Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Michael Kelly Lawler Saw Action in Two Nineteenth Century Wars; The Mexican-American War and the Civil War.

Michael Kelly Lawler was born in Monasterevin, County Kildare, Ireland, on November 12, 1814, Lawler and his parents, John Lawler and Elizabeth Kelly, moved to the United States two years later and settled initially in Frederick County, Maryland. In 1819, they moved to rural Gallatin County, in southern Illinois. On December 20, 1837 he married Elizabeth Crenshaw.

General Michael Kelly Lawler
Lawler received an appointment in 1846 by the governor of Illinois, Governor Thomas Ford, as a captain in the Mexican-American War and commanded two companies in separate deployments to Mexico. He first led a company from Shawneetown Illinois that guarded the supply route from Vera Cruz to General Winfield Scott's Army. After the fall of Vera Cuz his company was discharged. He made a visit to Washington after which he was asked by Governor Thomas Ford to organize a company of riflemen. He served in the campaign to take Matamoros, Tamaulipas[1] during the Texas Revolution in 1835-36.

Lawler was a huge man, weighing 250 pounds, usually fought in his shirt sleeves and is said to have sweated profusely. His sword belt was not long enough to go around his waist so he wore it by a strap from one shoulder.

He then returned to his farm in Illinois, where he established a thriving mercantile business, dealing in hardware, dry goods, and shoes. He studied law, passed his bar exam, and used his legal license to help Mexican War veterans claim their pensions. Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out. It's little wonder that he volunteered to command the recruits being mustered from his local Illinois region.

In May 1861 he recruited the 18th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and was initially commissioned a Colonel, Lawler did not suffer fools and had even less patience with his men’s poor discipline. His 18th Illinois Volunteer 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, Ulysses S. 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 say 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 to southern Illinois. He spent his retired years buying and selling horses before he died on July 26, 1882 at the age of 68. Kelly Lawler is buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery near Equality, Illinois.

A memorial to Michael K. Lawler stands in Equality, Illinois. 
Dedicated to the memory of MICHAEL KELLY LAWLER
Born in Monabiern County Kildare Ireland. Nov. 12 1814. Came to Illinois 1819. Served as Captain in 3 "Ill" Inf and as Captain of a Company of Cavalry raised by himself in "Mex" War. Raised 18 "Ill Inf" in April 1861. Being commissioned Colonel on May 20th -- Promoted Brig "Gen" in April 1863. Was wounded at Fort Donelson. Led the assault on Vicksburg May 22, 1863. Brevetted Maj. "Gen" on April 27, 1866. Died July 26, 1882.

ENGAGED IN BATTLE AT:
Cerro Gordo Mex.,
Ft. Donelson,
Champion Hills,
Big Black River,
Assault on Vicksburg

AND SIEGES AT:
Vera Cruz Mex.,
Corinth,
Vicksburg,
Jackson.
Lawler also was honored with a marble bust in Vicksburg National Military Park in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Chicago named Lawler Avenue after Gen. Michael Lawler and Lawler Park, near Chicago’s Midway International Airport, is also named for Lawler. There is also a large memorial of stone and bronze erected to his memory near his home in Equality, Illinois.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


[1] Matamoros, Tamaulipas: Matamoros, officially known as Heroica Matamoros, is a city in the northeastern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. It is located on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas. 

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