Major General Henry W. Lawton

By Rudy Rau, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Maj. Gen. Henry Lawton


At the time of his death, December 19, 1899, at San Mateo in the Philippines, Henry W. Lawton was second in command of the U.S. Army forces in the Philippines, serving under General Elwell S. Otis.

The Biography:

At the time matters were heating up between the United States and Spain, Lawton had been a career soldier for close to 37 years.

Born in Maumee, Ohio, and raised in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he was an early volunteer for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. After his initial 90-day enlistment ended, he re-joined as a member of the 30th Indiana Volunteers and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He was promoted to the rank of captain at Corinth Mississippi in 1863 and when the conflict ended, Lawton was a Bvt. Colonel.

Lawton participated in over 22 major engagements during the war and was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his action and bravery during the battle of Atlanta.

For a short time after the Civil War, Lawton attended Harvard Law School, but wished for a commission in the post-war Army.  At the urging of General Phil Sheridan, he re-entered the service, commissioned as a lieutenant, and assigned to Ranald S. MacKenzie’s command.  He served for several years under MacKenzie during the various engagements with the Indians in the southwest and west.

As a captain, and commander of B Troop, 4th Cavalry, stationed at Ft. Huachuca in 1886, Lawton was selected by General Nelson A. Miles to lead the U.S. expedition into Mexico in pursuit of Geronimo.  After a long and strenuous chase, Lawton’s command affected the surrender of Geronimo and his small band of followers.

It was during his 4th Cavalry years that Lawton earned the nickname, ‘Man Who Gets Up In The Night To Fight.’

In 1889, he was promoted to the rank of Lt. Colonel, and served in the Inspector General’s command.  His years of travel and work with the various Army commands throughout the U.S. enabled him to contribute to improvements in Army structure and command, weapons and supply systems.

By the time a conflict with Spain seemed inevitable, Lawton had won many friends in and out of the Army, among them Teddy Roosevelt. It was strongly held later that Roosevelt as President would have made Lawton commanding general of the Army, had he survived the Philippine conflict.

In the course of his military career, Lawton became known as fearless, fierce, unconventional, and doggedly determined.  Those were traits that would come to the forefront during his command tenure in the Spanish-American War.

As the confusing process of selecting the military forces and their commanders for the Cuban invasion went on in 1898, strong lobbying by high-ranking Army personnel and senior politicians supported Lawton’s desire to have a command. General William R. Shafter had his eye on Lawton as his chief of staff, but pressed his superiors in Washington to make sure Lawton was assigned in some command capacity in the Cuban campaign.

As events unfolded, Lawton was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and given command of the 2nd Infantry Division.  Colonel J. Ford Kent was also promoted and took command of a division. Retired Confederate General Joseph Wheeler was coaxed out of retirement and took command of a dismounted cavalry division.

Immediately after his arrival in Tampa, Florida, Lawton was sent by General Shafter to Key West to determine if the area was suitable as an embarkation point.  The lack of fresh drinking water along with other problems convinced Lawton that the U.S. embarkation should take place at Tampa.

As the preparations for invading Cuba moved through varying stages of military-political confusion, to a point of reality, Shafter appointed Lawton the commander to lead the invasion forces ashore at Daiquiri.

Lawton’s 2nd Division led the U.S. forces to shore on June 22, 1898, followed by Wheeler’s division.  Lawton was to land his troops, move to and secure Siboney as a port for landing the balance of the forces, then turn inland and hold position until General Kent’s  forces were on shore.  Wheeler was to enter Siboney and guarantee the port’s security while those forces landed.

Not to be outdone by a former adversary, Wheeler ignored his orders and pushed a brigade ahead of Lawton’s units. With a skimpy reconnaissance, Wheeler attacked the fortified Spanish position at Las Guisimas. Finding resistance stiffer than anticipated, he quickly rushed word back to Lawton for help. With the arrival of troops ordered forward by Lawton, the Spanish troops broke from their positions.

General Lawton was not at all pleased or impressed with General Wheeler’s departure from Shafter’s plans, but over time, the two men developed a genuine respect for each other.  A week after the landing at Daiquiri, Lawton was promoted to Major General.

General Shafter believed that 12,000 Spanish troops stood between him and Santiago, his objective. Two divisions would have to conduct a frontal assault on San Juan Hill and one division would pin down the Spanish at El Caney in order to neutralize any threat to the American flank at San Juan Hill.

Generals Shafter, Chaffee, and Wheeler all estimated the length of time to take El Caney from minutes to a couple of hours.  Lawton and Kent concurred.  Wheeler had wanted the assignment of taking El Caney, but at the final staff meeting prior to launching the attacks, Wheeler was ill and the assignment went to Lawton.

When the attacks on San Juan Hill and El Caney began on July 1st, the Americans quickly learned they had underestimated the ability and determination of the Spanish troops. Operations were difficult and Shafter considered, and then requested that Lawton withdraw his forces from El Caney.

When Shafter’s messenger brought the verbal order to Lawton, Lawton still considered El Caney a serious threat to the flank at San Juan Hill. He told the runner that because of the seriousness of the order to withdraw, he would need to have a written order and sent the runner back to Shafter. He then ordered General Adna Chaffee to storm the fort by the best means available. Chaffee in turn ordered the 12th regiment to attack and it did with such determination, that the Spanish defenders finally relinquished their hold on El Caney.

At the end of hostilities, General Lawton was made a member of the U.S. Commission negotiating the Spanish surrender.  He was then made military governor of Santiago, a post that he held for a short time.  Based on personal letters to friends back home, it is believed that Lawton had contracted malaria, or had at least become quite ill during the campaign. Moreover, Lawton was not inclined to be an armchair diplomat and was re-assigned to command the Army IV Corps at Huntsville, Alabama.

Lawton’s tour in Cuba resulted in a favorable relationship with the Press who found him, and Roosevelt, to be their favorites among the senior officers.  His standing with superiors in Washington was also strengthened and his credibility with the Secretary of War and the President gained considerable ground.

Prior to his assignment to the Philippines, Lawton attended various functions to honor veterans of the Cuban campaign and was in Washington, D.C., and on tour with President McKinley. The Secretary of War, and Generals Corbin, Merritt, and Miles supported a move to put Lawton in command of Army field forces in the Philippines.

When Lawton was ordered to sail for Manila early in 1899, he left the United States with the understanding that he would handle the field operations and General Otis, while remaining in overall command, would act more in an administrative role.  Of course, Otis caught wind of this and was already jealous of Lawton before he arrived at Manila.  The two men had somewhat of a strained relationship after Lawton arrived; however, it was Lawton’s many successes in the Philippines that bolstered Otis’ reputation.

Lawton wasted no time in taking the field after his arrival March 10, 1899. His military actions were lightning quick, and he rapidly developed guerilla and night fighting techniques to counter the Filipino rebels methods of fighting.  Within a short time, he had earned the nickname, ‘General of the Night’.

General Lawton was believed by the Press and many back home to have developed an accurate understanding of the insurrection and the fact that the Filipinos were fighting for self-rule. He believed the U.S. had underestimated the amount of time and resources necessary to bring the conflict to an end.

At the same time Lawton was engaging in and winning key battles, he was working hard to establish self-rule government in the Philippine provinces. A special U.S. Commission was established and sent to the Philippines to study his models and improve on them.

As a military leader, Lawton believed in leading from the front, continuing a style he had employed since his years in the Civil War. His subordinates were constantly worried that he needlessly exposed himself to hostile gunfire, but Lawton refused to observe from the rear, or to take cover.

Lawton and General S. B. Young established a close and well coordinated working relationship. Young formed fast moving forward columns that moved rapidly ahead of the American main force and caused havoc among the rebels.  As was his habit, General Otis would get nervous from his base position in Manila and order Lawton to hold or pull back from engagements. Lawton in turn would claim that Young was outside communication range. The end result was that Lawton’s forces would then chalk up another victory in the field that ultimately wound up as a credit to Otis.

General Lawton, by all major Press accounts in the U.S., had become an American hero with almost daily newspaper accounts of his achievements.

Lawton’s last battle took place during the assault on San Mateo, December 19, 1899.  Having moved his forces overnight through heavy rain, he reached the defenses of San Mateo and against the advice of his subordinates, personally directed the attack from a forward position.

A tall man at 6 feet 4 inches, wearing a yellow rain slicker, his luck ran out as a sniper’s bullet took his life at 9 A.M that morning.  The accounts given by military personnel at the scene as well as information from Press interviews after the event leave no doubt as to how deeply he was revered by his men and the American public.

Lawton’s remains were returned to the U.S. and displayed in Indiana before his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

$100,000, a large sum at that time, was raised from the American public for Lawton’s widow, Mamie and her children. A statue was later dedicated in Indianapolis and Teddy Roosevelt was the principal speaker at that event.

Even the people of the Philippines had developed a respect for Lawton.  He has been pictured on Philippine currency, and his statue stands near the post office in Manila.


Family records

Karnow, Stanley, In our Image-American Empire in the Philippines-NY-Random House-

Leech, Margaret, In the Days of Mckinley-NY-Harper Bros-1959

Military Service Record-Smithsonian-American Museum of American History

National Archives-Lawton Papers

U.S. War Department Report, Inspector General’s Office 12-21-1899

Roosevelt, Theodore, An Autobiography-NY-Charles Scribner & Sons 1920

Sexton, Wm. Thaddeus, "Soldiers In The Philippines-A History of the Insurrection" -
 Infantry Journal 1944

Wheeler, Joseph, The Santiago Campaign-1st Divn Museum, Cantigny-Wheaton, Il.

Chicago Tribune-12-20-1899

NY Times 12-21-1899/12-20-1899/7-1-1886/7-26-1886/8-20-1886

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