INDIANAPOLIS – Someone taking in a fine spring day at Indianapolis’ Garfield Park might stumble upon a strange statue dedicated to a Hoosier hero who has faded from memory over the last century. Attired in khaki field dress, topped with a tropical pith helmet, the impressive statue implies to the observer that its subject was once a giant among men. The name “Lawton” adorns the statue, but no clue is given to the amazing life of the man.

As a young man, Henry W. Lawton aspired to become a humble Methodist Episcopalian minister. Yet, before his amazing life ended, this man of modest origins and Hoosier upbringing would obtain a Harvard law degree and serve his country for nearly 40 years, rising to the highest levels of responsibility in the United States Army.

Lawton was born near Akron, Ohio, in 1843, and moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana, later that same year when his father found work in a mill. His mother died when he was 11 and he bounced around northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio following his father’s ever-changing employment.

In 1858, Henry Lawton enrolled at the Methodist Episcopal College in Fort Wayne.  Lawton excelled in his studies there but was called away from the school by the steady beat of the war drums announcing the commencement of the Civil War.  

Lawton enlisted in Company E of the 9th Indiana Volunteers and was mustered into service on April 24, 1861, as company sergeant. His regiment was one of the units formed under the fanciful term of service of 90 days or until the end of the war, whichever came first. During his service with the 9th Indiana, he fought in engagements at Philippi, Laurel Hill and Corrick’s Ford, in what is now West Virginia.

When his term of service expired, he returned to Fort Wayne and enlisted in a newly formed regiment, the 30th Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He quickly was promoted from first sergeant to first lieutenant and served in Kentucky throughout the remainder of 1861. In 1862, the 30th Indiana fought its first major engagement at the Battle of Shiloh. The regiment suffered major casualties including the loss of its colonel, and Lt. Lawton distinguished himself for his callous disregard of the flying shells and whizzing bullets.  

At the age of 19, Lawton was promoted to the rank of captain as the Union Army advanced on Corinth, Mississippi.

Throughout 1862 and 1863, Lawton engaged in almost non-stop combat, as he was involved in over 22 major engagements, including Stones River, Chickamauga and the bloody campaign to capture Atlanta. On the outskirts of Atlanta, Lawton led his company in a fierce assault on Confederate defensive works. Lawton’s men drove the rebels out of their position and then, under his leadership, held on against repeated attempts by the Confederates to recapture the critical position. For his bravery and leadership, Henry W. Lawton was awarded the Medal of Honor. By the end of the Civil War, in recognition of his continued outstanding leadership, Lawton was promoted to brevet colonel.

With the Civil War finally at an end, Lawton pursued a captain’s commission in the Regular Army. When the appointment was not forthcoming, even with the considerable support of both William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, Lawton decided to study at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1866. Despite his prestigious law degree, Lawton still longed for the military life and with Philip Sheridan’s encouragement accepted a second lieutenant’s commission in the 41st Infantry Regiment, under the command of the famous Indian fighter, Col. Ranald Mackenzie. Lawton served for 20 years with Mackenzie in most of the major Indian campaigns in the southwest, fighting Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache warriors.

In 1886, as captain of B Troop, 4th Cavalry, Nelson Miles selected Lawton for the difficult task of capturing the Apache chief Geronimo. Lawton was given questionable orders to head south of the United States and Mexico border and return with Geronimo dead or alive. After months of stalking Geronimo through brutal mountains and deserts, Lawton’s troopers finally compelled the Apaches to surrender.  Lawton’s official report of this campaign gave credit to several his troopers for subduing the Apache chief but took no credit for himself. Geronimo, for his part, gave credit to Lawton’s relentless pursuit for wearing the Apaches down and forcing his capitulation. Regardless, it was Lawton who brought Geronimo before Gen. Nelson Miles for his official surrender on Sept. 4, 1886.

After his two decades as Indian fighter, Lawton was promoted to major and spent the next decade fighting bureaucratic battles as inspector general of the Army. In this capacity he brought many improvements to the organization and armaments of the Army.  His work was instrumental in preparing the Army for the coming war with Spain.

In May 1898, Lawton was appointed brigadier general of volunteers and assumed command of the 2nd Division which was being sent to Cuba as the spearhead for the American invasion. Lawton led 6,000 men ashore at Daiquiri, 18 miles east of Santiago. Lawton’s forces advanced inland against retreating Spanish forces and drove them back to the fortress city of El Caney. There, without adequate artillery or cavalry, Lawton’s division suffered heavy casualties, but eventually took the city and linked up with the remainder of the United States forces on San Juan Hill for the siege of Santiago. After Santiago fell, Henry Lawton was appointed military governor of Cuba.

Lawton’s task as military governor was daunting. The Cuban population was starving and in need of a wide variety of medical attention. Public sanitation was virtually nonexistent and the resulting health problems were staggering. Lawton’s fight to improve the health of the Cuban people was fought under sweltering conditions under the ever-present scourge of malaria.  His work won the admiration of the Cuban people and they named the main square in Santiago after him.

For a brief time, Lawton returned to the United States to battle and recover from his own severe case of malaria. With the war with Spain ended, he would soon find new challenges to meet his rising star in the United States Army.

The United States had fought Spain in both Cuba and in the Philippines. There were those in the Philippines who were determined to fight for their own independence. They had no intention of substituting the hegemony of the United States for that of Spain’s. A significant insurgency developed into a wide-open insurrection and Henry Lawton was called to command once more.

Lawton arrived in the Philippines and immediately took aggressive command of all United States forces. Lawton eschewed the comfort and predictability of daylight battle for the surprise and uncertainty of night attacks. He soon was nicknamed “the General of the Night” by the insurgent commander Aguinaldo, who said that Lawton attacked so many times at night that he never knew when he was coming.

Henry Lawton knew only one way to command troops and that was from the front. He could always be seen on the front line leading his soldiers into combat. During the Battle of Paye, Lawton, as usual, was in the thickest of the fight when he was shot in the chest and killed immediately. His death represented the highest ranked officer killed in either the Spanish American or Philippine American wars. In fact, the day that he was killed, President McKinley signed the papers promoting Lawton to brigadier general of the United States Army. Lawton’s body lay in state in Indianapolis before it was taken to Arlington Cemetery to be buried with many of his comrades.

Nine years after his death in the Philippines, a statue was commissioned by Indianapolis city leaders and erected in front of the Marion County Courthouse. As an indication of his reputation and stature in the American Army, the dedication ceremony was attended by both President Theodore Roosevelt and Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks, a fellow Hoosier. The Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley composed a poem to commemorate the event. In 1917 the monument was moved to its permanent resting place in Garfield Park and rededicated to his memory.

Henry W. Lawton was one of those ordinary Hoosiers who lived an extraordinary life. He was known for personal bravery, leadership and compassion for those he encountered along the way. As we approach Memorial Day, his life of service is one to remember. 

Dunn is the former chairman of the Howard County Republican Party.