Fighting Mike Lawler: Abe Lincoln’s Lilywhite General

As part of continued efforts to raise awareness in Ireland of the Irish contribution during the American Civil War, members of the Irish American Civil War Trail team have been attempting to highlight local figures across the country. This piece on Kildare man General Michael Kelly Lawler was prepared by Robert Doyle, and appeared in this weeks Leinster LeaderRobert has kindly agreed to allow his research to be reproduced here as a guest post on the site. 

“When it comes to just plain hard fighting, I would rather trust old Mike Lawler than any of them” – Ulysses S. Grant, military commander and 18th President of the United States of America.

General Michael Kelly Lawler

General Michael Kelly Lawler

Major General Michael Kelly Lawler was one of the 150,000 or so Irishmen who fought in the bloody conflict that was the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. He was, however, County Kildare’s only general and a very unconventional one at that. He was a huge man, weighing almost 18 stone, usually fought in his shirt sleeves and is said to have sweated profusely. His sword belt was not long enough to go around his rotund waist so he wore it by a strap from one shoulder.

And yet he led from the front, inspiring the men of the 18th Illinois Infantry to become one of the Union Army’s most redoubtable fighting units. General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding President Lincoln’s vast army in the conflict with the Confederate South, was one of Lawler’s greatest admirers.

Lawler’s date of birth is recorded as November 14, 1814, but, as of yet, there is no additional information to aid researchers in identifying what area of the “Short Grass County” he hails from. American records do, however, detail his parents as John Lawler and Elizabeth Kelly and note that the family left Kildare for America when Michael was just two years-old. The Lawler’s eventually settled in Gallatin County, southern Illinois.

By the time that the Southern U.S. States rose up against Lincoln’s government in 1861, Lawler was already a veteran of one war, having served as a captain during the Mexican-American War thirteen years earlier. Little wonder then that he volunteered to command the recruits being mustered from his local region.

Initially commissioned a colonel, Lawler did not suffer fools and had even less patience with his men’s poor discipline. His 18th Illinois Infantry unit, training locally at Camp Mound City, developed an unwanted reputation for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Lawler, no doubt growing impatient with army procedures, decided to take matters into his own hands.

In August 1861, Lawler introduced supervised fist fighting into the regiment as a manner of resolving disputes and was often heard to threaten to “knock down” any miscreants under his command. He sent a “present” of whiskey laced with a nausea-inducing chemical to some of his men who were in prison for drunkenness. Lawler also appointed a Catholic priest as Chaplin to the regiment despite protests from the majority of his men who were of a Protestant persuasion. Probably his most controversial act occurred in October 1861 when he withheld any objection to the summary execution of a soldier in his ranks who had shot dead a colleague in a drunken rage.

Lawler was court-martialled for these acts and convicted but was soon restored to command after he successfully appealed the decision. Mike Lawler had many friends in the military that stood as character references, Grant included. While not condoning his unorthodox methods, there seems to have been an understanding of his motives among many fellow officers.

General Michael Kelly Lawler Memorial, Equality, Illinois

General Michael Kelly Lawler Memorial, Equality, Illinois

Nevertheless, by the time his Illinois men went into combat, Lawler had formed an infantry unit that would become renowned for their fighting capabilities, equally matching the reputation of their commander. At the Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862, Lawler was wounded in the arm and deafened, some same permanently, by an exploding shell. However within two months, he was back leading from the front, and later directed his men during sustained and prolonged attacks on Vicksburg, a Confederate-controlled fortress city.

Having again narrowly missed death on May 16, 1863, the next day was to be Lawler’s finest moment as he led his men in a gallant and rapid advance on Rebel entrenchments. Too overweight to run, Lawler rode on horseback in advance of the charge; he and his men moving with such speed that they broke the entire Confederate line resulting in a famous Union victory. The fight, called the Battle of Big Black River Bridge, sealed Vicksburg’s fate.

Lawler was promoted to Brigadier General but illness plagued him. By 1864, he was declared unfit for duty and returned home. He spent his retired years buying and selling horses before dying in 1882 at the age of 68. Kelly Lawler is buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery near Equality, Illinois.

Although Michael Kelly Lawler is a relative unknown in his native Kildare, the citizens of the State of Illinois have long remembered his deeds. Lawler Park, near Chicago’s Midway International Airport, is called after the big Castledermot man and there is also a large memorial of stone and bronze erected to his memory near his American home in Equality.

A small group of historians have begun a campaign to inform the Irish public of the deeds and sacrifices that so many from Ireland, like Michael Kelly Lawler, made during the American Civil War and also to highlight places of interest in Ireland connected to that iconic war. Further details may be found at www.irishacwtrail.com

References

Ambrose, Stephen E. 1997. Americans at War

Lowry, Thomas P. & Davis, William C. 2003. Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: The Courts-Martial of Civil War Union Colonels

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Categories: Guest Post, Illinois, Kildare

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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9 Comments on “Fighting Mike Lawler: Abe Lincoln’s Lilywhite General”

  1. February 22, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

    It’s a well known fact that Irish soldiers in the Regular Army (especially in some artillery batteries) had started “Scientific Boxing” before the war. After duty they would Box in the evenings for fun, hoping to develop the skills to become professional boxers. Afte the war, one of the volunteer Irish soldiers in the Union Army became a famous boxing expert and trainer. He opened a gym in Philadelphia and trained many fighters–especially in the newer version of the sport “Gloved Boxing.” His name “Professor Mike Donovan.”

  2. Joan Boushey
    March 17, 2012 at 3:11 am #

    Thank you for doing this research, as Michael Kelly Lawler was my great, great grandfather. I did not know about the park near the Chicago Mid-Way Airport. I visited his grave site at Hickory Hill and also his memorial in Equality.
    Joan Boushey

    • March 18, 2012 at 11:05 am #

      Hi Joan,

      Many thanks for getting in touch, Robert will be delighted that you liked the piece!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  3. Betty
    May 3, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Danian,

    My great great grandfathers were Captain Bartholomew Quirk who fought with Colonol Mulligan, and William Reed, whom I can find very little information on. Quirk’s daughter Helena married Reed’s son Lawrence. All were from Chicago.

    William Reed immigrated from Ireland around 1948 and lived in Fall River Mass in 1850, married Anna Conway in 1853 in Rhode Island. They moved to Chicago. There is a lot of information on the following generations of the Quirk, Reed and families of Chicago. However, I cannot find any civil war information on William Reed. Here are my guesses:

    He enlisted in the Union Army around 1861 (per his daughter’s obit)
    His last child was born in 1866 in Chicago, so he clearly returned from war

    Any ideas on where I can find out more about him?

    Thank you!
    Betty

    • May 5, 2012 at 11:54 am #

      Hi Betty,

      Many thanks for getting in touch re your great-great grandfathers- leave this with me for a few days and I will see what I can find out!

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  4. Betty
    May 5, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    Thank you!

  5. Gary Lawlor
    July 30, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

    Thank you for this wonderful article.
    I descend from Lawlors of County Laois, Ireland, and have done a fair amount of research on them.

    I see on the Irishroots website that there was a William Lawlor born to John Lawlor and Mary Kelly in Kildare in 1822. Could be a brother.

    • August 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

      Hi Gary,

      Many thanks for the comment! I know Robert will be interested in this information as well- Lawler is a man who deserved a lot more attention.

      Kind Regards,

      Damian.

  6. Gary Lawlor
    July 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    Incidentally, the birth is recorded in Athy.

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