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Lewis Wallace: April 10, 1827–February 15, 1905


Lewis Wallace was an American lawyer, Union general in the American Civil War, governor of New Mexico Territory, politician, diplomat, artist and author from Indiana. Among his novels and biographies, Wallace is best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), a bestselling novel that has been called “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.”

Wallace’s military career included service in the Mexican–American War and the American Civil War. He was appointed Indiana’s adjutant general and commanded the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Wallace, who attained the rank of major general, participated in the Battle of Fort Donelson, the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Monocacy. He also served on the military commission for the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Lewis “Lew” Wallace was born on April 10, 1827, in Brookville, Indiana; the second of four sons born to Esther French Wallace (née Test) and David Wallace. Lew’s father David, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, left the military in 1822 and moved to Brookville, where he established a law practice and entered Indiana politics. David served in the Indiana General Assembly and later as the state’s lieutenant governor, governor and as a member of Congress. Lew Wallace’s maternal grandfather was circuit court judge and Congressman John Test.

In 1832, the family moved to Covington, Indiana, where Lew’s mother died from tuberculosis on July 14, 1834. In December 1836, David married nineteen-year-old Zerelda Gray Sanders Wallace, who later became a prominent suffragist and temperance advocate. In 1837, after David’s election as governor of Indiana, the family moved to Indianapolis.

Lew began his formal education at the age of six at a public school in Covington, but he much preferred the outdoors. Wallace had a talent for drawing and loved to read, but he was a discipline problem at school. In 1836, at the age of nine, Lew joined his older brother in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he briefly attended the preparatory school division of Wabash College, but soon transferred to another school more suitable for his age. In 1840, when Wallace was thirteen, his father sent him to a private academy at Centerville, Indiana, where his teacher encouraged Lew’s natural affinity for writing. Wallace returned to Indianapolis the following year.

Sixteen-year-old Lew went out into the World to earn his own wages in 1842, after his father refused to pay for additional schooling. Wallace found a job copying records at the Marion County clerk’s office and lived in an Indianapolis boardinghouse. He also joined the Marion Rifles, a local militia unit, and began writing his first novel, The Fair God, but it was not published until 1873. Wallace said in his autobiography that he had never been a member of any organized religion, but he did believe “in the Christian conception of God.”

By 1846, at the start of the Mexican–American War, the nineteen-year-old Wallace was studying law at his father’s law office, but left that pursuit to establish a recruiting office for the Marion Volunteers in Indianapolis. He was appointed a second lieutenant, and on June 19, 1846, mustered into military service with the Marion Volunteers (also known as Company H, 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry). Wallace was mustered out of the volunteer service on June 15, 1847 and returned to Indiana, where he intended to practice law.

In 1848 Wallace met Susan Elston at the Crawfordsville home of Henry S. Lane, Wallace’s former commander during the Mexican War. Susan was the daughter of Major Isaac Compton Elston, a wealthy Crawfordsville merchant, and Maria Akin Elston, whose family were Quakers from upstate New York. Susan accepted Wallace’s marriage proposal in 1849, and they were married in Crawfordsville on May 6, 1852. The Wallaces had one son, Henry Lane Wallace, who was born on February 17, 1853.

Wallace was admitted to the bar in February 1849, and moved from Indianapolis to Covington, Indiana, where he established a law practice. Wallace continued to practice law and was elected as a Democrat to a two-year term in the Indiana Senate in 1856.

Wallace, a staunch supporter of the Union, became a member of the Republican party and began his full-time military career soon after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina on April 12, 1861. Indiana’s governor, the Republican Oliver P. Morton, asked Wallace to help recruit Indiana volunteers for the Union army. Wallace, who also sought a military command, agreed to become the state’s adjutant general on the condition that he would be given command of a regiment of his choice. Indiana’s quota of six regimental units was filled within a week and Wallace took command of the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was mustered into the Union army on April 25, 1861. Wallace received his formal commission as a colonel in the Union army the following day.

Wallace’s most controversial command came at the Battle of Shiloh, where he continued as the 3rd Division commander under Maj. Gen. Grant. Around 5 a.m. on April 6, 1862, the Battle of Shiloh began in which Grant’s army at Pittsburg Landing was surprised and began being pushed back by a sudden attack from the Confederate army under Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston. Grant, who heard the early morning artillery fire, took a steamboat upriver from his headquarters at Savannah, Tennessee, briefly stopping at Crump’s Landing, where he gave Wallace orders to wait, but be ready to move in any direction. Grant proceeded to Pittsburg Landing, where he arrived around 9:00 or 9:30 a.m. Grant’s new orders to Wallace, which arrived between 11 and 11:30 a.m., were given verbally to Grant’s quartermaster, who transcribed them before they were delivered. The written orders were lost during the battle, so their exact wording cannot be confirmed; however, most eyewitness accounts agree that Grant ordered Wallace to join the right side of the Union army, presumably in support of Brig. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s 5th Division, which was encamped near Shiloh Church on the morning of April 6.

Of the two main routes that Wallace could use to move his men to the front, he chose the Shunpike Road, the more direct route to reach the right of Sherman’s division near Shiloh Church.

At first, the battle was viewed by the North as a victory; however, on April 23, after civilians began hearing news of the surprise and resulting high number of casualties, the Lincoln Administration asked the Union army for further explanation. Grant, who was accused of poor leadership at Shiloh, and his superior, Halleck, tried to place the blame on Wallace by asserting that his failure to follow orders and the delay in moving up his division on April 6 had nearly cost the Union the battle.

Wallace’s reputation and career as a military leader suffered a significant setback from controversy over Shiloh. He spent the remainder of his life trying to resolve the accusations and change public opinion about his role in the battle. Wallace’s account of the events appeared in his autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1906. Despite his later fame and fortune as the writer of Ben-Hur, Wallace continued to lament, “Shiloh and its slanders! Will the world ever acquit me of them? If I were guilty I would not feel them as keenly.”

Following his loss of a field command, Wallace returned to Indiana and spent time at his retreat on the Kankakee River. It was there that he received a telegram from Governor Morton to take command of an Indiana regiment in the Department of the Ohio to help with the defense of Kentucky during Braxton Bragg’s incursion into Kentucky and to report to Louisville.

However, Wallace was soon relieved of command by Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, who took command of the Army of Kentucky on August 24 on orders from Wright. Nelson altered Wallace’s defensive plan, and engaged Smith’s Confederate Army of Kentucky at the Battle of Richmond on August 30, and was soundly defeated.

Upon his arrival in the city, Wallace immediately began organizing the defenses of Cincinnati, Ohio and the Kentucky cities of Covington and Newport south of Cincinnati. Wallace ordered martial law, set a strict curfew, closed all businesses, and began putting male citizens to work on rifle pits, felling trees for makeshift abatis and clear fields of fire, and improving the 1861 earthwork defenses. It was during this hasty defensive preparation that the Black Brigade of Cincinnati was formed, by Wallace’s orders.

In response to calls from Ohio’s Governor Tod, approximately 15,000 so-called “Squirrel Hunters”—untrained volunteers who carried outdated equipment—reported to Cincinnati. Additionally, newly-created regiments from Indiana and Ohio were rushed to Cincinnati; most had not completed their training.

Because the arriving regiments could not be ferried quickly enough across the Ohio River, Wallace ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge, which was constructed using coal barges in under 48 hours.

Wallace’s leadership during the defense of Cincinnati earned him the nickname by local newspapers as the “Savior of Cincinnati.” On September 12, Wallace telegraphed Wright from Cincinnati: “The skedaddle is complete; every sign of a rout. If you say so I will organize a column of 20,000 men to pursue to-night.” Instead, Wright relieved Wallace of a field command.

Following President Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, Wallace was appointed to the military commission that investigated the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The commission, which began in May, was dissolved on June 30, 1865, after all eight conspirators were found guilty In mid-August 1865, Wallace was appointed head of an eight-member military commission that investigated the conduct of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commandant in charge of the South’s Andersonville prison camp. The court-martial which took nearly two months, opened on August 21, 1865. At its conclusion Wirz was found guilty and sentenced to death.

On April 30, 1865, Wallace had accepted an offer to become a major general in the Mexican army, but the agreement, which was contingent upon his resignation from the U.S. Army, was delayed by Wallace’s service on the two military commissions.

Wallace tendered his resignation from the U.S. Army on November 4, 1865, effective November 30 and returned to Mexico to assist the Mexican army. Although the Juárez government promised Wallace $100,000 for his services, he returned to the United States in 1867 in deep financial debt.

Wallace made two unsuccessful bids for a seat in Congress (in 1868 and 1870), and supported Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 election. As a reward for his political support, Hayes appointed Wallace as governor of the New Mexico Territory, where he served from August 1878 to March 1881. His next assignment came in March 1881, when Republican president James A. Garfield appointed Wallace to an overseas diplomatic post in Constantinople as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire. Wallace remained in this post until 1885.

Wallace arrived in Santa Fe on September 29, 1878, to begin his service as governor of the New Mexico Territory during a time of lawless violence and political corruption. Wallace was involved in efforts to resolve New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, a contentious and violent disagreement among the county’s residents, and tried to end a series of Apache raids on territorial settlers. In 1880, while living at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, Wallace also completed the manuscript for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

On May 19, 1881, Wallace was appointed U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey). Wallace remained at the diplomatic post until 1885, and became a trusted friend of Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

In addition to Wallace’s diplomatic duties, which included protection of U.S. citizens and U.S. trade rights in the area, Wallace found time to travel and do historical research. Wallace visited Jerusalem and the surrounding area, a setting in his previous novel, Ben-Hur, and did research in Constantinople, the locale for The Prince of India; or, Why Constantinople Fell, which he began writing in 1887.

The election of Grover Cleveland, the Democrat candidate for president, ended Wallace’s political appointment. He resigned from the U.S. diplomatic service on March 4, 1885. The sultan wanted Wallace to continue to work in the Ottoman Empire, and even made a proposal to have him represent Ottoman interests in England or France, but Wallace declined and returned home to Crawfordsville

Wallace confessed in his autobiography that he took up writing as a diversion from studying law. Although he wrote several books, Wallace is best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), which established his fame as an author.

In 1843, Wallace began writing his first novel, The Fair God, but it was not published until 1873. The popular historical novel, with Cortez’s conquest of Mexico as its central theme, was based on William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico. Wallace’s book sold seven thousand copies in its first year. Its sales continued to rise after Wallace’s reputation as an author was established with the publication of subsequent novels.

Wallace wrote the manuscript for Ben-Hur, his second and best-known novel, during his spare time at Crawfordsville, and completed it in Santa Fe, while serving as the territorial governor of New Mexico. Ben-Hur, an adventure story of revenge and redemption, is told from the perspective of a Jewish nobleman named Judah Ben-Hur. Because Wallace had not been to the Holy Land before writing the book, he began research to familiarize himself with the area’s geography and its history at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1873. Harper and Brothers published the book on November 12, 1880.

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Ben-Hur made Wallace a wealthy man and established his reputation as a famous author. Sales were slow at first; only 2,800 copies were sold in the first seven months after its release, but the book became popular among readers around the world. By 1886, it was earning Wallace about $11,000 in annual royalties (equivalent to $290,000 in 2015 dollars) and provided Wallace’s family with financial security. By 1889, Harper and Brothers had sold 400,000 copies and the book had been translated into several languages.

In 1900, Ben-Hur became the best-selling American novel of the 19th century, surpassing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Amy Lifson, an editor for Humanities, identified it as the most influential Christian book of the 19th century. Others named it one of the best-selling novels of all time. At the time of Ben-Hur’s one hundredth anniversary in 1980, it had “never been out of print” and had been adapted for the stage and several motion pictures.

Wallace wrote subsequent novels and biographies, but Ben-Hur remained his most important work. Wallace considered The Prince of India; or, Why Constantinople Fell (1893) as his best novel. Wallace was writing his autobiography when he died in 1905. His wife Susan completed it with the assistance of Mary Hannah Krout, another author from Crawfordsville. It was published posthumously in 1906.

Wallace continued to write after his return from the Ottoman Empire. He also patented several of his own inventions, built a seven-story apartment building in Indianapolis, the Blacherne and drew up plans for a private study at his home in Crawfordsville. Wallace remained active in veterans groups, including writing a speech for the dedication of the battlefield at the Chickamauga.

On April 5, 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish–American War, Wallace, at age seventy-one, offered to raise and lead a force of soldiers, but the war office refused. Undeterred, he went to a local recruiting office and attempted to enlist as a private, but was rejected again, presumably because of his age.

Wallace’s service at the Battle of Shiloh continued to haunt him in later life. Wallace attended a reunion at Shiloh in 1894, his first return since 1862, and retraced his journey to the battlefield with veterans from the 3rd Division. He returned to Shiloh for a final time in 1901 to walk the battlefield with David W. Reed, the Shiloh Battlefield Commission’s historian, and others. Wallace died before the manuscript of his memoirs was fully completed, and it is unknown whether he would have revised his final account of the battle.

Wallace died at home in Crawfordsville, on February 15, 1905 of atrophic gastritis. He was seventy-seven years old. Wallace is interred at Crawfordsville Oak Hill Cemetery

Wallace was a man of many interests and a lifelong adventure seeker, who remained a persistent, self-confident man of action. He was also impatient and highly sensitive to personal criticisms, especially those related to his command decisions at Shiloh. Despite Wallace’s career in law and politics, combined with years of military and diplomatic service, he achieved his greatest fame as a novelist, most notably for his best-selling biblical tale, Ben-Hur.✪