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Kildare’s Fighting General: Michael Kelly Lawler

James Durney

A recent visit to the Local Studies Department and Genealogy Service, in Newbridge Library by American relatives of Kildare’s fighting Civil War general, Michael Kelly Lawler, has led to this article. The Co. Kildare birthplace of Michael Kelly Lawler has been always a bit of a mystery, but his American relatives maintain he was born in Monasterevan.
Michael Kelly Lawler was born on 16 November 1814 in Monasterevan, Co. Kildare the first child of John Lawler and Elizabeth Kelly. John Lawler was born in Co. Laois (then known as Queens County) in 1786, while Elizabeth Lawler was born in Co. Kildare. The Lawlers emigrated to the New World arriving in New York City in March 1816. After a few months in New York, the Lawlers moved to Frederick Town, Maryland, where their second child, Mary Elizabeth was born.  John Lawler applied for American citizenship on 7 November 1819. Later that month, the family moved to Illinois where two more children, Margaret and Thomas Richard, were born.
On 1 April 1828 John Lawler bought a farm in the Ponds Settlement community in east Ridgway Township between Shawneetown and New Haven, in Gallatin County, Illinois. They were the first Catholic family to settle in the Ponds, on land which is still in the possession of their descendants today. It was largely through the influence of the Lawlers that the first Catholic Church (a log structure) was built in the community.
Despite his less than three years of formal education Michael Kelly Lawler was very well-read. He became a licensed lawyer and a surveyor. On 20 September 1837 he married Elizabeth Hart Crenshaw, at McLeansboro, Illinois. Family tradition has it that this was an elopement, but if that was so, it was soon forgiven as the Lawlers and Crenshaws became very close. Elizabeth’s father, John Hart Crenshaw was the wealthiest landowner in southern Illinois and operator of the Saline salt works in Gallatin County. He gave the young couple 180 acres of land next door to his own Hickory Hill. In the meantime Michael Kelly Lawler had apparently accumulated some 900 acres of land of his own. He built a modest two-room box house with a lean-to kitchen, which was later replaced by a one-and-a-half-storey double log house. The Lawler’s named the log-house ‘Tara Hall.’
Although he was a licensed lawyer there is little evidence of Michael Kelly Lawler practicing law except as an accommodation for his relatives, friends and neighbours. His chief interest was land and he also owned a hardware store in Shawneetown, Illinois. When the Mexican War broke out in 1846 he received an appointment as a captain and was asked by Governor Thomas Ford to organize a company of riflemen. He served in the campaign to take Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in Mexico. After the end of the conflict Lawler returned to his farm, established a thriving hardware store and used his lawyers’ license to help the claims of Mexican War veterans.
In April 1861 the Civil War erupted and the following month Michael Kelly Lawler recruited the 18th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment for the Union cause. He was appointed as its first colonel, but his time in command of the regiment was controversial, as the men had a reputation for drunkenness and fighting. Lawler was a stern disciplinarian and introduced supervised boxing bouts to resolve disputes among his men. He was court-martialled for excesses in discipline but Lawler had enough political and military clout to be restored to his command. The 18th Illinois went into action at the Battle of Fort Donelson and Lawler suffered an arm wound as he led his men from the front. In November 1862 he was commissioned as a brigadier general and commanded a brigade in the 2nd Division of the XIII Corps. He fought with distinction in the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863 and then served as commander of the 1st Division, XIII Corps in Louisiana. Lawler was plagued with illness for the remainder of the war and mustered out of the army in 1866, though some reports say it was 1864. He returned home and resumed his law practice and farming.
Michael Kelly Lawler died in the summer of 1882, aged sixty-eight and was buried in the Lawler Family Cemetery near Equality, Illinois. A stone and bronze memorial to the Kildareman was erected in his honour in Equality, Illinois. He was also honoured with a marble bust in Vicksburg National Park, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, while Chicago named a street after him and Lawler Park, in Chicago, also bears his name.

Note: My thanks to the Luckett-Lawler family, Illinois, USA.

The Co. Kildare birthplace of Civil War General Michael Kelly Lawler has been always a bit of a mystery, but his American relatives maintain he was born in Monasterevan

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