to lieutenant colonel and fought at the battles of Franklin and Nashville in late 1864, and was brevetted a colonel shortly before the war ended.

After the Civil War, Lawton studied at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1866, before returning to the Army, with Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan writing recommendations supporting Lawton's efforts to get back into uniform. Sheridan strongly urged Lawton to accept a 2nd lieutenant's commission, which he did, and he joined the 41st Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie. (Some readers might recognize him as an important character in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.) Lawton developed a reputation as a fierce and determined fighter and served with Mackenzie in most of the major Indian campaigns in the Southwest, including the Fourth Cavalry's victory at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.

Lawton was also regarded as having compassion for the Indians. Among those who respected Lawton was Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne who was in a group escorted by Lawton to a southern reservation. Lawton also served as an advocate for the Indians on the reservation when he learned that the local Indian agency was short-changing the natives on their food allotments.

On March 20, 1879, Lawton was promoted to the rank of captain in the regular army. In 1886, he was in command of B Troop, 4th Cavalry, at Ft. Huachuca and was selected by Gen. Nelson Miles to lead the expedition that captured Geronimo, though stories abound as to who actually captured him, or to whom he surrendered. For Lawton's part, he was given orders to lead actions south of the U.S.-Mexico boundary where it was thought Geronimo and a small band of his followers would take refuge from U.S. authorities. Lawton was to pursue, subdue, and return Geronimo to the U.S., dead or alive.

Lawton's official report, dated September 9, 1886, sums up the actions of his unit and gives credit to a number of his troopers for their efforts. At the same time, in his typical fashion, Lawton takes no credit for himself. Geronimo himself gave credit to Lawton's tenacity for wearing the Apaches down with constant pursuit. Geronimo and his followers had little or no time to rest or stay in one place. Completely worn out, the little band of Apaches returned to the U.S. with Lawton and surrendered to Gen. Miles on September 4, 1886. It should be remembered that Native Americans rarely surrendered to junior officers, only to general officers or higher and thus Lawton did not get the credit. He always was tightlipped about the matter, stating that his unit simply pursued Geronimo and brought him back.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Lawton was promoted to major and by July 1898 he was a colonel in the Regular Army. With the outbreak of war with Spain that year, Lawton was anxious to get out of Washington and serve once again. Major General William Shafter, commander of the U.S. invasion of Cuba, originally wanted Lawton as his chief of staff. High-ranking personnel within the Army, however, lobbied to get Lawton a command position. He was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and given command of the 2nd Division, V Corps.

He led his division ashore at Daiquiri on June 22, 1898 and pushed inland. When Major General Joseph Wheeler’s division ran into heavy Spanish resistance at Las Guisimas, Lawton was called upon to reinforce Wheeler. Just as Lawton’s troops arrived on the scene, the Spanish began to retreat. Later, when Wheeler fell ill, Lawton was ordered to take El Caney, a key position in the defenses of Santiago. On July 1, Lawton’s division, spearheaded by the 12th Infantry, captured El Caney after heavy fighting.

Lawton assisted in negotiating the Spanish surrender and was later named the military governor of Santiago. His service in Cuba made him a favorite of the press and his superiors in Washington. Lawton, now a major general, longed to return to a command position instead of being an administrator. After briefly commanding IV Corps in Alabama, he was reassigned to the Philippines, where hostilities had broken out between U.S. troops and Filipino rebels. Upon his arrival in Manila in March 1899, Lawton assumed command of U.S. Regular Army forces in the Philippines, and in April captured the rebel stronghold of Santa Cruz. In addition, he captured the rebel villages of San Rafael and San Isidro the following month.

In battle, Lawton was a fearless leader and greatly respected by his men. It was his leadership style, however, that led to his death. At San Mateo on December 15, Lawton was once again leading from the front, refusing to take cover from enemy rifle fire despite pleas from his staff. Already a conspicuous target because of his size (well over six feet tall), Lawton’s yellow raincoat and white helmet made him stand out even more. Suddenly, a bullet from an enemy sharpshooter struck Lawton in the chest. “I am shot!” he yelled, and fell dead into the arms of a staff officer. His casket was displayed in his native Indiana before his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Quite the full life and a heck of a story. Sadly, Phil Keith passed away last week, on March 10. He was a very good writer and a better friend. His book on Lawton deserves to be published. Give me a shout if you think so too.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including, most recently, “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell.” The next collaboration with Bob Drury, “Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier,” will be published in April by St. Martin’s Press. Please go to your local bookstore or to Amazon/bn.com to pre-order.

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