American Characters


Nobody liked this kind of talk, and in mid-December Otis told Lawton he could take two battalions of infantry and attack a few enemy troops at San Mateo. It was a small operation, something of a slap at a man of Lawton’s rank, but he said nothing; at least it was action of a sort. He moved out on the evening of December 18, a night of lashing rain. At the governor general’s headquarters—“the Palace”—Otis was called from a little dinner party he was giving; General Lawton was outside asking for a word with him. Rain boiling off his yellow slicker, the soldier looked at the bureaucrat: were there any further orders? Otis wasn’t much interested; he shook his head. Lawton rode off into the storm.

They came on the insurgents at dawn the next morning, sharpshooters dug in along a riverbank. Lawton tried a tricky flanking maneuver to dislodge them. It didn’t work; these Filipino troops knew their business. Imperturbable in his bright white helmet, Lawton was getting his men ready for another attempt when one of his aides, Lieutenant Breckinridge, fell wounded by his side. Lawton carried him to safety behind a bush, returned to the operation, then noticed that Breckinridge’s haven had come under enemy fire. He went to look for a better place, found one, and was on his way back when he stumbled slightly.

“What is it, General?” asked Captain E. L. King.

“I’m hit,” Lawton said calmly.

“Where, General?”

“Through the lung.” He sank to the ground and, head resting on his captain’s thigh, the most effective and least enthusiastic American officer in the Philippines died.

It is an inconsequential but nagging fact that the insurrectionists who killed him were commanded by an officer named Geronimo.