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Lew Wallace - Romantic Warrior

Updated on March 6, 2019
stevarino profile image

Blessed with a Physician Father and Schoolteacher Mother, I acquired the gift of learning at an early age. The passion has grown ever since!

Lewis Wallace is best known as the author of "Ben-Hur", yet the scope of his life story is much broader. He was an "upwardly mobile" military commander, a political leader through changing historic times, participated in events from which legends of today are made, and a source of great pride in the Hoosier state.

Hoosier Youth

Born in Brookville, Indiana, in 1827, Lewis "Lew " Wallace grew up in a state still in it's pioneering days as it had only acquired statehood in 1816. When Lew's father David Wallace, a United States Military Academy graduate, was elected Lieutenant Governor, the family moved to Covington, Indiana. Lewis then joined his brother in Crawfordsville where he attended Wabash Preparatory School until re-joining his father in Indianapolis where he became interested in the study of Law.

Forging a Career

Rising Attorney

When the Mexican War began in 1846, Wallace was elected Second Lieutenant of the 1st Indiana Regiment where his studies of Law earned him Regimental Adjutant as well as the rank of First Lieutenant. After serving in Zachary Taylor's army without seeing combat action, he was mustered out of the volunteer service on June 15, 1847 and was admitted to the bar in 1849. Wallace was elected Prosecuting Attorney for the First Congressional District of Indiana in 1851.

Wallace married Susan Arnold Elston on May 6, 1852, and had one son, Henry Lane Wallace, born February 17, 1853. In 1856, he was elected to the Indiana State Senate after moving his residence to Crawfordsville.

Military Adjutant

Being appointed state Adjutant General at the onset of the American Civil War, Wallace aided in the mustering up of Indiana troops and was then appointed Colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry in April of 1861. Within 6 months, Wallace was promoted to Brigadier General after serving briefly in Virginia.

Gen. Lew Wallace - Matthew Brady ca. March 21st, 1862
Gen. Lew Wallace - Matthew Brady ca. March 21st, 1862 | Source

Civil War

Forts Donelson & Henry

The "war in the west" developed as the Union strategy was to encompass the southern states by gaining control of the major waterways of the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. Early in the Tennessee River campaign, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant assigned Wallace command of Fort Henry in preparation for an advance upon Fort Donelson.

In February, Wallace received orders to advance along the Cumberland River and organize incoming reinforcements. Due to his actions (without orders) of reinforcing divisions weakened by a Confederate counterattack during the Union siege of Fort Donelson and re-taking lost ground, Wallace was promoted to Major General.

Shiloh - Pittsburg Landing

Driven by an intense yearning to become a highly respected military leader and being the youngest of his rank in the Union army, Major General Wallace was deemed a "rising star" by his peers in uniform and civilians alike. It was the controversial events on the battlefields of Shiloh that would create a stigma upon the young commander that he would spend the remainder of his life trying to rectify.

Receiving orders from Grant to quickly advance to reinforce General William Tecumseh Sherman's division at Shiloh Church, Wallace was unclear as to which route to take. Deciding to take the "high road" over the "lower path", Wallace's division became mired in the mud along the practically impassable route.

Wallace arrived only to find that Sherman had been forced back so far that Wallace was in the rear of advancing Confederates. A message arrived from Grant at 11:30 a.m. stating that he was wondering where Wallace was and why he was not near the Union stand at Pittsburg Landing. Wallace was wanting to attack the Southern troops from the rear, but instead countermarched his column back along his previous route to the crossing at Snake and Owl Creeks.

The Sword & the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace
The Sword & the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace
From fighting for the cause of freedom during the Civil War to writing of one of the best-selling books of all time, Lew Wallace of Indiana enjoyed a remarkable career that touched the lives of such famous figures in American history as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, James Garfield, James Whitcomb Riley, and Billy the Kid.

He then marched across a connecting path from the "upper" road to the lower. Attempting to keep his artillery in near proximity to his infantry, only served to slow his progress further in the inclement conditions due to heavy rains and previous Union troop movements along the route.

Wallace finally arrived on the battlefield around 7:00 p.m. after marching 15 miles in six and a half hours as the day's fighting was beginning to cease, much to the displeasure of General Grant.

The next morning, Wallace's division spearheaded a full frontal Union assault that culminated in a Federal victory by day's end.

Wallace insisted that the orders he received were "hastily written and extremely vague", though it was later claimed by Grant that he specifically stated which route to take in his instructions and that Wallace had disobeyed orders.

Sherman had little to say about the ordeal and since the battle ended as a Union victory, the controversy did not truly ignite until the press delivered news of the horrific losses at Shiloh. Northerners needed a scapegoat, provoking Major General Grant and his superior Major General Henry Wager Halleck to point the finger of guilt at Major General Wallace.

Within 2 years, Grant moved up into Halleck's position as Union Army commander of the Western Theater, while Halleck became Lincoln's Army Chief-of-Staff.

Following the Union victory at Shiloh, Grant's Army of the Tennessee continued south into Mississippi. During the siege of Corinth, Wallace was given command of one of the two reserve divisions. When the Union army finally entered the besieged city, they discovered that the rebel defenders had vacated on the trains that were believed to have been delivering Confederate reinforcements and many of the observed gun emplacements proved to be merely decoys made of logs.

Defense of Cincinnati

Cincinnati from across the Ohio River - Harper's Weekly,  Sept. 27, 1862.
Cincinnati from across the Ohio River - Harper's Weekly, Sept. 27, 1862. | Source

After being removed from his command in the Western Theater, Wallace was called in to the Department of the Ohio to set-up the defense of Cincinnati against the threat of Braxton Bragg's Army of Tennessee advancing north into Kentucky.

Through the first 2 weeks of September of 1862, the nation's 6th largest city anxiously awaited an attack from C.S.A. General Heth, positioned outside of Covington, Kentucky. Under orders from Major General Edmund Kirby Smith to "demonstrate only", the rebels marched on the city, but never attacked.

Within the city, Cincinnati's Mayor closed all businesses while General Wallace declared a state of martial law, built earthworks, dug rifle pits, armed 16 steamboats, installed several artillery batteries, recruited blacks (The Black Brigade) and local militia (The Squirrel Hunters), extending the perimeter of the fortifications to the Kentucky side of the river.

Indiana Governor, Oliver P. Morton answered an appeal for support of Cincinnati within 15 hours, by sending 2 regiments of troops, 25 pieces of artillery, 3,000 arms, 31,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 3,365,000 musket cartridges to the neighboring state by special train.

After a brief confrontation near Fort Mitchel, Kentucky, General Heth returned south towards Lexington. A few scattered skirmishes occurred in the northern Kentucky region as Union scouting patrols harrassed the southern bound rebels.

By assuaging the fears and panic of the inhabitants of "The Queen City", Wallace was nicknamed the "Savior of Cincinnati".

Brigadier General John H. Morgan - C.S.A.
Brigadier General John H. Morgan - C.S.A. | Source

Morgan's Raid

By 1863 the war was at high-tide. Union success at Vicksburg and Gettysburg had turned the momentum in favor of the north. In a bold and daring maneuver, despite specific instructions to the contrary by Confederate General Braxton Bragg, Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan led his Confederate Cavalry on a 46 day incursion across the Ohio River into southern Indiana and Ohio.

As of July of 1863, Camp Morton in Indianapolis, had accumulated 6,000 rebel prisoners of war. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, worried that the intent of the raid by the southern cavalry was to free southern prisoners, ordered Federal troops stationed there to refrain from their normal duties and advance to the south to ward off an attack of the state capital.

Again, Wallace was called upon to lead the defense, this time of his home state, and proceeded towards Madison, Indiana, on the Ohio River. Morgan encountered Union and local militia troops at Corydon, the only documented battle of the war in the state, before turning to the east into southern Ohio. Morgan's Raid, then continued into central Ohio, destroying railroads, bridges, stealing supplies and wreaking havoc on civilians until being chased by Union cavalry of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside's Army of the Ohio into the southern region of the state and subsequently captured.

Monocacy Junction

In the Valley Campaign of 1864, Lieutenant General Jubal Early's 14,000 Confederates crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, primarily to draw the Federals away from General Robert E. Lee's army under siege at Petersburg, Virginia.

At this time of the war, Major General Wallace was in charge of the Union's Middle Atlantic Department headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. Only Wallace with a command of 6,300 were located between Early and the capital city. Preparing to impede an attack of either Washington or Baltimore, Wallace positioned his troops at the Baltimore & Ohio railroad junction on the Monocacy River near Frederick, Maryland.

The Federal defenses were effective until the Confederates realized their own numerical advantage and initiated flanking maneuvers, eventually forcing a Union retreat towards Baltimore.

The Battle of Monocacy was recorded as the northernmost Confederate victory, though it was a strategic Federal victory in that it stalled the rebel drive long enough to regroup Union forces around Washington D.C. It was to become known as the "Battle that Saved Washington".

Post War

Five days after General Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant's Army of the Potomac, officially ending the conflict, John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. It was part of a conspiracy involving several bitter, pro-southern radicals. that plotted not only to kill the U.S. President, but also Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. The conspirators objective was to create disarray within the government and resume with the war.

After arresting the main conspirators, the trial of the Lincoln Assassination Conspiracy began. Wallace and eight others comprised the nine member commission that ruled over the military tribunal. Four of the eight conspirators tried were sentenced to death by hanging at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

In July of 1865, General Wallace presided over the military tribunal of C.S.A. Captain Henry Wirz, Commander of Andersonville prison in Georgia. The trial lasted two months and ended in a guilty verdict for Wirz. He was dealt a death sentence for his atrocities on Union prisoners of war and was hanged in Washington D.C. at the current location of the U.S. Supreme Court. The trial later became controversial due to the discovery of perjuries by some witnesses.

He then joined a movement to aid the Juarez forces against Maximilian in Mexico. He tried to raise money and troops and even accepted the title of Major General from the Juarez group. On November 30, 1865, he resigned from the U.S. service, but his Mexican venture collapsed and he realized little of the remuneration which he had hoped to gain from it.

Governor of New Mexico

The Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico
The Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, New Mexico | Source

Wallace was appointed Governor of the territory of New Mexico by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878, where he served a tempestuous two and one-half year term. It was during this period that Wallace published his second novel, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ".

The New Mexico territory was an unsettled and corrupt land, and Wallace's first task as Governor was to quell the feuding taking place in Lincoln County, which covered approximately one quarter of the entire territory, hence known as the "Lincoln County War".

The lawlessness included land fraud in the capital of Santa Fe, a problem of which incumbent Governor, Lawyer and U.S. Representative Samuel B. Axtell was attributed.

With his background in Law, Wallace used a "hands on" approach when it came to the prosecution of criminals. When rounding up witnesses against some of the pending cases, Wallace negotiated a clemency deal with a murderer named William Bonney who was awaiting trial. The deal fell apart, Bonney was convicted and Wallace signed the death warrant, but then Bonney escaped. The Governor then ordered up a posse that eventually shot and killed Bonney in July of 1881 at Fort Sumner. William Bonney is better known as Billy the Kid.

After getting Lincoln County under control, the counties of Colfax, Dona Ana and Rio Arriba required law & order. All through his residency at The Palace of the Governors in the Plaza of Santa Fe, Wallace invested a great deal of time raising funds, offering rewards, recruiting special agents, organizing militia groups, and signing more death warrants.

In a letter dated April 29, 1881 to his wife in Indiana, Wallace related his submission of resignation to the newly elected President James A. Garfield, and that he was waiting only for his replacement to arrive before departing. "Let General Sheldon come quickly is my constant wish" he said. "Until he has come, I must stay." Another quote from the letter, "All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico ", expressed his cynical view of the realities of the state of New Mexico in those days. The problems faced then are still problems in New Mexico today and have come to be well-known in New Mexico political lore as "The Curse of Lew Wallace".

U.S. Ambassador of Turkey (Ottoman Empire)

President Garfield happened to be reading "Ben-Hur" when he received Wallace's resignation letter. An entry in Garfield's diary indicated that he was so moved by the novel that he would offer Wallace the ambassadorship to Turkey with the hopes that he "may draw inspiration from the modern east for future literary work."

Adbud Hamid II, Grand Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Adbud Hamid II, Grand Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. | Source

When first introduced to Abdul Hamid II, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Wallace defied protocol by insisting "... that as representative of the American people, I desire to shake his Majesty's hand." The startled Sultan took an instant liking to the infidel stating "I believe that American (Wallace) is an honest man." A bond between the two was formed, and Wallace would be called upon by the Sultan at all hours of the night and day for discussions where they would smoke, dine and drink coffee for hours at a time.

In July of 1881, President Garfield was shot and later died from complications, resulting in Chester A. Arthur's entrance into the U.S. Presidency.

From 1881 to 1885, Wallace served his country as it's Minister to Turkey. His primary responsibilities were to maintain friendly relations with the Ottoman Empire, expand trade, ensure Turkey's compliancy with the Capitulatory System and ensure the safety and welfare of American citizens.

During his term as Ambassador, Wallace's experiences included; removing the censorship of "Armenia" by Ottoman governmental policy, settling property disputes between Armenians and the Ottomans, and resolving the matter of a medical malpractice suit against a naturalized Armenian dentist who had inflicted injury upon his client in the process of mistakenly extracting the wrong tooth.

After Arthur's presidential term, Wallace, a Republican, tendered his resignation to President Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. He wrote to his wife stating his vision of their future. He assured her that he would not be going back into the Law profession, declaring it "the most detestable of human occupations", but wished to build an elaborate study, immerse himself in a den of literature surrounded by books and become "... one with a pen which shall stop men to listen to it, whether they wish to or not."

Upon hearing of Wallace's resignation, the Sultan offered him several high-ranking offices within the Ottoman military. Wallace declined the offers but kept the possibilities open, stating - "In conclusion; along with the declination of the honor his Majesty has tendered me, I should be happy to have him notified of my constant readiness to do him all consistent service in my country."

Submitted on May 5, 2007, by Kara L. Edie of Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Submitted on May 5, 2007, by Kara L. Edie of Crawfordsville, Indiana. | Source
1st edition "Ben-Hur" published 1880 by Harper & Brothers.  1st edition "The Prince of India" vols I & II published 1893 by Harper & Brothers.
1st edition "Ben-Hur" published 1880 by Harper & Brothers. 1st edition "The Prince of India" vols I & II published 1893 by Harper & Brothers. | Source

Later Years

Wallace's literary Inspiration was based upon his religious beliefs and many experiences. He released his first novel "The Fair God; or , The Last of the 'Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico" in 1873.

His travels throughout the middle east influenced much of his writing. His second composition, "Commodus: An Historical Play" was privately published in 1876.

In 1880, the release of his second novel, "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", would make him world famous as an author and overshadow all of his other accomplishments. "Ben-Hur" would become America's highest selling novel, overtaking Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" published in 1852, for over fifty years until 1936 when Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" came out.

After realizing fame and fortune for his masterpiece, he continued to write. In 1888, he finished "The Boyhood of Christ". He then went on to pen multiple biographies of General Ben Harrison between 1888 and 1892, but his next novel, the 2 volume "The Prince of India: or Why Constantinople Fell" published in 1893, became his second most famous work.

By 1898, Wallace had created yet another work with "The Wooing of Malkatoon [and] Commodus".

His last writing was a 2 volume collection of his memoirs entitled "Lew Wallace: An autobiography", published posthumously in 1906.

Lew Wallace Study

Wallace’s vision of “a pleasure-house for my soul” became reality in Crawfordsville on the grounds that were once part of the estate of Major Isaac Compton Elston, where Wallace and his wife had lived on and off since 1853. The Lew Wallace Study, constructed from 1894 to 1898 not far from his residence in Crawfordsville, was designed himself in the Italianate style.

Lew Wallace Study and Museum, Crawfordsville, Indiana
Lew Wallace Study and Museum, Crawfordsville, Indiana | Source

Typical of neo-renaissance design, the study consists of a 30 foot tall cupula with a dome constructed of copper, glass and steel featuring an atrium over the main room. On the west side of the study rises a 40 foot tower with Roman arches containing stained glass windows and trimmed in hand-carved, native Indiana Bedford limestone. Faces in each of the four sides of the frieze are characters from his novels. The tower functioned as a chimney and contained a water-tank. The basement containing Wallace's workbench can be observed from the outside through port-holes on the east side of the study.

According to one newspaper article, it was “the most beautiful author’s study in the world … a dream of oriental beauty and luxury”.

Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War
Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War
Thirty-two years after the battle of Shiloh Lew Wallace returned to the battlefield, mapping the route of his April 1862 march. By mapping the route of his march and proving how and where he had actually been that day, the sixty-seven-year-old Wallace hoped to remove the stigma of Shiloh and its slanders.

Forever Stained - Forever Cherished

At the age of 67, Wallace returned to the Shiloh battlefield to retrace his steps, 32 years after the fact.

The otherwise stellar military career of Lew Wallace, was irreparably overshadowed by the dark clouds that befell him at Shiloh.

With waning health over the last couple of years of his life, Wallace finally lost his fight against what today would most likely be diagnosed as cancer on February 15, 1905 in Crawfordsville. He was laid to rest in Oak Hill cemetery.

In 1910, the state of Indiana presented a marble statue by sculptor Andrew O'Conner of Wallace in uniform to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol building, where it stands today on the Hall's west side.

Lew Wallace statue on the grounds of the  Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Replica of statue by Andrew O'Connor in the National Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington D.C.
Lew Wallace statue on the grounds of the Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Replica of statue by Andrew O'Connor in the National Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington D.C. | Source


Being that Crawfordsville, Indiana, was the home, is the final resting place and location of the Lew Wallace Study & Museum, his legacy is regarded with colossal esteem there. My interest in his life story began at an early age as my father graduated from Wabash College in Crawfordsville in 1959. My mother, teaching grade school there in those years, was a recent graduate of Ball Teacher's College in my hometown of Muncie located 85 miles to the east along State Road 32.

A couple of weekends ago, my father and I attended homecoming at his alma mater and after the festivities, we visited the park comprised of the General Wallace Study & Museum, a copy of the statue that is displayed in the National Statuary Hall, a memorial in honor of Lew's father David Wallace and the Carriage House Visitor Center. We later drove by the nearby house where mom and dad lived during their first years of marriage and where I was conceived.

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) by Lew Wallace is one of the most popular and beloved 19th century American novels. This faithful New Testament tale combines the events of the life of Jesus with grand historical spectacle in the exciting story of Judah of the House of Hur, a man who finds extraordinary redemption for himself and his family. A classic of faith, fortitude, and inspiration.


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    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      5 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Thanks for your comment RonElFran!

      Being a Civil War buff, I'm looking forward to your next piece on the subject.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 

      5 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I am familiar with Lew Wallace both for his Civil War service and for his authorship of Ben Hur. But in reading this I've learned a lot I didn't know about him. Thanks!

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      5 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Thanks FlourishAnyway, glad you got something out of it!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      What a terrific biographical/history hub. Voted up +++ and sharing!

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      6 years ago from East Central Indiana

      I have recently read, in defense of New Mexico, that things in that state were and still are very much unlike calculations based on any other place familiar with Wallace, especially Indiana.

      Thanks JOM

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I'm from NM and Wallace's quote about the state to this day still seems to be its unofficial motto and official M.O. - to the state's great detriment...

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      8 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Thank you all for your feedback, it is greatly appreciated!

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 

      8 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Well done article, stevarino. I didn't realize Lew Wallace signed Bonney's death warrant...another historical fact to add to my brainpan!

    • haikutwinkle profile image


      8 years ago

      History is fascinating ;)

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for that info Hoosier. Passed through Evansville once as an eighteen year old...a very kind lady saved one of me fingers with an ointment and fresh bandage. Some migthy good folk there. Land Between the Lakes was quite nice as well.~ Tarheel.

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      8 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Thanks for the feedback Alastar Packer, my "Tarheel" compadre. I too am enlightened now by your reference to "Friendly Persuasion" (how did I miss that one?). I'd never even heard of it prior and believe that it is at least loosely based on the raid (the Muscatatuck is in the area Morgan passed through). Quaker's and Shaker's settled along the Ohio river and especially around Evansville, "New Harmony", when the area was being settled, but these days the Amish are mostly in the northern region of the state.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Steve D. - "Hoosier"

    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      I was aware of some of Wallace's exploits in the war and him being the author of Ben-Hur but that was about it. Enlightened now however with this superb bio-article stevarino. Particularly interesting about his defense against Morgan's raid(that's the one in the movie Friendly Persuasion, isn't it?)and being a judge at Wirz's trial. Thanks for adding the afterword too Steve. Top-notch Hub.

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      8 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Thank you kindly for your comment, Greensleeves Hubs!

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      8 years ago from Essex, UK

      A good informative hub about a little known character from history who seems to have been involved in several of the major events of the second half of the 19th century, quite apart from writing 'Ben-Hur'.

      Well done.


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