Lawrence Tyson, Tennessee’s only World War I general, was born on a plantation near Greenville, North Carolina, on July 4, 1861. Tyson won a competition for appointment to West Point and graduated from the military academy in 1883. Lieutenant Tyson served several years in Wyoming, Arizona, and Kansas and engaged in the Apache wars against Geronimo and his followers.
Tyson married Bettie McGhee of Knoxville, the daughter of railroad president Charles McClung McGhee. In 1891 McGhee secured an appointment for Tyson as professor of military science and tactics at the University of Tennessee in order to bring his daughter home. While on the faculty, Tyson took a degree in law and resigned his position in 1895 in order to practice law in Knoxville.
At the beginning of the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley appointed Tyson colonel of the Sixth Regiment U.S. Volunteer Infantry. Tyson recruited this unit largely from Tennessee and Kentucky and served with them in Puerto Rico as commander. He was mustered out of service in 1899 with the rank of brigadier general.
In 1917 Tyson volunteered for military service again, and President Woodrow Wilson reactivated his commission, although he was fifty years old. Tyson assumed command of the Fifty-ninth Brigade of the Thirtieth National Guard Division (Old Hickory Division). Landing at Calais, the Fifty-ninth were the first American troops to enter Belgium in July 1918. In September the Thirtieth was sent to the Somme and placed in front of the Hindenburg line at its strongest point on the Cambrai-St. Quentin Canal. On September 29, the Americans in cooperation with British troops attacked the Hindenburg line. Advancing through a heavy fog behind a line of tanks, the Americans moved across the three trench lines of the Hindenburg defenses, an advance of three or four miles. They captured the entire Hindenburg system of that sector, including the tunnel of the St. Quentin canal and the German troops it housed. They defeated two German divisions and captured approximately fifteen hundred enemy soldiers.
The Nashville Banner claimed that the Fifty-ninth Brigade had been the first unit to cross the canal and therefore the first Allied unit to break the Hindenburg line. The brigade of 8,000 men lost 1,879 killed or wounded. Nine men received Medals of Honor, perhaps the largest number awarded to a single brigade. Tyson received the Distinguished Service Medal.
After the war, Tyson returned to Knoxville to his business interests and politics. He owned several textile mills and coal companies, was a director of two Knoxville banks, and in 1924 purchased the Knoxville Sentinel. That year, Tyson was elected U.S. senator from Tennessee. He died on August 24, 1929, and is buried in Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville.