Meet Lew Wallace, The Union General Who Wrote ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ’

The American author of ‘Ben-Hur’ was a lawyer, ambassador and ‘true Renaissance man.’ Wallace was a general in the Union Army & went on to have a very distinguished writing career after the Civil War.

Union General turned author and Christian soldier Lewis Wallace actually wrote two stories of redemption after the Civil War.  Wallace scripted his personal deliverance following the national disgrace he suffered when he was wrongly blamed for the U.S. Army’s tragic loss of life at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. 

In his second tale of redemption, the Indiana native wrote “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” his thrilling and globally renowned biblical epic, in 1880. 

“Ben-Hur” is one of the most widely read and influential books in history. It has sold more than 50 million copies, according to data from Google Books. It’s among the top two-dozen most popular books of all time.

He was “a man of many talents, a true ‘Renaissance man,'” quotes Ray Boomhower, author of “The Sword and the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace.”

“He dreamed of glory and lived a life full of adventures, triumphs and tragedies.”

Wallace’s tale of fictional protagonist Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman forced into slavery during the time of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion, also inspired what is perhaps Hollywood’s greatest production.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 1959 film version “Ben-Hur,” starring Charlton Heston, was seen in theaters by 98 million people. 

It won a record 11 Academy Awards — since then only tied by “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Another 85 million Americans watched the movie’s television debut in 1971. “Ben-Hur” has been a cultural staple of Easter-time TV over the half-century since. 

Wallace (1827-1905) did more than just serve in the Civil War and write a bestselling book. 

As the Civil War ended in 1865 after unspeakable human carnage, Wallace led the first leg of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train procession from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore as throngs of despondent Americans lined the tracks. 

A lawyer before the war, Wallace also sat on the military tribunal that convicted eight conspirators in the plot to assassinate the president.  Four were sentenced to death and hanged. 

He then governed the New Mexico Territory and served as U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, where he befriended emperor Sultan Abdul Hamid II. 

However, the ambitious tale of life in the time of Christ remains Wallace’s signature achievement. “Ben-Hur” was “the most influential Christian book written in the 19th century,” wrote Amy Lifson in 2009 for the National Endowment for the Humanities. The story also enjoyed a 21-year run on Broadway starting in 1899. 

The book has never been out of print, she added. It has”outsold every book except the Bible until ‘Gone With the Wind’ came out in 1936, and resurged to the top of the list again in the 1960s.” By 1900, it had been printed in 36 English-language editions and translated into 20 others, including Indonesian and Braille.

Scapegoated At Shiloh

Lew Wallace was born on April 10, 1827, in Brookville, Indiana, to a politically prominent family. 

His father David was a West Point graduate; the elder Wallace became governor of Indiana and a U.S. congressman representing the Hoosier State in Washington, D.C. 

Wallace’s mother, Esther, died when he was just seven years old His father David married a 19-year-old woman named Zerelda two years later. 

“She was probably the best known first lady in Indiana history up until the 1950s,” Larry Paarlberg, director of the Lew Wallace Study & Museum.

“She was very young. She was a gifted public speaker who spoke in favor of temperance and suffrage.”

Wallace grew to call Zerelda his mother. The smart, outspoken young woman became a powerful figure in the life of the future soldier and author.

“Zerelda was the only person from Wallace’s life who appeared in the book,” said Paarlberg, noting that she inspired the character of Miriam, Ben-Hur’s mother.

Wallace got his first taste of military service in 1848 as a lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Volunteers in the Mexican-American War, but saw little action, the museum notes on its website.

He became an attorney in 1850 and began raising a family when the Civil War tore apart the nation in 1861. 

Wallace was disgraced the following year at Shiloh, Tennessee. The Union won the battle but suffered 13,000 casualties — more than the Confederate Army — in little more than 24 hours.  “Grant’s army was caught off guard and forced to retreat,” the American Battlefield Trust reports of the incident. 

He sent for reinforcements from Wallace, and as a result of unclear circumstances, Wallace marched his forces to a position, found out he was behind Confederate lines and then marched back to meet Grant.

As a result of the losses suffered by the Union army at Shiloh, many placed blame on Wallace and he was removed from Grant’s army. “Shiloh haunted Wallace his entire adult life,” said Paarlberg of Wallace. “He faced his own personal struggle to redeem himself.” 

Absolute Belief In God & The Divinity Of Christ

Wallace traced the origin of “Ben-Hur” to a trip he made by train to an army reunion in 1876, when the Christian faith was challenged by fellow Shiloh veteran and famed agnostic Robert Ingersoll. 

“At that time, speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment,” Wallace wrote in his autobiography. “I had no convictions about God or Christ. I never believed nor disbelieved in them.”

Still, Wallace was frustrated by his inability to mount a learned counter-argument.”My ignorance of it was painfully a spot of deeper darkness in the darkness,” Wallace wrote.

“I was ashamed of myself, and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured, or, if it be preferred, the punishment of spirit, ended in a resolution to study the whole matter, if only for the gratification that there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.” That resolution led him to write “Ben-Hur.”

The process of creating “Ben-Hur,” the author wrote in 1899, resulted in “a conviction amounting to an absolute belief in God and the divinity of Christ,” according to the Wallace Study & Museum website.

But “Ben-Hur” is much more than a treatise on Christian redemption. It’s a beautifully written work of literature providing insight into life in antiquity; it was based on years of painstaking research on everything from geography to flora and fauna to period construction.

“The wheels were very marvels of construction,” Wallace wrote in “Ben-Hur” of the chariots in which Ben-Hur races dangerously against antagonist Messala. 

“Stout bands of burnished bronze reinforced the hubs, otherwise very light; the spokes were sections of ivory tusks, set in with the natural curve outward … bronze tires held the fellies, which were of shining ebony.”

Wallace’s book hit the silver screen for the first time in 1907. The epic story — and its glittering language — inspired many successful adaptations before the 1959 Heston-led version.

“Ben-Hur” was a hit on Broadway starting in 1899; the adaptation (approved by Wallace) featured live horses and chariots. The stage version “ran for 21 years and was seen by 20 million people,” according a history of “Ben-Hur.”

The first silent film version was just 15 minutes long and focused on the chariot race. It became a box-office smash for the first time in 1929 — and helped reshape Hollywood history. 

Produced by the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for almost $4 million — which made it the most expensive film of the silent era — it was a hit with audiences and helped put MGM on the map. (A 2016 version of “Ben-Hur” flopped at the box office.)  More importantly, though, some argued that “Ben-Hur” healed the nation.

The book “helped form a cultural bond in the Reconstruction era between the North and the South, between the modernization of America and its traditional values, and between the ever-widening gap between the sacred and secular in America,” argues the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. 

Redemption For Shiloh

Wallace is one of two people representing the state of Indiana in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol. The collection consists of statues donated by individual states to honor persons notable in their history. 

Wallace received one of his most important honors in 1885, when former general and president Grant finally absolved Wallace of his role in the carnage of Shiloh, in a magazine piece chronicling his war experiences. 

Wallace attempted to serve his country one more time well into his elderly years. “In 1898, General Wallace tried to become a soldier one last time. At the age of 71, he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War,” writes the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum on its website.  “The U.S. Army declined because of his age.”

General Lewis Wallace died on Feb. 15, 1905, in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was 77 years old & is buried at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville among his other family members. ✪

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