In 1843, Lawton's father moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana to work on a mill. The family followed him the same year. George was in California when Catherine died in 1852. Henry and his siblings lived with relatives and family friends for a number of years, including a number back in the Maumee, Ohio area. He traveled with his father to Iowa and Missouri in 1857, returning to Ft. Wayne in 1858. He was studying at the Methodist Episcopal College when the Civil War began.
In his three months of service, Lawton saw action at Philippi, Laurel, and Carricks Ford, W. Virginia. If the North had any hopes of a short war and quickly thrashing the Confederacy, those hopes soon dimmed. Like many of the three-month volunteers Lawton was mustered out of service on 21 July 1861 and returned home after his short tour.
His zeal was not dampened by his first experiences in combat and he was quick to place himself back at the disposal of the Army. Colonel Sion S. Bass organized the 30th Indiana Volunteers. Captain O. D. Hurd commanded a company in the 30th and Henry Lawton re-enlisted with Hurd’s unit.
The 30th was officially mustered into service on 20 August 1861. At first, Lawton was his company’s drill sergeant but was quickly promoted to 1st Lieutenant on August 20. The 30th joined the Army of the Ohio, under General Don Carlos Buell in Kentucky and remained there for a brief period. The army moved on to Tennessee early in 1862. Its first major engagement would be at Pittsburg Landing Battle of Shiloh where Lawton’s regiment was one that suffered heavy losses. Lawton, one of the fortunate survivors of Shiloh, had experienced with others, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. His unit moved on and fought at Corinth, Mississippi.
Lawton’s unit also fought at Iuka while attached to Buell’s forces. At the age of nineteen, on 7 May 1862, outside of Corinth, he was promoted to the rank of captain.
He fought at the battles of Stones River and Chickamauga, in all, at over twenty-two major engagements. He was awarded the Medal of Honor years later for his bravery at the Campaignbox Atlanta Campaign. He was a brevet colonel at the end of the war.
Sheridan strongly urged Lawton to accept a 2nd Lieutenant’s commission, which he did and he joined the 41st Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie 31 July 1867. Lawton served for many years under Mackenzie, mainly as quartermaster, and also as close confidant. He developed a reputation as a fierce and determined fighter as well as one of the most organized quartermasters in the service. Lawton served with Mackenzie in most of the major Indian campaigns in the southwest, including Adobe Walls, and Quanah Parker at Palo Duro Canyon.
While earning a reputation as a fierce and tenacious fighter, Lawton was also regarded as having compassion for the Indians. Among those who respected Lawton was Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne who was in a group of Cheyenne escorted by then Lieutenant Lawton to a southern reservation. Lawton also served as an advocate for the Indians on the reservation when he learned that the local Indian agency was short-changing the Indians on their food allotments.
On 20 March 1879, Lawton was promoted to the rank of captain in the regular army. In 1886, he was in command of B Troop, 4th Cavalry, at Ft. Huachuca and was selected by Nelson Miles to lead the expedition that captured Geronimo. Numerous stories abound as to who actually captured Geronimo, or who he surrendered to. For Lawton's part, he was given orders to head up actions south of the U.S.-Mexico boundary where it was thought Geronimo and a small band of his followers would take refuge from U.S. authorities. Lawton was to pursue, subdue, and return Geronimo to the U.S., dead or alive.
Lawton's official report dated September 9, 1886 sums up the actions of his unit and gives credit to a number of his troopers for their efforts. At the same time, in his typical fashion, Lawton takes no credit for himself. Geronimo himself gave credit to Lawton's tenacity for wearing the Apaches down with constant pursuit. Geronimo and his followers had little or no time to rest or stay in one place. Completely worn out, the little band of Apaches returned to the U.S. with Lawton and officially surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles on September 4, 1886. While the debate over who Geronimo surrendered to goes on, it should be remembered that Native Americans rarely 'surrendered' to junior officers. They surrendered to General officers or higher.
At various times after the campaign, Lawton was questioned by friends about the campaign. He remained tight-lipped and stated that his unit simply pursued Geronimo and brought him back.
On 17 September 1888, Lawton was promoted major, inspector general of the Army. On 12 February 1889, he was promoted lieutenant colonel, inspector general. His duties provided Lawton with many opportunities to develop improvements in organization and equipment for the Army and he worked in this capacity for most of the time up until the Spanish-American War.
Lawton's force of 6,000 troops moved inland as Spanish forces retreated and he reached Siboney June 23rd. General Joseph Wheeler took it upon himself to jump ahead of plan and found himself in a fierce fire fight with the Spanish at the Battle of Las Guasimas. Wheeler elected to send word back to Lawton for help and Lawton's unit rushed forward to extricate Wheeler from his difficulties. The fact that the Spanish did not put up a prolonged resistance gave the Americans the impression they would be easy to defeat. This resulted in some miscalculations regarding the Spanish capabilities in planning future engagements
Lawton's division was sent to take the Spanish fortress at El Caney. Preparation for the Cuban campaign had been helter-skelter and Shafter failed to disembark his siege guns. Moreover, he did not have mounted cavalry, necessary for a thorough reconnaissance of the terrain prior to engaging the Spanish forces. Generals Chaffee, Kent, and Wheeler all did independent recon prior to the El Caney and San Juan hill engagements but they provided an overly optimistic assessment of the difficulties ahead. Chaffee submitted his battle plan to Lawton who read and signed it without change. In the pre-battle meeting, Shafter and his generals agreed that El Caney would require no more than two hours to take.
In the following Battle of El Caney, Lawton's division suffered heavy casualties but eventually took the city and linked up with the rest of the U.S. forces on San Juan Hill for the Siege of Santiago. Once Santiago fell, Lawton served as military governor between early August and early October 1898. Lawton had preferred to be returned to the U.S. along with General Shafter and the V Corps however, the War Department selected him as Military Governor of Santiago de Cuba province. A number of problems faced Lawton and Leonard Wood. A major problem involved the health of the American troops and there was the priority of returning many of them home for medical treatment.
Then there was the problem of sanitation in the city of Santiago itself. Many of the residents were under nourished, ill and in need of medical attention. Civil disorder had to be settled down and unruly Cuban soldiers, still bearing arms, were ordered to remain outside the city. Conflicts with the police occurred as they were holdovers from the Spanish regime and continued to treat the citizens in an oppressive fashion. Naturally, bars and saloons were closed for a period of time and basic law enforcement became one of the duties of Lawton and his men. Lawton had a penchant for hands-on involvement alongside his troops and no doubt was personally engaged in the day-to-day post war activity. There are news reports of Lawton personally removing insurgent flags from public buildings and working alongside his troops to maintain order.
Lawton immediately tackled the problem of law enforcement, ridding the police of tyrannical Spanish officers and replacing them with Cubans. By the end of summer, he had re-established a mounted police unit comprised of Cubans to maintain order in Santiago. Eventually, taverns were re-opened and the locals were once again allowed to pursue their social past times.
Lawton also re-established commerce in the city and outlying areas, all the way to Havana. He worked with the Customs Bureau to create an equitable system of collections and was praised by the bureau head in Cuba for his work in raising and protecting a substantial amount of money. Disgruntled Cuban generals who early had taken their troops into the interior and posed a threat to the U.S. presence were invited by Lawton to participate in local government and in fact, became quite instrumental in establishing and protecting the peace.
Lawton suffered from a fever, possibly malaria, on and off between July and October. This fact was detected by only a few correspondents. For his part, Lawton did not make light of the illness except to a few close friends with whom he corresponded. His real condition may have been 'recurring' malarial fever since he had been diagnosed with the illness, as well as dysentery in 1876. According to National Archive records, the army surgeon who diagnosed his condition at that time recommended a six-months leave in a different climate from the one in which he was stationed. His illness forced him to take a medical leave of absence on 6 October 1898. He returned to the States on October 13th and shortly thereafter, began his preparation for the assignment that would take him to the Philippines.
It has been speculated that Lawton may have been relieved due to drinking, yet, no evidence has surfaced to confirm that rumor. One source for the information was a 'phantom' (unnamed) correspondent for the New York Evening Sun and the second was Leonard Wood, a "moralistically intolerant" person who was later believed by many in the Army to have stabbed his friend Lawton in the back. Considering the number of correspondents in Santiago on the prowl for news, or possibly a scoop, any misbehavior on the part of a senior American general would been detected and reported. Not one irregularity showed up about Lawton over the course of three months and hundreds of news reports.
Private letters to close personal friends in the U.S. from Lawton revealed that he was concerned with the number of his troops suffering from disease, the fact that he, Lawton was experiencing a fever and perhaps Malaria, and his own dislike of assignment to a desk job. He was already looking ahead to a role in the Philippine campaign.
Whatever reason for his return to the states, he came back as a major-general of volunteers, having been promoted within a week or so of his landing in Cuba. When Lawton returned, he joined General Shafter for a short period of time and then went on to Washington D.C. where he was in conference with President William McKinley, Adjutant General Henry C.Corbin, and Secretary of War Russell A. Alger concerning conditions in Cuba. He also testified before the commission investigating the Santiago campaign and was given temporary command of the IVth Corps in Huntsville on December 22nd. On December 29th, Secretary Alger announced to the press that Lawton was being placed in command of the Army field forces in the Philippines and would be reporting to General Elwell Stephen Otis, the 'military governor', within a short time. Lawton also toured the country with President McKinley, and other dignitaries during the Peace Jubilee.
His competency and military achievements made for bad relations between him and the VIII Corps commander, Elwell S. Otis. Despite this, Lawton was very popular among his men and the general public and was so well-respected in the Philippines that his image appeared on Filipino currency during the 1920s. A major plaza in downtown Manila was named Lawton Plaza. Although renamed recently to Liwasang Bonifacia, Filipinos continue to refer to it as Lawton. After the Battle of San Isidro, a letter arrived at the VIII Corps headquarters with the message: "Otis. Manila: Convey to General Law[ton] and the gallant men of his command congratulations on the successful operations during the past month, resulting in the capture this morning of San Isidro." The letter was signed by President William McKinley.
Lawton continued to experience personal attacks on his reputation, probably from envious officers with the army. General Charles King, upon returning to the U.S. had dinner with General William Shafter. Shafter informed King that someone high in the chain of command in Manila was spreading rumors about Lawton being on drinking sprees in Manila which King emphatically denied. King wrote Lawton about his meeting with Shafter who in turn wrote adjutant general Corbin. Apparently the rumors caused General Otis to write to the AG on July 11, 1899. Corbin in turn wrote McKinley's personal secretary who had inquired about the rumors and labeled the whole affair as "mischievous gossip." The letters are located in the McKinley Papers, Vol. 36, reel 7 of the Library of Congress.
Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino resistance leader, referred to Lawton as 'The General of the Night'. When asked why he used that reference, Aguinaldo replied that Lawton was a night general and had attacked him (Aguinaldo) so often at night, he never knew when Lawton was coming.
During the Battle of San Mateo, Lawton, as usual, was in the midst of the fighting and was killed by a Filipino sharpshooter, ironically under the command of a general named Licerio Geronimo. He was the highest ranking American officer to fall in battle in either the Spanish-American or Philippine-American wars. A vacancy existed in the army for Brigadier General-Regular Army. Rumors had passed around for months as to who the President would promote. The final tribute of recognition from the President and army had already been paid in the form of the promotion for Lawton on the day of his death. The adjutant general's office was processing the promotion when word was received in the White House of Lawton's fate.
In Manila in the Philippines, the plaza fronting the main post office building was named "Plaza Lawton". It was and still is a major Manila transportation hub. In the seventies, it was renamed "Liwasang Bonifacio" after the Philippine hero Andres Bonifacio, but jeepney drivers still call this place "Lawton". And some destination marks in Metro Manila and southern provincial buses and jeepneys refer it so.
In 1899, the Army named a fort after Lawton. Fort Lawton is located just west of downtown Seattle. While Fort Lawton was a quiet outpost prior to World War II, it became the second largest port of embarkation of Soldiers and materials to the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Fort was closed by the Army in 1971, but today is still used by the Navy for military housing as well as the city of Seattle as Discovery Park.