|Place of birth||Brookville, Indiana|
|Place of death||Crawfordsville, Indiana|
|Years of service||1846 – 1847; 1861 – 1865|
|Commands||11th Indiana Infantry |
3rd Division, Army of the Tennessee
|Battles/wars||American Civil War |
|Other work||Author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, territorial governor of New Mexico, U.S. minister to Turkey|
Lewis "Lew" Wallace (April 10, 1827 – February 15, 1905) was a lawyer, governor, Union general in the American Civil War, American statesman, and author, best remembered for his historical novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana, to a prominent local family. His father, David Wallace, later served as Indiana Governor; his stepmother, Zerelda Gray Sanders Wallace, was a prominent temperance and suffragist activist. He briefly attended Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He served in the Mexican War as a first lieutenant with the 1st Indiana Infantry regiment. He was admitted to the bar in 1849. In 1852, he married Susan Arnold Elston by whom he had one son. In 1856, he was elected to the State Senate after moving his residence to Crawfordsville.
At the start of the Civil War, Wallace was appointed state adjutant general and helped raise troops in Indiana. On April 25, 1861, he was appointed Colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry. After brief service in western Virginia, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on September 3. In February 1862, he was a division commander fighting under Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Fort Donelson. During the fierce Confederate assault on February 15, Wallace coolly acted on his own initiative to send a brigade to reinforce the beleaguered division of Brig. Gen. John A. McClernand, despite orders from Grant to avoid a general engagement. This action was key in stabilizing the Union defensive line. Wallace was promoted to major general to rank from March 21.
Wallace's most controversial command came at the Battle of Shiloh, where he continued as a division commander under Grant. Wallace's division had been left as reserves at a place called Stoney Lonesome to the rear of the Union line. At about 6 a.m., when Grant's army was surprised and virtually routed by the sudden appearance of the Confederate States Army under Albert Sidney Johnston, Grant sent orders for Wallace to move his unit up to support the division of William Tecumseh Sherman.
Here, the controversy begins. Wallace claimed that Grant's orders were unsigned, hastily written, and overly vague. There were two paths by which Wallace could move his unit to the front, and Grant (according to Wallace) did not specify which one he should take. Wallace chose to take the upper path, which was much less used and in considerably better condition, and which would lead him to the right side of Sherman's last known position. Grant later claimed that he had specified that Wallace take the lower path, though circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that Grant had forgotten that more than one path even existed.
Whatever the case, Wallace arrived at the end of his march only to find that Sherman had been forced back, and was no longer where Wallace thought he was. Moreover, he had been pushed back so far that Wallace now found himself in the rear of the advancing Southern troops. Nevertheless, a messenger from Grant arrived with word that Grant was wondering where Wallace was, and why he had not arrived at Pittsburg Landing, where the Union was making its stand. Wallace was confused. He felt sure he could viably launch an attack from where he was and hit the Rebels in the rear. Nevertheless, he decided to turn his troops around and march back to Stoney Lonesome. For some reason, rather than realigning his troops so that the rear guard would be in the front, Wallace chose to countermarch his column; he argued that his artillery would have been greatly out of position to support the infantry when it would arrive on the field.
Wallace marched back to Stoney Lonesome, and arrived at 11 a.m. It had now taken him five hours of marching to return to where he started, with somewhat less rested troops. He then proceeded to march over the lower road to Pittsburg Landing, but the road had been left in terrible conditions by recent rainstorms and previous Union marches, so the going was extremely slow. Wallace finally arrived at Grant's position at about 7 p.m., at a time when the fighting was practically over. Grant was not pleased. Nevertheless, the Union came back to win the battle the following day.
At first, there was little fallout from this. Wallace was the youngest general of his rank in the army, and was something of a "golden boy". Soon, however, civilians in the North began to hear the news of the horrible casualties at Shiloh, and the Army needed explanations. Both Grant and his superior, Maj. Gen. Henry Wager Halleck, placed the blame squarely on Wallace, saying that his incompetence in moving up the reserves had nearly cost them the battle. Sherman, for his part, remained mute on the issue. Wallace was removed from his command in June, and reassigned to the much less glamorous duty commanding the defenses of Cincinnati in the Department of the Ohio.
In July 1864, Wallace produced mixed results in the Battle of Monocacy Junction, part of the Valley Campaigns of 1864: his army (the Middle Department) was defeated by Confederate General Jubal A. Early, but was able to delay Early's advance toward Washington, D.C., sufficiently that the city defenses had time to organize and repel Early.
General Grant's memoirs assessed 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.
Personally, Wallace was devastated by the loss of his reputation as a result of Shiloh. He worked desperately all his life to change public opinion about his role in the battle, going so far as to literally beg Grant to "set things right" in Grant's memoirs. Grant, however, like many of the others Wallace importuned, refused to change his opinion.
Wallace participated in the military commission trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators as well as the court-martial of Henry Wirz, commandant of the Andersonville prison camp. He resigned from the army in November 1865. Late in the war, he directed secret efforts by the government to help the Mexicans remove the French occupation forces who had seized control of Mexico in 1864. He continued in those efforts more publicly after the war and was offered a major general's commission in the Mexican army after his resignation from the U.S. Army. Multiple promises by the Mexican revolutionaries were never delivered, which forced Wallace into deep financial debt.
Wallace held a number of important political posts during the 1870s and 1880s. He served as governor of New Mexico Territory from 1878 to 1881, and as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire from 1881 to 1885. As governor he offered amnesty to many men involved in the Lincoln County War; in the process he met with Billy the Kid (William Bonney). On 17 March 1879, Billy the Kid met with Wallace, and the pair arranged that Kid would act as an informant and testify against others involved in the Lincoln County War, and, in return, Kid would be "scot free with a pardon in [his] pocket for all [his] misdeeds". But the Kid returned to his outlaw ways and Governor Wallace withdrew his offer. While serving as governor, Wallace completed the novel that made him famous: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). It grew to be the best selling American novel of the 19th century. The book has never been out of print and has been filmed four times.
Recently, historian Victor Davis Hanson has argued that the novel was based heavily on Wallace's own life, particularly his experiences at Shiloh and the damage it did to his reputation. There are some striking similarities: the book's main character, Judah Ben-Hur accidentally causes injury to a high-ranking commander, for which he and his family suffer no end of tribulations and calumny. Ben-Hur was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope.
Wallace likely died from cancer in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and is buried there in Oak Hill Cemetery. A marble statue of him dressed in a military uniform by sculptor Andrew O'Connor was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection by the state of Indiana in 1910 and is currently located in the west side of the National Statuary Hall.