by Ramona K. Cecil
|General Lew Wallace|
One of my favorite movies growing up was Ben Hur. I first saw it as a child at a drive-in movie theater from the back seat of a 1956 Chevy while on summer vacation with my family. What I didn’t learn until years later was that the author of that story was a fellow Hoosier, and, arguably, one of the most interesting men of the nineteenth century.
Best known for his famous novel about the life of Christ, Wallace is said to have rather been known for his military career during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
Born in 1827 in Brookville, Indiana—about 80 miles west of where I live—Lewis Wallace was the second of four sons born to David Wallace, a military man, lawyer, and politician. A graduate of West Point Military Academy, Lew’s father went on to serve in Indiana’s General Assembly, as the state’s lieutenant governor, governor, and then as a member of the U.S. Congress.
From an early age, Lew’s life seemed set on a similar path as his father’s. At sixteen he left his formal education to make his own way in the world and joined a local militia. When he was nineteen, the Mexican War broke out and Lew established a recruiting office for the Marion Volunteers in
Though he never saw combat, Lew served under General Zachary Taylor and earned
the rank of first lieutenant. Indianapolis
After the war he returned to
and married Susan Arnold Elston, who later became an author in her own right.
Lew began a career in the law and was elected prosecuting attorney of Indiana ’s 1st
congressional district, but the military remained a large part of his life. In
1860, with another war looming, he organized the Crawfordsville Guards
Independent Militia and adopted for them the colorful Zouave uniform patterned
after the uniform of the French Army in Indiana . Algeria
When the Civil War broke out, Wallace’s militia became the 11th Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was mustered into the Union Army with now Colonel Lew Wallace in command.
During the war Wallace rose to the rank of Major General, winning acclaim in several battles including that of
, and Monocacy. But sadly,
Wallace became most noted for a costly blunder during the battle of Fort Donelson Shiloh. Though he blamed the error on miscommunication,
the stain it left on his military service was never fully expunged.
|Battle of Shiloh|
Near the end of the war, Wallace served in
|Civil War Military Commission|
|French Mexican War|
With that accomplished, Wallace returned to his law practice in Indiana, but the law held no appeal for him, so he turned to writing and, like his father before him, to politics. After two unsuccessful bids for a seat in Congress, he was appointed governor of the
. There he
worked to end Apache raids on settlers and resolve the Lincoln County War, a
violent range war, during which, he became acquainted with such historic figures
as Billy the Kid and sheriff Pat Garrett, the man who eventually killed the
young outlaw. It was during Wallace’s time in the Palace of the Governors in New Mexico
Territory that he completed
his novel, Ben Hur. Santa Fe
|Lew Wallace, Governor of New Mexico|
|Billy the Kid|
|Sheriff Pat Garrett|
You might think that at this point Lew Wallace had accomplished enough to fill a couple of life times, but the general was not done yet.
In 1881, at the age of 54, Wallace was appointed U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire in
a position he held until 1885. Constantinople, Turkey
Wallace had dabbled in writing fiction from his teen years, having begun his first novel The Fair God at the age of seventeen. The work was not published until thirty years later.
|Robert G. Ingersoll|
Indifferent to religion, Wallace generally believed in the “Christian conception of God.” It was an incident on a train ride to
in 1876 that caused him to more closely examine his beliefs and subsequently
led him to write Ben Hur: A Tale of the
Christ. On the train he met Robert G. Ingersoll, a well-known agnostic
lecturer. After a lengthy debate with the man about religious ideology, Wallace
felt the need to fully research Christianity so as to clarify in his own mind,
his beliefs. Four years later Ben Hur, one of ten books written by Wallace, was
published by Harper & Brothers and is considered “the most influential
Christian book of the nineteenth century.” The story has been dramatized in
stage plays and several Indianapolis Hollywood movies
including the best known; the 1959 adaptation starring Charlton Heston.
|Poster for 1901 Stage Play|
|Ben Hur Movie Poster 1925|
|Ben Hur Movie Poster 1959|
To cap off his incredible life and accomplishments, Wallace patented several inventions, built a seven-story apartment building in
and drew up plans for a private study for his Crawfordsville, home. At the outbreak of the Spanish
American War, when Wallace was seventy-one, he tried to enlist and offered his
services to raise and lead a military force, but was rejected because of his
|Lew Wallace Study and Museum, Crawfordsville, Indiana|
|Lew Wallace Home, Crawfordsville, Indiana|
|Lew Wallace Grave, Oak Hill Cemetery, Crawfordsville, Indiana|
General Lew Wallace died February 15, 1905 at his home in
Indiana, and is buried in Crawfordsville’s . The state of Oak Hill
Cemetery Indiana commissioned a marble statue of Wallace in
military uniform for the National Statuary Hall Collection in
|Marble Statue of Lew Wallace|
Statuary Hall, Washington D. C.
Many would consider a life that held a third of what Lew Wallace accomplished a life well lived. To my mind, the Dos Equis man has nothing on
General Lew Wallace; definitely a most interesting man. Indiana