September 1, 2008: Barry Cauchon

Civil War Union army officer, Major General Lewis “Lew’ Wallace is well known to historians for his involvement in many high profile events. But the one that he is most famous for will come as a surprise to you.

Brigadier General Lew Wallace

For much of the Civil War, Wallace acted as division commander under Ulysses S. Grant. He commanded troops in several battles, the most high profile being the Battle of Shiloh. Regrettably, due to a communication mix up between Grant and Wallace, he led his troops away from the fighting and did not get back until the battle was almost over. Grant blamed Wallace for the mix up. For the rest of his life, Wallace would try to clear his name with the Union military commanders (including Grant) but with little success. 

UPDATE: February 11, 2009: I received a comment from Bernie O’Bryan who professionally portrays General Wallace at events and he advises me that Wallace and his troops only missed part of the battle rather than when it was almost over. Bernie stated the following, “Well, actually almost over for the first day, but the Battle of Shiloh was a two day battle, Wallace’s troops arrived in the later part of the first day, but opened the battle the next day and saw more than their share of fighting on that day”. Thank you Bernie for the clarification. I really appreciate it.

But by the end of the war, Lew Wallace began to become a visible public figure in other arenas.

Event #1: In 1865, after President Lincoln had been assassinated, eight conspirators were arrested and put on trial in a military court. Wallace was chosen as one of twelve men to sit on the military commission responsible for trying the one female and seven male defendants.

After a two month trial, they would find all eight conspirators guilty of various offenses. Four would be sentenced to hang, three would be given life sentences and one would receive a 6-year sentence.
Preparing the Lincoln conspirators for hanging
Four conspirators in the Lincoln assassination are prepared for hanging on July 7, 1865

Event #2:Then in late July, 1865, Wallace would again sit on another military commission. This one for the war crimes trial and court-martial of Confederate Henry Wirz, the commandant of the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp.

With over 12,000 prisoners dying while under his watch in 1864, Wirz was held responsible for the deaths and put on trial for war crimes. Although Wirz’s culpability was highly controversial, he was still found guilty and sentenced to hang in Washington DC on November 10, 1865.

Wallace resigned from the army on November 30, 1865 and entered politics, holding several positions over the next 20 years.

Event #3:From 1878 to 1881, Wallace served as governor of the New Mexico Territories. On March 17, 1879, Governor Wallace met with, and attempted to offer amnesty to, the notorious outlaw, Henry McCarty a.k.a. William H. Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid for his involvement in the Lincoln County War. Unfortunately, Billy the Kid did not follow through with his part of the deal, and Wallace withdrew his offer. Billy the Kid would be shot and killed on July 14, 1881 by Sheriff Pat Garrett. 

Event #4: In contrast to his military and political careers, Lew Wallace was also a gifted writer. He would write and publish three novels during his lifetime. However, it was his second novel that would bring him untold fame. On November 12, 1880, Wallace released Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ”.

The novel became a tremendous best-seller. It soon out sold Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the best selling American novel. It would remain the top selling American novel for over fifty years until 1936 when it was finally overtaken by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

One stage play and two films were made of Ben-Hur. The most memorable film being the academy award winning movie from 1959 starring Charlton Heston.

Many believe that much of Ben-Hur was a semi-autobiographical account of Lew Wallace’s life.

Lew Wallace died February 15, 1905 at age 77.






If you are interested in Abraham Lincoln, you should read these interviews by two Lincoln experts:


“An Awesometalk With” Harold Holzer, Lincoln Scholar

(posted on November 10, 2008) 


  “An Awesometalk With” Dr. Thomas Schwartz, Illinois State Historian 

(posted on December 08, 2008) 



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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Wow! What a fascinating life he led. I knew his name, that he was involved in the Civil War, and that he wrote ‘Ben-Hur’. Now I believe I would like to read a biography about General Wallace.

    Thanks. Very good post.

  2. Hi Christy: As always, lovely to talk to you.
    It’s funny, when I started writing this article, it was another “DID YOU KNOW” but as I kept coming across these great stories about the general, I finally decided to dedicate the whole article to him. There are many things that I couldn’t include (like the fact that he successfully defended a Confederate attack on Washington DC in 1864).

    Also, the story of Henry Wirz is amazing. His court-martial certainly was controversial. Many Union prisoners from Andersonville actually claimed that he treated them very well and did what he could in lue of the dismal overcrowding and circumstances. And during his trial, one Union prisoner testified against him, claiming that he witnessed Wirz murder another prisoner. This was later proved false and that the soldier had committed perjury. So this is a case definitely worth researching more.
    Talk to you later.

  3. i not care but i am doing a history project

  4. Sorry, but your narrative on the arrangement between Wallace and Billy The Kid is inaccurate, as is the judgment about who reneged.

    Billy had been indicted for the murder of Lincoln sheriff William Brady during the Lincoln County War. Brady also held a commission as a federal marshal. Thus the indictment against Billy was federal. Wallace’s amnesty to all the participants in the Lincoln County War could not cover a federal warrant, only a Territorial one.

    In the aftermath of the war, Billy had witnessed the cold-blooded murder in February, 1879, of Huston Chapman by Jimmy Dolan, one of Lincoln’s main citizens. In the secret meeting between Billy and Wallace, held in the middle of March, 1879, The Kid agreed to testify against Dolan. Billy would submit to a staged arrest, testify against Dolan, and be tried for Sheriff Brady’s murder. After he was convicted, Wallace could then issue a pardon (not a amnesty).

    Billy lived up to his end of the agreement, but Wallace’s pardon was not forthcoming. Billy, fearful for his life, slipped out of jail. Billy later wrote letters to Wallace about the pardon but they were greeted with silence. The letters are extant.

    So it was Wallace, not Billy, who reneged on their deal and did not follow through.

    • Hi Neil: Thank you for your comments. When I wrote about Wallace, the sources I used obviously had the take on history from Wallace’s point of view. That is fascinating information you’ve shared. It’s thorough and logical. Can you tell me where your interest in Billy the Kid comes from and where you gathered so much detailed information. Billy the Kid was a fascinating character from history and it’s great to share his story.
      Thanks again and I look forward to hearing more about it.

  5. Hi Barry,

    It’s been a while since I immersed myself in the Lincoln County War. Consequently, I am sort-of mistaken myself about a detail of The Kid’s pardon. I looked it up again and consequently I’ll have to correct my facts, so to speak

    Wallace’s amnesty did not cover people with indictments against them, which Billy had for his part in the reprisal killing of Marshal/Sheriff Brady. So the distinction was not based upon the difference between an amnesty and a pardon, but according to if anyone had an indictment against him. All the rest of the deal as I explained it is accurate. Bonney did keep his end of the agreement. He testified against Dolan and Billy Campbell, who had shot Chapman closeup for no reason. Dolan gave Chapman the coup de grace. This was in the middle of the street in Lincoln in February 1879. Then Campbell, who was drunk and carrying a bottle of whiskey, poured its contents on the corpse and set it alight. The townspeople were so frightened of Dolan and Campbell that no one would come out to extinguish the fire. Chapman’s body burned in the street all night. Incidentally, Chapman was not carrying a weapon when Campbell and Dolan killed shot him. Though Billy, who was present and testified to these events, per the agreemtn, Wallace reneged on their deal. The Kid did not participate in Cahpman’s killing. In fact, he was worried enough about his own life that he slipped away from Dolan and Campbell and rode off into the night

    IMO, the best short examination of the facts is in Joel Jacobsen’s “Such Men as Billy The Kid,” an excellent relatively concise history of the Lincoln County War.

    I first became interested in the war in 1971. In 1982, I played the part of Pat Garrett in a stage production about Billy The Kid. This got me really immersed, as I did a a lot of research for my character, and this background gave me some deep insights into the American West, and American history generally, of which I had not previously been aware.

    I’ve read pretty much everything of substance that has been written about the war. In the mid-1980s I used to travel to Lincoln from Los Angeles every year to act in the “pageant” about Billy that the town still stages annually.

    I write book reviews for “Feminist Review,” an online magazine. A little while ago, I wrote a review of a new novel about Billy. In case you should be interested, you can link to the following URL and read the review. What you will get when you link is all my reviews for the Feminist Review. Just scroll down until you come to the Billy novel.

    Here’s the URL:

    Incidentally, I am currently writing a novel about Billy and Wallace.

    Best regards,

  6. Hi Again Barry,

    Just reread my account of the killing of Houston Chapman and must do a little correction again as I have the sequencing wrong.

    Campbell didn’t pour whiskey on Houston’s body and then set it alight. After he shot Chapman, whose last words were, “My god I am killed,” and who was knocked backwards to the street by the bullet, Campbell being so close to him, the gunman then poured the contents of the bottle on the prone body. Dolan shot Chapman as Chapman lay there dying. It was the muzzle blast from Dolan’s Winchester that set the whiskey burning.

    This is what Billy saw because he was with Campbell and Dolan in Lincoln that night in an attempt to work out a peace agreement between the opposing sides in the Lincoln County War. Dolan and The Kid had been enemies in that conflict. Billy’s testimony was valuable to Wallace at the time, which was why he agreed to the terms with The Kid. Terms Wallace never lived up to.


    • Hi Neil: I really love your work on Billy and Lew Wallace. Would you be interested in summarizing what you’ve written here with a small amount of background on the subject. If you are interested, I’d like to feature it as an article on my blog. At the same time, we can pitch your book (for when it comes out) for those that might be interested in learning more. I love sharing well-researched stories about famous people because it helps to set the record straight. The more famous someone is, the more misinformation there seems to be out there. You should also include a short bio about yourself and why you are ‘the expert’ on this subject. Include pictures if you have them (and one of yourself if you like). Once I pull the entire piece together (which will feature very little writing from me…just an intro) I’ll send it to you to review. Once approved, I’ll post it. Let me know as I think you have a really good story to tell. One note. Keep your references handy as people always ask where they can verify the information. Have a great day.

      Best Barry

  7. I am trying to find out as much information as I can about Billy Campbell… where he is from, what happened to him after the Lincoln County wars, for example. I believe I may be a direct descendant of his. I have some background info on a Mr. William Campbell who may have been associated with Jesse James and I am wondering if it is the one and the same Campbell. Thank you for any assistance.

    • Hi Jason: Thanks for your email. I appreciate your question but know that I’m not an expert in the area you are looking for information. Although I haven’t heard from him in awhile, Neil Flowers contacted me (see his comments below) awhile back and he is a writer who has done a lot of research on the Lincoln County War. If you can reach him I’m sure he can help you far better than me.
      Neil’s email is:

  8. Does someone know if any of Chapman’s murderer’s were ever convicted of the crime?

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