Californians and the Military
Major-General Harrison Gray Otis, U.S.V.
Publisher of the Los Angeles Times
By WO1 Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
A veteran of both the Civil War and Spanish-American War, Harrison Gray Otis was publisher of the Los Angeles Times for more than three decades, and a leader in the affairs of Southern California.

Harrison Gray Otis, the youngest of sixteen children of his father Stephen Otis, was born on February 10, 1837, on a farm near Marietta, Ohio. His parents, Stephen and Sarah Otis, were among the first pioneers of Ohio. His father, in 1800, moved from Vermont and settled in the "Ohio Company's purchase" at Marietta, then emerging from the condition of a frontier "block-house" settlement, made so by the Indian hostilities of that period. Ohio was then a territory, and Marietta its first settlement.

His paternal grandfather, Barnabus Otis, served in the American Revolution, and was a pensioner. (1) He and other Otis branches in America are descendants from James Otis, who emigrated from England and settled at Hingham, Massachusetts, at an early period in Colonial history. This family has produced James Otis, another famous Revolutionary patriot and orator; his namesake, Harrison Gray Otis, a Senator of the United States from Massachusetts, and others of the name distinguished in civil, political and military affairs.

Otis received only a limited "log-schoolhouse" education. He worked on the family farm and only attended school during the three winter months, up to the age of 14, when he became a printer's apprentice. His only subsequent school educated was embraced in an academy term of five months at Lowell, Ohio, in 1856-67, and a commercial course at Granger's College at Columbus, from which he graduated in 1857. He developed a fondness for the printer's art, and subsequently worked as apprentice and printer (1851-1861) in several companies.

He married the former Miss Eliza A. Wetherby, an amiable and accomplished New England lady. The couple was married on September 11, 1859, and shortly afterwards established their home at Louisville, Kentucky, where Harrison had received a position in the office of the Louisville Journal, under the famous editor, George D. Prentice.

While a resident of Louisville, Otis was elected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and nominated Abraham Lincoln for the Presidency. He attended the convention, took part in its proceedings, served as a member of the Kentucky Republican State Executive Committee, and in the succeeding November voted viva voce, under Kentucky law, for Mr. Lincoln.

With war-clouds appearing, Mr. and Mrs. Otis left Louisville for Ohio, knowing that hostilities were inevitable, and feeling that his proper place would be with the defenders of the Union who would go out from his native State.

Harrison Gray Otis enlisted as a private in the 12th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, under the command of Colonel John W. Lowe, at Camp Dennison, Ohio, on June 25, 1861, "for three years or during the war." He was mustered in as a Sergeant in Company I on June 29, and took the field with his regiment on July 6 on the Western Virginia campaign. Promoted to First Sergeant on March 1, 1862, he was mustered into service with the 12th Ohio Infantry. Wounded twice in the Civil War, he fought in 15 battles and received four more promotions and two brevets to Major and Lieutenant Colonel for "gallant and meritorious service". He was mustered out of service at Cumberland, Maryland, on July 26, 1865, where he was discharged as a lieutenant colonel. For the rest of his life, he liked to be referred to in military terms, first as Colonel, and later General.

After his discharge from the Union army he rejoined his family at Marietta, Ohio, where he was subsequently a small proprietor and publisher for the next eighteen months.

At the session of the Ohio Legislature of 1866-67, he became the official Reporter of the House, having been elected to that position after a sharp contest. At the close of the session he went to Washington, D.C. where he subsequently received an appointment as Second Lieutenant in the Regular Army. From 1867 to 1870 he served in the Government Printing Office, first as a compositor, next as a proof-reader, and later as Foreman of Printing, which he held from May 1869 to January 1870.

During this period, he also served as a Washington correspondent for the Ohio State Journal; and managing editor of the Grand Army Journal, the first Union soldiers' paper established in Washington after the war. He took an active part in the preliminary conference, held in February 1868, which called the Soldiers and Sailors' National Convention of that year that first nominated Gen. U.S. Grant for the Presidency, and was a delegate to that convention.

In 1871, Otis entered the U.S. Patent office and served therein for five years, as a chief of a division. He resigned in February 1876, receiving a commendatory letter from the head of the office, and on February 22 moved with his family to California. On March 5, Col. Otis established his residence in Santa Barbara, and on March 11, took charge of the Santa Barbara Press, the principal daily and weekly journal of that place, which he continued to publish for the four succeeding years, though absent a portion of that period.

Otis received an appointment in 1878 by President Hayes as collector of the Port of San Diego, but his confirmation was opposed by Senator Sergent. Sergent was able to "Hang up" the appointment in the Senate, until Col. Otis notified the President of his withdrawal. In 1879 he was offered by the State Department, through Senator John F. Miller, the appointment of U.S. Consul at the Samoan Islands, and in 1884 a similar appointment at Tien Tsin, China, but he declined both offers.

Col. Otis came to Los Angeles when he heard that its newest paper, the Los Angeles Daily Times, was for sale. The first four-page issue of the Times had appeared on December 4, 1881, but the owners faced financial problems. Scraping together $6,000, Otis bought a quarter interest in the paper in 1882 and became its editor, as well as editor of a sister weekly publication, the Mirror. In October 1882, he and his family moved from Santa Barbara and established a home in Los Angeles. For a weekly salary of $15, Otis wrote the editorials and much of the local news. His wife Eliza contributed columns about women, morals and religion.

In 1883, Otis and entrepreneur H. H. Boyce became co-owners of the Times, now grown to eight pages, and formed the Times Mirror Company. Otis set about transforming the newspaper. As John Weaver writes in Los Angeles: The Enormous Village: "He dropped ‘Daily' from the Times masthead, ordered up livelier headlines, doubled the telegraphic news coverage, made room for letters to the editor and added a column, ‘Political Points' which collected editorial barbs aimed at Democrats by other Republican journals."

In 1885, to ease his workload, Otis hired Charles Fletcher Lummis as the Times' first city editor. The flamboyant Lummis, Harvard drop out and editor of a small-town weekly in Ohio, had walked 3,507 miles from Ohio to Los Angeles in 143 days, writing a weekly series of letters about his journey for the Times. Otis met Lummis at Mission San Gabriel on February 1, 1885, and walked with him the last eleven miles into the city. Lummis became city editor the next day. "Col. Otis and I hit it off from the start," he later wrote. "He hated anybody who was afraid of him. Because of his dominant and overbearing way a great many good people were afraid of him. One of the reasons he liked me was that I wasn't."

In 1886, Otis bought H.H. Boyce's half-interest in the paper and named himself president, general manager and editor-in-chief.

In his 1932 book Los Angeles, writer Morrow Mayo had this to say of Otis:
"He was a large, aggressive man, with a walrus mustache, a goatee, and a warlike demeanor. He resembled Buffalo Bill, General Custer and Henry Watterson. The military bee buzzed incessantly in his bonnet. He was a holy terror in his newspaper plant; his natural voice was that of a game-warden roaring at seal poachers. He was politically ambitious all his life; though he never ran for an office, he asked for many. "


When McKinley, his former army commander, was elected President he asked to be appointed an Assistant Secretary of War, but Secretary Alger would not have him.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, Otis, then in his early 60s, volunteered for service in the United States Volunteers and was assigned to the Philippines, at which time he was made brigadier-general, on May 27, 1898. Brigadier-General Otis was placed in command of the First Brigade, 2d Division, Eighth Army Corp, under Major-General Arthur MacArthur. Narrating the operations of his division, in his report dated February 28, 1899, Gen. MacArthur described the composition of the First Brigade as follows:

"First Brigade, Brigadier-General H. G. Otis, commanding; Third United States Artillery, Major W. A. Kobbe, 14 officers and 650 men; First Montana Infantry, Colonel H. C. Kessler, 48 officers, 846 men; Tenth Pennsylvania Infantry, Colonel A. L. Hawkins, 28 officers, 713 men; Twentieth Kansas Infantry, Colonel F. Funston, 37 officers, 976 men – total First Brigade, 127 officers and 3,185 men."

Referring to the battle of Caloocan (fought mainly by the First Brigade), Gen. MacArthur made the following comment:

"The tactical scheme, which was carefully explained to the brigade and regimental commanders, was to the following effect, . . . The combined artillery preparation commenced at 3:09 p.m., and the infantry advanced at 3:59 p.m., after which the program as prescribed was executed with almost exact precision, and the American flag was raised in the town at 5:15 p.m. The tactical execution of the necessary movement was exemplary, and the resistance was such as to require the best efforts of all concerned."

Touching on the general operations of his command in the earlier movements of his command, Gen. MacArthur made the following comment:

"The difficulties attending the execution of the tactical operations on an extended line, such as that occupied by the division during the month, involved great presence of mind and endless exertion on the part of brigade and regimental commanders. The decision and sustained vigor of these officers insured such unity and strength throughout the command that every obstacle was quickly overcome and every prearranged scheme carried out precisely as planned."

From the night of the outbreak to the close of the campaign which resulted in the fall of Malolos, the Filipino capital, Otis was in constant command of his brigade, which occupied an advanced position at all times night and day, as part of the division line holding the country to the northward of Manila and the river Pasig. The official reports show that the brigade lost in the earlier operations (those included within the month of February alone), 137 officers and men killed and wounded; and that the aggregate losses of the brigade up to the fall of Malolos, reached the number of 285 officers and men killed and wounded –a percentage of casualties as high as the highest of any brigade in the Eighth Army Corps, with casualties inflicted upon the enemy in the estimated proportion of five to one.

For meritorious conduct, Otis was breveted to Major-General on March 25, 1899. Following the war, Major-General Otis was elected a Companion of the First Class, Military Order of the Loyal Legion, through its California Commandery, on February 16, 1890. He served as the Order's Junior Vice Commander in 1904 and twice as President of its Southern California Association, in 1903 and 1917. General Otis was also a member of the Military Order of Foreign Wars; Society of the Army of the Patomac; United Spanish War Veterans; Society of the Army of the Philippines; and Veteran Army of the Philippines.

Shortly after his return, Mrs. Otis became ill and in November 1904, she died. General Otis' focus turned to his business. Under his leadership, the Los Angeles Times became a powerful conservative force in turn-of-the-century Southern California, and an unrivaled promoter of regional growth. The Times also became the region's leading business promoter and its most strident Republican, conservative and anti-union voice. For years, the banner of the front page of the Times included the phrase, "True Industrial Freedom," while editorials and news stories reflected Otis' uncompromising opposition to the union shop.

Otis claimed that he never objected to "lawful or legitimate organizations formed and maintained by laborers in any branch of industry," only to "gross and mischievous abuse in the management of the organizations by the leaders of them." In fact, he'd even been a member of the typesetters union -- briefly. Nevertheless, the Times' position as an anti-labor lightning rod led to the bombing of the Times' building on Oct. 1, 1910. Twenty people were killed and 17 injured. The Times labeled the bombing "The Crime of the Century" and blamed it on "unionists," even though labor leaders vehemently denounced the bombing. Two brothers, John and James McNamara (John was a labor union official), represented by legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow, later confessed to the crime.

Over the years, Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler became the city's unrivaled power brokers, "the single most important force in Los Angeles aside from government itself" –at least according to historian Andrew Rolle.

Harry Chandler joined the Times in 1885 as a circulation department clerk. He soon became circulation manager and, in 1894, husband of Otis' daughter, Marian. Chandler went on to become vice president and general manager of the Times before succeeding Otis as publisher. (2) Together, Otis and Chandler shaped the growth of the city and region.

In the historic struggle over federal funds to build a breakwater at San Pedro harbor in the late 1890s, a move opposed by the powerful Southern Pacific railway which favored building a new harbor in Santa Monica where the Souther Pacific had waterfront interests, the Times vigorously supported San Pedro. Its backing was instrumental in carrying the day for San Pedro, making Los Angeles a major west coast port, now the busiest in the United States.

Otis, Chandler and the Times were also early backers of a $23 million bond issue, approved in 1907, to build an aqueduct that would carry Owens River water to Los Angeles. The 225-mile aqueduct, built under the supervision of William Mulholland, delivered its first water in 1913.

Otis died on July 30, 1917, at the age of 80. He bequeathed his Wilshire Boulevard home to the city for use in "the advancement of the arts." Until 1997, the site housed the Otis Art Institute, now re-located to the westside of Los Angeles, and known as the Otis College of Art and Design.

Directly across Wilshire Boulevard from the site of Otis' former home, in a corner outside MacArthur Park, stands an imposing but often overlooked bronze statue of Harrison Gray Otis in his army uniform. Next to him is the statue of a young boy selling newspapers, presumably copies of the Los Angeles Times, which remains the region's most powerful and internationally respected journalistic voice.

(1) As a descendant of Barnabus Otis, who served in the American Revolution as a private in Captain Keyes' Company, Colonel Durkee's Regiment, of the Connecticut Line, he was admitted to membership in December 1913 in the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California, Member No. 221; He was also admitted to membership in the Society of Colonial Wars in the State of California by descent from John Otis, an early colonist in Massachusetts.
(2) After Harry Chandler's death, his son Norman became the newspaper's publisher.

R. D. Hunt, California and Californians (1926), Vol. III
Circular No. 17, California Commandery, Military Order of the Loyal Legion
J. M. Lee, History of American Journalism (1923);
F. B. Heitman, Historical Register of the U.S. Army (1903), Vol. I;
W. A. Otis, A Genealogical and Historical Memoir of the Otis Family in America (1924);
Who's Who in America, 1916-17;
Los Angeles Examiner; San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times (various).


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Updated 8 February 2016