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 Leader. Robert 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.
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.
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
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