The Journal Gazette
Saturday, September 25, 2021 1:00 am

Hometown heroes

Lawton, Baer rightly hold lofty places in city lore

Timothy S. Goeglein

“I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him.”

– Abraham Lincoln


Fort Wayne has produced great and notable citizens from its founding in 1794.

The names Hanna, Ewing, Rudisill, Allen, Barr, Richardville, Chapman, Rockhill, Foellinger and Foster are but a few of the bright lights forming the foundation and history of what became known as the Summit City at the distinct geographical meeting point of three rivers in northeastern Indiana.

There are two other names, however, which have come to define profound and noble courage in American military service – not only in the city's history but also worthy of national recognition and lasting memory.

In 1899, what was then known as North Side Park (and City Park before that) – a beautiful expanse of land between North Clinton Street and Spy Run Avenue – was officially renamed Lawton Park.

I asked several Fort Wayne friends if they could tell me why it is called Lawton Park. All have lived in the city their entire lives; all of them mentioned having driven past the park for what seemed like thousands of times. None could tell me why.

That would have been expressly not the case in the latter part of the 19th century. In those years, the city and surrounding Allen County saw more than 4,000 of its sons go off to fight in the Civil War. A large number, 490, never returned. The war ultimately claimed 750,000 American lives.

There was a lot of Fort Wayne blood spilled on Civil War battlefields nationwide.

To memorialize the soldiers' bravery and service, a monument was commissioned and sculpted; it was placed in the easternmost part of that park.

Who was the greatest soldier Indiana contributed to the eventual Northern victory in that terrible conflagration from 1860-65? The answer was Fort Wayne's Henry Lawton, who eventually rose to the rank of major general.

The park was rightly renamed in honor of this exceptionally notable Fort Wayne citizen, and one of the most singular figures of the entire war. Lawton's service was so widely recognized that he would eventually become a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for his wartime leadership and bravery. He was singled out by Congress for what it called his “extraordinary heroism.”

Later, he would be instrumental in the capture of Geronimo, the famous First American Apache.

The Civil War was not to be the only military action of Lawton's life. He served in the Philippine campaign of the Spanish-American War, where he lost his life to a sniper's bullet in 1899 near the city of Luzon.

The monument at Lawton Park is one of the grandest and most majestic in Fort Wayne, occupying ground that had originally been purchased during the Civil War years in preparation for hosting the Indiana State Fair. The fair took place there only one time, in 1866, so the decision was made to, in perpetuity, remember those who gave “the last full measure of devotion” in service to America's Union victory.

One of the things I love most about Lawton Park's memorial is the beautiful base of the statue – which comprises almost half the size of the total height of the memorial with its valorous soldier adorned by a semi-enfolded American flag – as well as the nearby cannon which points upward and is surrounded by a canopy of nearby trees. At one time, the base of the statue was complemented by a grouping of cannon balls which I wish were still there, giving the entire motif a regal bearing.

World War I would also make a Fort Wayne native nationally and internationally famous.

Paul Frank Baer's name rightly adorned Fort Wayne's airport for many years and deserves to be reattached to northern Indiana's most important airfield in recognition of what he achieved in American aviation and military history.

The most important U.S. volunteer air corps unit of the Great War on foreign soil was the Lafayette Escadrille, created in 1916. Since America did not enter the war until 1917, the Escadrille comprised American flyers who supported the French and British Allied cause, and moved abroad to fight on their behalf.

In all of American aviation history, the Escadrille is among the most famous and distinguished units, and there is a major memorial and monument of appreciation to these remarkable American pilots just outside Paris. It is breathtakingly beautiful. Baer was a central figure in the Escadrille's success, and a precursor to the eventual Allied victory of 1918.

Without air power, the Allies would not have prevailed. Baer was one of the genuine pioneers of what would become America's Air Force. He confronted the lethal German air campaign with verve and chivalric selflessness.

In 1917, when America entered the war, Baer joined the U.S. Army Air Service, the forerunner to the Air Force.

But his Great War service and distinction are incomparable: Baer became the first American ace with nine kills. He was immediately acclaimed not only an American war hero but also a French one; he would go on to great national and international fame as one of the first names of American aviation military history.

His life ended tragically in 1930 in a terrible air accident in China, and his hometown never forgot him.

The entire city went into an official mourning when Baer's body was returned to Fort Wayne to lie in state at the Allen County Courthouse. Tens of thousands of his fellow citizens paid tribute to him.

He is buried in Lindenwood Cemetery, and in all of Fort Wayne history, it was probably the most famous funeral cortège ever to assemble, moving solemnly through the streets of downtown to the near-southwest side where Baer would be laid to rest.

Photos from the procession down Main Street, with soldiers bearing rifles in their long woolen coats and caps, replete with the bricked streets of Fort Wayne jangled by the steel streetcar tracks, is a period study of pre-WW II Indiana.

 One of the greatest soldiers of the Civil War, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a central figure at the Battle of Gettysburg, famously observed: “In great deeds, something abides.”

The names Lawton and Baer abide and echo through the best of Fort Wayne history.

Timothy S. Goeglein is a native of Fort Wayne and lives in northern Virginia.

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