Lewis "Lew" Wallace was born in Brookville, Franklin County, Indiana to David Wallace and Esther French (Test) Wallace. His father was a graduate of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
|Franklin County, Indiana|
His father married 19-year-old Zerelda Gray Sanders, who became a prominent suffragist and temperance advocate. They had six children together, and she was stepmother to David Wallace's three sons from his first marriage. Lew rejoined his family in Indianapolis.
In 1842, when Wallace learned of Texas’ War of Independence, he and a friend provisioned a canoe and set out down the White River to offer their services to James Bowie and Davy Crockett. Lew’s grandfather apprehended them a few miles downriver. A year later, when he was sixteen, his father kicked him out of the house and sent him off to earn a living, hoping to steer him away from art and other delinquent tendencies.
With reluctance, Lew followed his father into the legal profession, and he was preparing for the bar exam when the United States declared war with Mexico in 1846. He raised a company of militia and was elected a second lieutenant in the 1st Indiana Infantry regiment. He rose to the position of regimental adjutant and the rank of 1st lieutenant, serving in the army of Zacahary Taylor.
Lew imagined the conquest of Mexico would be full of the “gallantries” he’d read about in novels. Instead, his regiment was ordered to garrison a camp at the mouth of the Rio Grande, across the river from a small Mexican smuggler’s outpost, which the soldiers called “Bagdad.” The camp was soon beset with an epidemic of diarrhea so fatal that the survivors ran out of wood for coffins. The men heard of General Taylor’s victories from passing steamboats.
After hostilities, he was mustered out of the volunteer service on June 15, 1847, at the age of 20.
He was 33 years old when the Civil War began.
|Lew Wallace, circa 1850s|
|Susan Elston Wallace|
One day, Wallace accompanied a colleague to a tavern in nearby Danville, Illinois. The young lawyers met a man Wallace described as “the gauntest, quaintest, and most positively ugly man who had ever attracted me enough to call for study.” The man was engaged in a storytelling contest with several local lawyers, and, was running away with the competition, exhausting all comers with a seemingly endless store of well-spun yarns. It was Wallace’s first glimpse of Abraham Lincoln. His admiration for the fellow lawyer contributed to Wallace's decision to join the Republican Party.
Although not a strong abolitionist at the start of the Civil War, Indiana's Republican governor Oliver P. Morton asked him to help raise troops. Wallace, who sought a second chance for military glory, agreed on the condition that he be given command of a regiment.
|Oliver P. Morton|
|Winslow Homer's Illustration of Wallace in 1861|
|Harper Weekly's Illustrations|
|Ulysses S. Grant|
|Lew Wallace, 1862|
|Generals at the Battle of Shiloh|
“Well, we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?” Sherman is said to have remarked to Grant on the night of April 6. “Yes,” Grant replied. “Lick ’em tomorrow, though.” With Wallace’s division finally in place, and Buell’s reinforcements having arrived overnight, Grant unleashed a vicious counterattack on April 7, pushing the rebels back over ground still littered with the dead and dying from the previous day’s fight. Wallace's division held the extreme right of the Union line and was the first to attack on April 7. Realizing they were now outnumbered, the Confederates beat a retreat in the afternoon.
|Generals Sherman and Grant|
In August 1862, Confederate General Kirby Smith and his forces moved through Kentucky; the Battle of Richmond was fought, and the results were disastrous for the Federals: 4,000 prisoners captured dwarfed approximately 1,000 killed and wounded Federal soldiers - all at a cost of about 450 killed and wounded Confederates. Ten thousand stands of arms, nine guns, and the Federal supply train were captured. Federal strength in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky was effectively wiped out. Lexington, and the capital of Frankfort, lay scant miles ahead. The important cities of Cincinnati and Louisville appeared wide open to Confederate attack.
|View from Hooper Battery, Defense of Cincinnati|
On September 2, Kirby Smith took Lexington, and on the 3rd, Confederate cavalry took Frankfort. General Heth, with four brigades, fanned north to cover the approaches to Cincinnati. Confederate infantry was moving to take Falmouth and Williamstown, the two major approaches to Cincinnati. Farmers were hurrying livestock north towards the Ohio River.
General Ormsby Mitchel (a former professor of astronomy at the University of Cincinnati) soon joined generals Wallace and Wright, and Colonel Charles Wittlesey of the Engineering Corps: they set out to install a series of forts, gun emplacements, and rifle pits in the hills of Northern Kentucky.
Wallace learned about the poor treatment of the men. On September 4, 1862, he commissioned Judge William Martin Dickson as commander of the Black Brigade. After receiving his appointment, Colonel Dickson changed the brigade into a working regiment. On the evening of September 4, 1862, Dickson dismissed the men to tend to their families as well as gather personal supplies for the days of work ahead. He promised them that he was forming the brigade for fatigue duty and they "should be kept together as a distinct body,... that they should receive protection and the same treatment as white men,... and that their sense of duty and honor would cause them to obey all orders given, and thus prevent the necessity of any compulsion..." In return for these promises, Dickson expected the men to meet the next morning for work on the defensive fortifications. In his official report to Ohio Governor John Brough Dickson stated that around 400 men were present when he dismissed the brigade on September 4, 1862. The next day over 700 men reported ready for duty.
|Memorial to Black Brigade, Cincinnati, Ohio|
|Memorial to Black Brigade, Cincinnati, Ohio|
"Thanks to the promptitude of Generals Wright and Wallace, and the patriotism, courage and valor of the people, the Rebel movement toward Cincinnati has been frustrated and rolled back. In a remarkably brief space of time our cities, which were practically defenseless, became bastions of military might as our whole male population arose enmasse. The patience that they endured, the severe labor of trenches and tented fields for many days in succession presented a remarkable instance of how quickly a citizen can be converted into a soldier. Assisted by loyalists from other areas, we had an army in less than a week that was a proud example of what the West can do to meet invasion. Cincinnati is a large and wealthy city, attractive as a prize to the enemy. Hereafter, it must not be undefended as hitherto; we must have troops for home defense."
|Monument to Dickson and Wallace, Cincinnati, Ohio|
For the present, at least, the enemy have fallen back and your cities are safe….When I assumed command there was nothing to defend you with, except a few half-finished works and some dismounted guns; yet I was confident. the energies of a great city are boundless; they have only to be aroused, united and directed. You were appealed to. The answer will never be forgotten.
Paris may have seen something like it in her revolutionary days, but the cities of America never did. Be proud that you have given them an example so splendid. The most commercial of people, you submitted to a total suspension of business, and without a murmur adopted my principle–'Citizens for labor, soldiers for battle.'
In coming time, strangers, viewing the works on the hills of Newport and Covington, will ask, 'Who built these intrenchments?' You will answer, 'We built them.' If they ask, 'Who guarded them?' you can reply, 'We helped in thousands.' If they inquire the result, your answer will be, 'The enemy came and looked at them, and stole away in the night.'
You have won much honor; keep your organizations ready to win more. Hereafter be always prepared to defend yourselves.
The fact that a battle was not fought is due to Wallace's prompt and decisive action. Had he not taken command, nothing would have stood in the way of the Confederate army, which could have taken the city. Heth's plans to hold the city for ransom (as Jubal Early later did to Frederick, Maryland) or sack it indicated that he felt his forces were too weak to hold it for the Confederacy, but he might have caused the Union to divert troops from critical operations elsewhere. Wallace earned the city's gratitude, but the absence of a battle prevent him from regaining the standing he lost at Shiloh and kept the defense of Cincinnati from being as celebrated.
General Grant relieved Wallace of his command after learning of the defeat of Monocacy, but re-instated him two weeks later. Grant's memoirs of the war praised Wallace's delaying tactics at Monocacy:
If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent. ... General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.
|“Over the Deadline,” |
a painting by Lew Wallace
based on testimony given at the trial
of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz.
|Wallace's Sketch of Arnold|
Wallace resigned from the army on November 30, 1865. After the end of the war, Wallace continued to try to help the Mexican army to expel the French and was offered a major general's commission in the Mexican army. Multiple promises by the Mexicans were never fulfilled, and Wallace incurred deep financial debt. Dissatisfied with his careers as a soldier, politician, and lawyer, he began writing in earnest. Wallace published his first novel in 1873.
|William Henry McCarty, aka "Billy the Kid"|
Inspiration for Wallace’s next second novel came from an unlikely source: his own ignorance. Wallace often told the story of how, on a train trip in 1876, he met the well-known agnostic Colonel Robert Ingersoll, also a veteran of Shiloh.
In true lawyer style, he hit the books: First the Bible, and then every reference book about the ancient Middle East he could find. He suspected that a novel about Jesus Christ would be scrutinized by experts, so the plants, birds, clothes, food, buildings, names, places—everything had to be exact. “I examined catalogues of books and maps, and sent for everything likely to be useful. I wrote with a chart always before my eyes—a German publication showing the towns and villages, all sacred places, the heights, the depressions, the passes, trails, and distances.” He traveled to multiple libraries across the country to ensure he had the exact measurements for the workings of a Roman trireme. He provided detail after detail on the design of Persian versus Greek versus Roman chariots. He did everything short of going to Jerusalem himself. Years later, when he actually visited the Holy Land, he tested his research and proudly said, “I find no reason for making a single change in the text of the book.”
|Wallace writing under Ben-Hur Beech Tree|
|Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ|
|Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur|
|1959 Poster for Ben-Hur|
|Heston in Chariot Race|
|Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, 1925|
The book made Lew Wallace a celebrity, sought out for speaking engagements, political endorsements, and newspaper interviews.
Wallace wrote Grant imploring him toa bsolve him of wrongdoing. He also visited Grant to plead with him in person. He arrived on the same day that Twain was paying a call to the former president, bearing an offer to publish his memoirs (and to pay his friend a handsome 70 percent royalty). “There’s many a woman in this land that would like to be in my place,” said Julia Grant when the two callers met in the parlor, “and be able to tell her children that she once sat elbow to elbow with two such great authors as Mark Twain and General Wallace.”
Shortly after the article was published, however, Grant had a change of heart. The widow of a general who had been killed in action at Shiloh had come across a letter from Wallace to her husband, dated April 5, 1862. It was the letter Wallace had sent to the commander of the neighboring division at Shiloh, announcing his plans to use the shunpike should trouble arise. It convinced Grant of what Wallace had long argued. The letter “modifies very materially what I have said, and what has been said by others, about the conduct of General Lew. Wallace at the battle of Shiloh,” Grant wrote. He still maintained that he’d ordered Wallace to take the river road, but allowed that his wishes may have been lost in the fog of war: “My order was verbal, and to a staff officer who was to deliver it to General Wallace, so that I am not competent to say just what order the general actually received.”
It was the vindication Wallace had longed for since 1862. But even this failed to satisfy him. The Century article, with its repetition of the standard account of Wallace’s mistakes, became the Shiloh chapter of Grant’s memoirs. The exoneration appeared as a footnote, one that Wallace worried would be ignored by most readers. Rightly, as it would turn out.
Wallace had struggled financially through much of his life. His correspondence is full of enthusiastic accounts of railroad investments and mining prospects that never pan out; he patented unprofitable improvements to railway ties, automatic fans, and the fishing rod.
|Wallace in his study|
Wallace designed a writing study, built 1895–1898, near his residence in Crawfordsville, Indiana. A larger-than-life limestone frieze of the face of Judah Ben-Hur—a wholly imagined visage—hovers over the entrance to the study.
|Face of Judah Ben-Hur over Studay Entrance|
Finished in 1898, the building is more castle than study. The grounds once included a moat stocked with fish, until Wallace realized the hazard it posed to neighborhood children and had it filled in.
|Wallace's unfinished painting, The Conspirators|
|Murat Shriner's Temple, Indianapolis|
|Wallace on cover of Harper's Weekly, 1886|
Despite using many friends in Washington to influence the government, Wallace's offer in 1898 to raise and lead a division of soldiers for the Spanish-American War was refused; when he attempted to enlist as a private, he was rejected given his age of 71.
There were so many rumors about Wallace’s faith—that he was an atheist or that he had gone to the Holy Land to disprove the existence of Christ—he felt it necessary to introduce his autobiography by dispelling them. He wrote in his autobiography, “In the very beginning, before distractions overtake me, I wish to say that I believe absolutely in the Christian conception of God. As far as it goes, this confession is broad and unqualified, and it ought and would be sufficient were it not that books of mine—Ben-Hur and The Prince of India—have led many persons to speculate concerning my creed. . . . I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. Not that churches are objectionable to me, but simply because my freedom is enjoyable, and I do not think myself good enough to be a communicant.”
In the days following his death, nearly every newspaper in the country carried an obituary, many of them as lead stories that jumped to full-page spreads. The Cincinnati Enquirer announced the news with a headline overwrought even by fin de siècle standards, though not atypical of the coverage:
Wallace's last literary work was his own autobiography, published posthumously in 1906.
In 1907, the first fifteen-minute, unauthorized film version was released and Wallace’s son took up the cause, suing the filmmaker for using the plot and title of Ben-Hur without permission of the author’s estate. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and firmly established the copyright infringement laws for the movie industry that are still in use today.
|Statue of Wallace in National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C.|
The state of Indiana commissioned a marble statue of Wallace dressed in a military uniform, which was made by the sculptor Andrew O'Connor. It was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1910. He is the only novelist honored in the hall.