Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Interesting Life of Lew Wallace—Part 2


Last month, I shared some about the very interesting historical figure, Lew Wallace, from his early days as a wayward student to a full-fledged, practicing attorney, to a military man. If you didn’t get a chance to read that post, you can find it here. So let’s pick up where we left off. As you will recall, After the Battle of Shiloh, Wallace was taken off active duty for several years due to a supposed mistake he’d made in carrying out Grant’s orders.


Military Man, Part 3—Redeeming His Career


in 1864, Wallace was brought back to active duty, and it was a good thing he was. During the Battle of Monocacy, Wallace led his 5,800 men into battle against Confederate General Jubal A. Early and his roughly 15,000 men who intended to invade Washington D.C. and take the capital. Given the huge difference in the size of their forces, Wallace and the Union were defeated that day, but General Grant later wrote high praise for Wallace’s actions, noting that if it weren’t for Wallace’s presence slowing Early’s advancement down, surely Washington D.C. would’ve been taken. The delay and defeat was just the diversion needed to get reinforcements into the city. With this unexpected turn of events, Wallace was once again in the good graces of General Grant.


In 1865, after the assassination of Lincoln, Lew Wallace was appointed to the commission to investigate all of the various conspirators in the president’s murder. Once they were found guilty, Wallace was put on another commission to investigate the Confederate leader of Andersonville Prison, Henry Wirz. This commission found Wirz guilty and sentenced him to hang. 


Second Foray Into Politics

Sometime after the war’s end, Lew Wallace returned to Indiana and picked up as a lawyer again. Unhappy with that life, he spent his free time writing a novel and eventually decided to make a bid for U.S. Congress. He was defeated in 1868, so ran again in 1870. This also was an unsuccessful run. In the 1876 presidential election, he threw his support behind Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and after Hayes won the office, he rewarded Wallace with an appointment to become the governor of the New Mexico Territory.


Governing During Turbulent Times

Billy the Kid
circa 1880

New Mexico Territory in 1878 was not the quiet place Wallace might have hoped it would be. He was close to finishing his second novel, and I’m sure was hoping to have plenty of time to pen the last words so he could seek publication. However, he arrived in the territory to find that the Apaches were raiding regularly, and the white settlers were being terrorized by the ongoing land war known as the Lincoln County War. If you know your western history, you’ll immediately recognize that name, because it’s associated with one of the Old West’s most prominent bad guys—Billy the Kid. 


Unable to bring an end to the fighting any other way, Wallace ordered the arrests of all participants in the feud, including Billy, on March 1, 1879. Roughly two weeks after he did so, Wallace and Billy met secretly. Wallace’s plan was to make a deal with the infamous outlaw—in exchange for Billy’s testimony against the murderers of a prominent Lincoln County attorney, Billy would be given amnesty for any and all crimes committed up to that point. Billy upheld his end of the deal, giving grand jury testimony in April. However, the local district attorney revoked the deal and refused to let Billy out of jail. What is an outlaw to do? Well, escape, of course! Billy the Kid slipped out of the jail and back into his old life, finally being killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett a few months after Wallace resigned from his position as governor in 1881.


Author of An Enduring Classic

During the years as governor of New Mexico, Wallace did finish his novel—and get it published. It was none other than the epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Surely, he could not have known at the time that he was penning what would become the best-selling American novel of all time (as measured from its publication in 1880 to present), nor that it would be turned into a stage play and have six motion picture versions made from his words. Of course, the best-known rendition stars Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur.


Continuing His Political Career

Wallace’s epic novel garnered the attention of many, including President James Garfield, who was so impressed by the work that he sought out the author with a proposition. To give Wallace every opportunity to research and write a sequel to Ben-Hur, Garfield appointed Wallace as the U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey). His duties there included the protection of American citizens and U.S. trade rights for the area, but he also developed relationships with Sultan Abdul Hamid II and others and helped to negotiate a dispute between the Ottoman Empire and Britain. He served a total of four years in the position until the presidency changed hands, at which time he resigned.


Statue of Wallace in 
Statuary Hall,
US Capitol Building
The Final Years

After his time in the Ottoman Empire, Lew Wallace returned to Crawfordsville,
Indiana, and lived his final years writing in the study he built next to their home. He said that the writing space was a “pleasure-house for his soul,” a place where he could write, relax, and even fish in the stocked moat he built on two sides of the building. The study is now kept as a museum to this incredible man’s life. It was there he penned the last five of his seven published works.


In addition to his writing, he continued to remain active in veteran’s affairs and even attempted to volunteer his military services at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War (he was 71 at the time!). His generous offer was refused. Wallace lived to be 77, dying at home in Crawfordsville on February 15, 1905.


It’s Your Turn: Lew Wallace is best remembered as the author of Ben-Hur, but as I’ve shown, he had many exciting and varied experiences. Which one stands out to you the most? Which do you think has had the greatest impact on history?


Jennifer Uhlarik
 discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list several times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.


Available Now: Blacksmith Brides

Hearts Are Forged in the Flames of Gentle Love in 4 Historical Stories

A Malleable Heart (California—1870) by Jennifer Uhlarik
A hard-hearted blacksmith finds acceptance with the town laundress. But when his past comes to call, will he resist love’s softening or allow God to hammer his ruined life into something of worth?


  1. I find it a testament to his character that Mr. Wallace was willing to continue to serve in the war effort after that initial spat with General Grant. That could have totally broken his spirit. Thanks for continuing this man's story!

    1. Isn't that amazing, Connie? Lew Wallace truly was inspirational in that fact that he continued to serve in the face of such adversity and false claims. I believe that shows he was a man of conviction.