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.

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) 



Published on Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at '1:28 pm'  Comments (10)  

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  1. “… did not get back until the battle was almost over.” 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. Nice and informative site otherwise. I professionally protray General Wallace at many locations and events, including his study/museum in Crawfordsville,IN. As an artist he stetched and painted the Lincoln Conspirators, the painting is at his museum.
    Bernie O’Bryan

    • Hi Bernie: Thank you so much for your contribution. I appreciate the correction and will make the adjustment shortly. On another note, you professionally portray Wallace. This is terrific. I think very highly of him and his character. He was so talented in many respects. A writer, an artist, a general, a Governor. The list goes on and on.
      Of his Conspirator sketches and paintings, I’ve seen many in books and on-line but have never had the opportunity to see his artwork live. I look forward to getting to Crawfordville one day to take in the museum and see this painting and the other exhibits on his life.
      Do you live in Crawfordville or nearby?

  2. I live in Covington, Ky, but have been frequently asked to appear as our “General” at the museum and for parades. Tonight I am presenting for the first time my first person account called “Abe Lincoln as Gen. Lew Wallace Remembers” in which accounts of their encounters and relationship over the years and the impact beyond. I have on loan a photo copy of the Painting from the museum to use in my presentation. I do not know about copy rights, so I am unable to reproduce it for you, but then again, you will have to visit his museum. I expect to submit a longer paper on this subject for publication sometime soon. Please keep in touch. My email is, perhaps I can send you some pictures from events at his study. Bernie O’Bryan

    • Hi Bernie: This is great. I wish you all the best tonight on your new presentation. Please let us know how it goes.
      When you do have the longer paper ready, send it to my email address so I can present it in a better fashion here on the site. If applicable, I think it would make a great feature piece.
      BREAK A LEG.

  3. According to the History channel it was Wallace who failed to keep his end of the agreement with Billy the Kid, after Billy performed his end of the bargain.

    • Hi Doug: Thanks for writing. As is often the case, history usually has more than one ‘version’ of any story. In this case, I have heard that same argument from a researcher who is exploring the Lincoln County war. However, there are others who take the opposite position and blame Billy the Kid for betraying the ‘agreement’. I have recently been dealing with several networks about documentary proposals. They do not force you to choose one version over another as long as your arguments seem logical and sound. This is not a dig at History Channel, or any other network who invests in these programs but the facts are not always correct.
      A perfect example of this is the question of how John Wilkes Booth broke his leg. Was it during the jump from the Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theatre, or later, in a horse accident, during his escape from Washington into Maryland and Virginia? You can find expert researchers, books and documentaries produced over the years that support both versions. So which is the correct version of history? We may never know. It is probably the same for the Wallace/Billy the Kid argument. Either version seems plausible and one day, someone may find that solid piece of evidence to prove one over the other. But for now, I wouldn’t put all my faith into History Channel’s documentary as the ‘be all, end all’ on the subject. It is one version of the story told, but not the only one out there.

  4. I appreciate you for documenting this information on Major General Lew Wallace. Please consider adding some information in this blog post (or another) about his involvement with the Black Brigade of Cincinnati back in September 1862.

    peace, Villager

  5. Question: Any truth to what I have heard about Lewis Wallace having been a convert to Christianity, after having doubts for much o this life?

    • Well this is why I looked up this man in the first place, because I heard Wallace had become a Christian after his wife challenged him to disproof the resurrection if he could. altimately, he came to know Christ as his Lord and Savior. then later wrote the book , Ben Hur. I was hoping to find more about his life surrendered to Christ. anyone know more about this?

  6. I’m not surprised that he’s most famous for Ben-Hur. That was all I knew about him, til I decided to do a research paper on him.

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