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Fightin’ Mike Lawler – Abe Lincoln’s Lilywhite General

“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.

The little known story of a Kildare man who rose to General rank with the Union forces in the American Civil War has been brought to light by Robert Doyle, a Baltinglass-native. 
General Michael Kelly Lawler was one of the 150,000 or so Irishmen who fought between 1861 and 1865 in the bloody conflict that was the American Civil War. He was, however, County Kildare’s only general in that war and a very unconventional one at that. A huge man, weighing almost 18 stone, Lawler usually fought in his shirt sleeves and is said to have sweated profusely. His sword belt was too short to fit 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 against the Confederate South, was one of the Kildare man’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 identify what area of the “Short Grass County” he hails from. American records do, however, detail his parents as John Lawler and Elizabeth Kelly and that the family left Kildare for America when Lawler was just two-years old.  The Lawler’s eventually settled in rural Gallatin County, south Illinois.
By the time that the Southern States rose up against Lincoln’s government in 1861, Lawler was already a veteran of one war, having served thirteen years earlier as a captain during the Mexican-American War. 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 often threatened 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 regimental Chaplin despite the objection of the Protestant majority under his command. 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 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 Grant included. While not condoning his unorthodox methods, there seems to have been an understanding of his motives among many fellow officers.
Nonetheless, by the time his Illinois men went into combat, Lawler had formed an infantry unit that would become renowned for their fighting capabilities and 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 directing his men during the sustained attacks on Vicksburg, a Confederate-controlled fortress city.
Having again narrowly missed death in battle 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 Vicksburg’s 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.
Lawler was soon 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; he died in 1882 at the age of 68. General Kelly Lawler is buried in Hickory Hill Cemetery near Equality, Illinois.
Although Michael Kelly Lawler is a relative unknown in his native county, 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 Kildare man and there is also an impressive memorial of stone and bronze erected to his memory near his Illinois home.
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 conflict. Further details may be found at: www. irishacwtrail.com


A public health official and amateur historian, Robert Doyle is a native of Baltinglass, County Wicklow. He has studied the Irish who served in the US military during the American Civil War and the Plains Indians Wars for many years and is the co-creator of www.myleskeogh.org. Robert is also a frequent speaker on military history and has written for popular history periodicals including History Ireland and Military Illustrated.

The story of Abe Lincoln's Lilywhite general - Fightin' Mike Lawler by Liam Kenny from the Leinster Leader of 21 February 2012. Our thanks to Liam

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