Lewis Wallace: Disgraced General To Best Selling Author


Lewis (Lew) Wallace was born on April 10, 1827, in Brookville, Indiana. His lifetime achievements are a fascinating tale - from General Grant using him as his scapegoat at Shiloh, to that of becoming a best selling novelist in 1880. Lew Wallace should rightly take his place in the annals of American history.

Wallace was described by a neighbour as having the “bearing of a soldier and the manners of a courtier.” Striking good looks, tall, sinewy, and blessed with “a dark and beautiful face, correct in every line,” helped win the heart of Susan Elston, who, against her father’s wishes, happily married this engaging man on May 6, 1852.


Susan Elston Wallace

An American lawyer, politician, diplomat, Union general, administrator over the war crimes of Henry Wirz, served on the commission that looked in to the assassination of Lincoln and the conspiracy around it, Governor of New Mexico, negotiator of a plea bargain with Billy the Kid, which was later revoked (evidence is still inconclusive as to whether a plea bargain was actually offered), and author – Lew Wallace wore many hats throughout his fascinating and colourful life. However, he spent much of the rest of his life trying to reclaim his reputation after the Battle of Shiloh.

A veteran of the Mexican-American War and an Indiana State Senator, Wallace was appointed Colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry at the onset of the ACW, taking part in many of the early campaigns in the Western Theatre. For his actions at Fort Donelson (Feb.11- 16, 1862) Wallace was promoted Major General. Then came Bloody Shiloh.

Grant’s army was caught off guard in the early morning hours of April 6, 1862. General Grant sent for reinforcements from Wallace’s Third Division, and from there the comedy of errors began. Wallace failed to bring his sorely needed troops to the battlefield, and he shouldered a heavy portion of the blame for the death toll at Shiloh. It was rumoured that Wallace had gotten lost on the short trip to Shiloh’s front lines, or even worse, to have lost his nerve. But the truth is always much more complicated than innuendo. Grant’s summons reached Wallace at 11:00 a.m. but his order was lost in the course of the battle. Wallace indicated that Grant’s orders were simply to join up to the right of the Union lines and Wallace took the shunpike, a road that led to the Shiloh church which he believed to be the easiest route.

Grant claimed that he ordered Wallace to march to Pittsburg Landing via the river road. Regardless, by the time Wallace reached Shiloh later on that evening, the Union army was no longer where Wallace thought it was. One thing is for certain, Wallace was not in the habit of disobeying orders. He had proven himself in battle, and was anything but a coward, always maintaining that he had ‘a taste for war.’ In the aftermath of the confusion Wallace spent the rest of the war trying to win back the confidence of his superiors, and the rest of his life claiming his innocence at the Battle of Shiloh. Grant’s military legacy survived Shiloh, Wallace’s did not.

Nonetheless, Lew Wallace’s most important actions during the war came at the little known Battle of Monocacy, on April 9, 1864, when Confederate general Jubal Early threatened to move on Washington, DC with a sizable force. Although Wallace was defeated, he slowed down Early’s advance enough to allow the defenses of Washington to prepare and eventually defeat Jubal Early. This accomplishment helped to somewhat diminish the stigma of Shiloh.

After the ACW, Lew Wallace went on to become the Governor of New Mexico, and it was during his governorship that he wrote “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” which went on to become the best selling work of fiction in the United States at the time. It was considered “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.”

U.S. Grant hadn’t picked up a novel in over a decade when Ben-Hur first hit the market in 1880, and he apparently read Wallace’s book in a single 30 hour sitting. President James A. Garfield read it almost as fast, and woke up at 5:30 one morning so that he could finish it in bed. Garfield wrote a letter to Lew Wallace that day in which he said, “With this beautiful and reverent book you have lightened the burden of my daily life,” Harper & Brothers shortly thereafter produced a “Garfield Edition,” with the President’s letter reproduced as a foreword. The two volume set sold for a then astronomical price of $30.

Ben-Hur was received well on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the novel so impressed President Garfield that he offered Lew Wallace the position of “Minister Plenipotentiary to the Ottoman Empire, with an annual income of $7,500, a handsome amount at the time. When Wallace returned home from Constantinople four years later, Ben-Hur had become Harper & Brother’s top selling title. With royalty checks now streaming in on a steady basis, Lew Wallace was able to free himself from the practice of law and from his creditors.

As Professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of Texas, Howard Miller claimed that if Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel played a role in dividing the Union in the 1850s, Wallace’s Ben-Hur helped to reunite the nation in the years following Reconstruction.” Although Lew Wallace couldn’t know it, Ben-Hur’s success on stage secured its future as a blockbuster silent film in 1925, and major film in 1959.

In 1884, Century magazine commissioned a series of firsthand accounts of Civil War battles, and Wallace was asked to contribute one on Fort Donelson. When Wallace discovered that Grant, who by this time was hugely in debt and suffering from cancer, had also agreed to write an article for Century magazine,and had chosen Shiloh as his case in point, Wallace was genuinely horrified. It seemed that Shiloh would be the rabid dog that never quite let go, and would continue to overshadow any success or accomplishments that Wallace had collected since the war.

Wallace wrote to Grant, pleading with him to use his article as an opportunity to absolve Wallace of any wrongdoing, and followed up with a personal visit to Grant’s home. But Grant did not absolve Wallace. In fact, his article reaffirmed Grant’s conviction that the Third Division had taken the wrong road, and Wallace’s absence on the first day at Shiloh cost the Union dearly. Wallace was of course devastated.

However, shortly after the article was published, Grant had a change of heart due to a letter that a widow had come across, written to Wallace, by her husband, (a general who had been killed in action at Shiloh) dated April 5, 1862, which announced Wallace’s plans to “use the shunpike should trouble arise.” This letter convinced Grant of what Wallace had long argued. Grant stated that the letter “modifies very materially what I have said, and what has been said by others about the conduct of General Lew Wallace at the battle of Shiloh.” Grant still maintained that he had ordered Wallace to take the river road, but allowed that his wishes may have been lost in the fog of war. “My order was verbal, and to a staff officer who was to deliver it to General Wallace, so that I am not competent to say just what order the general actually received.”

This was the vindication that Wallace had hoped for since 1862, but even this wasn’t enough. The Century article, with it’s repetition of the standard account of Wallace’s mistakes, became the Shiloh chapter of Grant’s memoirs. The exoneration appeared as a footnote, one that Wallace worried would be ignored by most readers, and he was dissatisfied with Grant’s pardon. Indeed, this version came to pass as the basis of “A Blaze of Glory” (Jeff’s Shaara’s novel of Shiloh) and “The Man Who Saved the Union” (H.W. Brand’s biography of Grant). Both describe Wallace as ‘having been lost on April 6th.

For the rest of his life, no matter his accomplishments, including the wildly successful Ben-Hur, Shiloh hung over Lewis Wallace’s head like a stalking vulture. In a letter to his wife, Susan, during the last days of his appointment in Turkey, Wallace wrote, “Shiloh and its slanders! Will the world ever acquit me of them? If I were guilty I would not feel them as keenly.”

How very sad.

Well known phrases coined by Lewis Wallace:

Beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder.”

“One is never more on trial than in the moment of excessive good fortune.”

“As a rule, there is no surer way to the dislike of men than to behave well where they have behaved badly.”


Lew Wallace composes “Ben-Hur”

So... what do you think? Please leave me a comment.


  • Vale: Thank you Taylor for another interesting article! Poor Lewis Wallace, I have to say it does seem unfair to make him the scapegoat (or any of the others who were made scapegoats during the war). I never knew he wrote Ben Hur, I saw that movie a few times
  • enjay: Hi Taylor! I am constantly amazed and impressed by your subject matter, and the depth of research you put into each blog. Lew Wallace was indeed an interesting man, and his search for vindication after the ACW was touching. It’s sad that Grant took so long to admit he could have been wrong in hos assessment of Wallace. Thanks, as always, for an interesting read!
  • Bill: Fascinating piece. Thanks for sharing it.
  • Taylor: Bill - my pleasure!

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