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.
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. As he states in the comment section below, “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.
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.
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:
(posted on November 10, 2008)
(posted on December 08, 2008)