Wayback Wednesday is a weekly series featuring historical figures with a record of military service and a connection to the arts.
This week features one of the most famous Hoosier’s to grace the literary scene, Lewis ‘Lew’ Wallace.
In 1880, Wallace published the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The book quickly became a bestseller, and ranked as the top all-time bestselling novel until the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The book is widely considered the ‘most influential Christian book of the 19th century and the 1959 film version netted 11 Academy Awards. Unless you’ve recently emerged from a cave (and if you have, ‘Congrats!’) you’ve probably heard of it because it was (and in many ways still is) kind of a big deal. The connection to Gone with the Wind is particularly interesting, though, given that Wallace also served in the Union Army during the Civil War helping to add the Antebellum to the heavily romanticized South of Mitchell’s novel.
As he was a prominent Republican, attorney, and newspaperman, who had served as a First Lieutenant in the Mexican War, the governor of Indiana asked Wallace to act as Adjutant General for the state at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, and that he take charge of filling the required recruiting quotas. Wallace agreed provided that he be allowed to take active military service once the levy was met, and received command of the 11th Indiana Volunteers after Indiana’s six regiments were filled in only a week. He quickly gained the attention of his superiors and rose through the ranks during the small engagements in the West at the start of the war. He gained distinction and a promotion to Major General (the youngest in the Union Army at 34) by fending off a Confederate breakout attempt during Grant’s siege of Fort Donelson, and leading the counterattack that ensured no breach remained to be exploited.
Wallace’s best-known Civil War exploit, however, was his unfortunate roundabout march bringing his division to the field at the Battle of Shiloh. In the confusion and recriminations after that battle, which would dog Wallace the remainder of his life, he was transferred to a non-combat post. Late in the war, however, Lew Wallace would find the opportunity to redeem himself as the commander of the defense of Washington DC during an 1864 attempt by Lieutenant General Jubal Early to seize the sparsely defended capitol. Recognizing that time was critical for reinforcements to reach Washington, Wallace gathered 6,800 largely untested troops at critical Monocacy Junction. Sparring with the advancing Confederates and forcing them to deploy for a full scale battle, Wallace’s troops held out for a full day; despite being outnumbered 3 to 1, withstanding five full assaults, and retreating in good order. When Early arrived before the fortifications outside Washington DC, it was to the sight of the Union VI Corps filing in opposite his army. Hearing of the defeat, and remembering Wallace from Shiloh, Grant removed him from command after Monocacy Junction. However, after reviewing the full reports of the battle, he returned Wallace to command. In his memoir, Grant wrote that, “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.”
Lew Wallace would continue to have an interesting life post-war, serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Governor of the New Mexico Territory, and for a time as a general in the Mexican Army. He attempted to enlist for the Spanish American War when in his 70’s, but was turned down twice (as an officer and again when he tried to enlist as a Private). And he also found the time to write one of the bestselling novels of all time, of course. So, on our first #WaybackWednesday, we remember Lewis ‘Lew’ Wallace and the service, on and off the battlefield, that he provided to his country.