Easter was the motivation behind this Slate profile of Major General Lew Wallace, author of the 19th Century Biblical epic Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ – the film version of which will likely be playing ad nauseum this weekend on television.
Published in 1880, the novel tells the story of Judah Ben Hur, eldest son of a prosperous ancient Judea family. Betrayed by a life-long friend and condemned to a life as a Roman slave, Ben Hur endures years of hardship. After finally returning home to have his revenge, our young hero has a chance encounter with Jesus Christ, who is travelling the land spreading his message of peace, lover and forgiveness. Our young hero ‘sees the light’, foregoes the pleasure of visiting retribution upon his nemesis and (spoiler alter) lives happily ever after.
Ben Hur was a runaway success in its day. In fact, it became the top-selling American novel of the 19th Century. According to the article, the book had numerous high-profile fans as well. Both Ulysses S. Grant and President James Garfield plowed through its 400 pages in a single sitting. Decades later, the story would spawn no fewer than four big screen adaptations, one of which — the 1959 epic staring Charlton Heston — won 11 Oscars.
Interestingly enough, redemption wasn’t just a theme of Wallace’s famous story, it was a concept very much at play in the author’s own life. 
Despite his success as an writer, Wallace spent much of his adult life trying to restore his reputation following a series of career-destroying setbacks suffered on the battlefields of the Civil War.
Lew Wallace Goes To War
At the outbreak of the War Between the States, the 34-year-old Wallace left a promising career as a state prosecutor for a colonelship in the 11th Indiana Infantry. By the end of 1861, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general.
In early 1862 while serving under General Grant, Wallace’s brigade stood fast in the face of a determined rebel attack on Fort Donelson, Tennessee. Despite orders to hold in place, his unit counterattacked ultimately helped to produce a Union victory. Wallace was promoted to major general for his actions.
The Scapegoat of Shiloh
Unfortunately, Wallace’s reputation was dealt a crippling blow only weeks later at Shiloh.
Just after dawn on April 6, 1862, Union forces in northwestern Tennessee were caught off-guard by a Reb surprise attack. With the Confederates hammering the Yankee army, Grant called Wallace’s brigade up from the reserve to reinforce William Tecumseh Sherman’s beleaguered column.
Wallace claimed Grant’s orders, which were hastily issued in the heat of battle, were unclear. He was also not sure which trail of the many that snaked through the Tennessee backcountry he should follow to get to the fighting. Worse, most of the laneways between his position and the action were mired in mud following spring rains. Wallace eventually ordered his men along one of the few of the drier paths, but by the time his men had reached the battle, Sherman had given ground and the fighting had shifted. Wallace ordered his troops back onto the trails and tried to redeploy them closer to the shooting. More muddy ground hampered his progress and the brigade didn’t reach the action until dusk. The following day, the Union succeeded in bringing up enough fresh troops to drive off the Rebels.
Initially, Wallace’s delay was attributed to the fog of war. But when Washington discovered the high cost of Grant’s triumph (13,000 casualties), pundits, politicians and the press heaped much of the blame for the fiasco at Wallace’s feet. The young general was stripped of his command, humiliated and banished to a backwater of the war – the defence of Cincinnati.
A Second Chance
After two years in exile, Wallace was placed at the head of 5,800 green recruits of VIII Corps and assigned the unglamorous task of guarding the B&O Railroad in northern Maryland. Although still far from the front lines, the fortunes of war would unexpectedly present the disgraced general with a chance to salvage his name.
In July 1864, a 15,000-man Confederate army under Jubal Early invaded Maryland in hopes of drawing Yankee troops away from the ongoing siege of Petersburg.The Southern column even seized Frederick and ransomed the town for $200,000. Union commanders, fearing the Rebs might next march on Baltimore or even take Washington D.C. from the rear, called upon the only force in the area large enough to oppose Early: Lew Wallace and VIII Corps.
Despite being outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Wallace moved his troops to Monocacy just southeast of Frederick. Early’s men attacked, but the rookie troops put up a surprisingly stiff resistance, even when Rebel cavalry attacked the Yankee left flank. Ultimately, Early outmaneuvered VIII Corps and inflicted heavy casualties, at which point Wallace ordered a withdrawal.
The Confederates now had an open road to Washington. But they had lost a precious day slugging it out with Wallace’s corps.
Despite the fact that VIII Corps slowed the Confederate advance, the Yankee defeat at Monocacy carried the stench of failure. Wallace was sacked again.
After the crisis, reports suggested that the general’s determined albeit doomed stand had provided the defenders of Washington time to rally. Two days later, when Early closed to within visual distance of the capital he observed masses of Federal troops now encamped in his path and withdrew. When it became clear Wallace’s delaying action saved the city, Grant re-appointed the general.
Author and Statesman
Wallace remained in command of VIII Corps until early 1865, at which point he was reassigned to the comparatively quiet Mexican border region. He was present for the last battle of the war – a clash between rebel troops and federal forces in southern Texas that took place several days after the conflict had ended.
After the fighting ended, Wallace was appointed to take part in the military tribunal for the conspirators behind the Lincoln assassination. He also served on the court martial of the commandant of the notorious Confederate known as the Butcher of Andersonville. Later, he was instrumental in pushing for the withdrawal of French troops from Mexico, something that earned him the admiration of the Mexican government. He was even offered a command in the Mexican army.
In the 1870s, Wallace became governor of New Mexico, where he negotiated an end to the Lincoln County War, a turf battle between hostile bands of gunslingers. He even offered a pardon to Billy the Kid. The famous outlaw eventually returned to crime — historians argue that Wallace was negotiating in bad faith.
In 1881, Wallace was named U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and retired later in the decade. He settled in Crawfordsville, Indiana. His house is a national landmark.
Wallace continued to publish books although none did as well as Ben Hur.
For the rest of his life, he fought to defend his actions at the Battle of Shiloh.
He died in 1905.
To read the Slate piece: The Passion of Lew Wallace, click here.
(originally published March 29, 2013)
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