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and today Wallace is known primarily for his authorship of Ben Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.   But he played a significant role in American history, both in Civil War times and later, and - like the title character of his famous novel - suffered mightily for an incident without malice.

Wallace rose to the rank of Major General in the Union Army, despite not having gone to West Point.  His father, a ranking politician in Indiana where he was born, had attended the Military Academy.  Wallace trained as a lawyer.  In 1846 he left his studies to join Indiana volunteers for the Mexican War, where he eventually was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army of Zachary Taylor, although he did not see combat.

After the war he returned to his law studies, became a federal prosecutor and then a state legislator, and met Abraham Lincoln, who so impressed him that he became a Republican.

Then came the Civil War.

He was asked by Indiana's Republican governor to help organize volunteers.  He was at first given command of a regiment, his troops won a minor battle in Romney (now in West Virginia, then still part of the Old Dominion), for which on Wept 3, 1861 he was promoted to Brigadier General of voluntter.  and given command of a brigade. He was 34 years old, and at the time the youngest general in the Union Army ( an honor later to be claimed by George Armstrong Custer with his temporary promotion).  

Wallace saw service in the western theater, participating in several notable battles. At Fort Donelson, his actions, taken on his own initiative, may well have saved the day for the Union. This led to his promotion to Major General. However his actions at Shiloh were for years interpreted as disobeying orders from Grant which he had never received in writing, and it was only years later, after the publication of Grant's memoirs in which he greatly criticized Wallace, that Grant acknowledged that he had been wrong about Wallace.  Unfortunately by then the damage to Wallace's reputation had been done.  

His military career stalled somewhat, but he still played an influential role because of a battle he lost, at Monocacy.  He had only 5,800 troops to oppose the 15,000 of Confederate General Jubal Early.   At first Grant relieved him of his command, but reinstated him two weeks later when he released the importance of that engagement:  it delayed Early's attack on Washington by one day, giving sufficient time for the reinforcements Grant had sent to get to the Capital in time to prevent its capture by Early.

There is one more piece of Civil War history in which Wallace played a role.  He presided over the trial of Henry Wirz, Swiss-born commander of the infamous Confederate prison camp in Andersonville Georgia, from which we get our term "deadline."  The prison was surrounded by a wooden stockade, but there was a line in the dirt, some 19 feet inside, and any prisoner who crossed that "dead line" was subject to immediately being shot by the guards.

After the war, Wallace for a time served as  Governor of New Mexico Territory from 1878 to 1881, where he tried to end the violence of the Lincoln County Wars by offering Billy Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, a deal.  But the political forces in New Mexico undercut him, so Bonney went back to his reign of murder.

After leaving New Mexico Wallace served as U. S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire for about 4 years.

Today his best known for Ben Hur, which was his second novel, and which was written while he was in New Mexico.  It has been filmed four times, with the most famous version being the 1959 version directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston.  It was at the time the most expensive movie ever made.  The chariot race is one of the most famous scenes in movie history.  It won every Oscar for which it was nominated except for Best Adapted Screenplay, that loss probably because of a major dispute over whom the movie credited for the script.   Here are its wins:

Best Picture
Best Director for William Wyler
Best Actor in a Leading Role for Charlton Heston
Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Hugh Griffith
Best Art Direction, Color for Edward C. Carfagno, William A. Horning, and Hugh Hunt
Best Cinematography, Color
Best Costume Design, Color
Best Special Effects
Best Film Editing for John D. Dunning and Ralph E. Winters
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture
Best Sound for Franklin Milton

(list courtesy of Wikipeidia).

Lew Wallace perhaps should be known for more than his authorship of Ben Hur.


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