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American Characters

July 2024
4min read

Henry Ware Lawton

He arrived in Manila on March 18, 1899, bearing his six-foot-four frame with such easy strength that it would have been natural to wonder how he could so recently have suffered the “ill health” for which he had been relieved of the military governorship of Santiago.

In fact, Major General Henry Ware Lawton had been removed from his post for drinking too much. President McKinley himself had given him a talking to about the virtues of temperance before sending him to the Philippines, and Lawton had sworn he wouldn’t touch liquor in his new command. He kept his promise, too, though the job he had would have been enough to drive far less volatile men to the bottle. The job—which he himself described as “unholy”—involved subduing Filipinos led by Emilio Aguinaldo who were fighting to keep Americans from occupying their homeland. Lawton’s characteristics made him at once a somewhat dubious choice and the obvious one: he had true compassion for a native cause, but it was coupled with great fighting stamina. The former could be attested to by various Cheyennes, the latter by the Confederates who had faced him when he was a boy.

Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Lawton had just turned eighteen when the Civil War broke out. He was chosen sergeant in the 9th Indiana, soon promoted to lieutenant, and by war’s end he was a lieutenant colonel with a regiment of his own, which he handled so bravely before Atlanta that he was awarded the Medal of Honor.


He was mustered out with the brevet rank of colonel in November of 1865 and went east to study law at Harvard. But he found soldiering had got into his blood, and he left school the next spring to accept a commission as a lieutenant in a black regiment. In 1871 he transferred into the 4th Cavalry, whose high-strung genius of a commander, Ranald S. Mackenzie, had made it the finest mounted regiment in the country. Lawton fought beside Mackenzie in the Indian wars, and in 1877 he helped deport captured Cheyennes south to Indiana Territory. They had little reason to love white soldiers but, as one of them said, Lawton “was a good man, always kind to the Indians.” He let the old and the sick ride in the army wagons and issued them tents; they called him Tall White Man.

In 1886, under orders from Nelson Miles, he led a column for thirteen hundred parched and scorching miles through the Sierra Madre in high summer. The punishing campaign ended with the capture of the implacable Apache leader, Geronimo.

Lawton went to Cuba as a brigadier general during the Spanish-American War. He was a fighting general; it was afterward, when he was in charge of Santiago, that internal tensions pushed him toward drink. He was always happiest in the field. If the Philippines did not strike him as an entirely savory command, he nonetheless intended to press the attack every chance he got.

His superior, it developed, was of a different turn of mind. Elwell S. Otis, the military governor of the Philippines, was a hard worker, but he was a cautious man and obsessed with detail. Although he never visited the American lines, he did find time to leave his headquarters to make sure a dead army mule had received proper valuation.

Otis was not likely to be too fond of his fire-eating subordinate, who, wearing a large white helmet to let his men know he was with them, was always near the fighting. “Lawton was not,” said one of his advisers, “a man who believed in fighting battles in unknown country at the end of a telegraph wire.” He was in the van throughout his first assignment: to push into Laguna Province and take the insurrectionist-held city of Santa Cruz. He did it in three days. Then, to his bafflement, Otis ordered him to pull back and return to Manila. No point in taking undue risks.

When Otis recalled him again from his next campaign that May, Lawton was furious. He was usually able to keep his sharp temper in check, but this time he faced Otis in his headquarters. If the general would give him two regiments and then leave him alone, he would bring back Aguinaldo within two months. Otis laughed in his face and sent him back into the field.

It was filthy campaigning. In the stinks and fevers of blind jungle, men fell sick, came down with typhus and malaria and a particularly virulent itch that literally drove them mad. One regiment reported 70 per cent of its men in hospital. Morale corroded. Lawton pushed on.

In June he captured the Zapote Bridge in what he called “a beautiful battle” and in August he took San Mateo after a stiff fight. But it was the old story. “Well,” he wearily told one of his aides, “you have got me in bad with Otis!” “How is that?” the astounded man wanted to know. “Why, by going ahead and taking San Mateo; Otis will hardly speak to me.” Again Lawton was ordered to withdraw.

Through the fall he chafed and brooded about the orders that hamstrung him and about the war in general. “Taking into account the disadvantages they have to fight against he said of the enemy, “they are the bravest men I have ever seen. … These men are indomitable. At Bacoor Bridge they waited until the Americans had brought their cannon to within thirty-five yards of their trenches. Such men have the right to be heard. All they want is a little justice.”

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.

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