Lewis Wallace

April 10, 1827–February 15, 1905

Lew Wallace served as a general officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and he was the author of the highly-acclaimed novel, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ.

Portrait of Lew Wallace.

In May and June 1865, Lew Wallace served as a judge at the military trial of the conspirators involved in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. [Wikimedia Commons]

Early Life

Lewis Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana on April 10, 1827. He was the second of four sons of David Wallace and Esther French Test Wallace. Lew Wallace’s father was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, the sixth Governor of Indiana, and a United States Congressman. Wallace’s mother died a few months after Wallace’s seventh birthday. Two years later, his father married Zerelda Gray Sanders Wallace, who raised the orphaned boys.

Mexican-American War

During his youth, Wallace attended common schools in Indiana but demonstrated little interest in academics. At age sixteen years, he received employment as a clerk and then struck out on his own. Three years later, when the Mexican-American War began, nineteen-year-old Wallace raised a company of troops for volunteer service. His men elected him as a second lieutenant in Company H of the 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and he served near the Rio Grande River. Wallace saw no combat during the war. When the conflict ended, Wallace mustered out of volunteer service on June 14, 1847.


After the Mexican-American War, Wallace returned to Indiana and studied law. He passed the Indiana Bar exam in 1849 and established a law practice in Covington, Indiana.


On May 6, 1852, Wallace married Susan Arnold Elston, a talented writer, and musician. The couple produced one child during their marriage of over fifty years.

Civil War

Union Officer

In 1856, voters elected Wallace to the Indiana Senate, where he served four years. When the American Civil War began, Governor Oliver P. Morton appointed Wallace as Adjutant General of Indiana in April 1861. Wallace served in that position long enough to raise Indiana’s quota of troops established by the federal government’s first call for volunteers.

On April 12, Wallace received a field appointment as a colonel in the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, with a three-month enlistment period. Wallace’s unit served primarily in Virginia, where it won a small battle at Romney on June 13. At the end of the enlistment period, the regiment mustered out at Indianapolis, Indiana on August 2, 1861. Wallace reenlisted when the unit reorganized as a three-year regiment and the army assigned him to duty in the West.

Brigadier General to Major General

Authorities promoted Wallace to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers on September 3, 1861. Five months later, he took part in the Union victories at the Battle of Fort Henry (February 6, 1862) and the Battle of Fort Donelson (February 11 – 16, 1862). On March 21, 1862, officials promoted Wallace to the rank of major general of volunteers, commanding the 3rd Division of the Army of the Tennessee.

Battle of Shiloh Scapegoat

Wallace’s meteoric rise came to an abrupt halt following the Battle of Shiloh. On the morning of April 6, 1862, Confederate General Albert Johnston‘s Army of the Mississippi launched a surprise attack on Major General Ulysses S. Grant‘s Army of the Tennessee near Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. As the panicked Union soldiers retreated toward the Mississippi River, Grant ordered Wallace’s reserve division into action. Wallace hurriedly marched his troops forward along the Shunpike Road, one of two corridors available to him. By the time he reached his destination, the Federals had retreated, and Wallace found himself behind the Confederate lines.

Grant, meanwhile, was expecting Wallace to advance along the River Road, the other available avenue. Unaware that Wallace had chosen the alternate route, Grant sent several couriers to find Wallace to hasten him to move forward along the River Road.

When Wallace received Grant’s dispatches, he ordered a countermarch. Doubling back and then crossing swampy terrain along the River Road, Wallace’s reserves did not reach the main federal army until after nightfall, when the battle had slackened. The next day, they played a significant role in the Union counterattack that repulsed the Confederates.

Grant made little of Wallace’s confused performance until the Northern press vilified Grant for the high number of casualties at Shiloh. Grant attempted to deflect some criticism by calling attention to Wallace’s tardiness. Grant insisted that he specifically ordered Wallace to advance along the River Road. However, Grant admitted that he never saw the written orders that Wallace received. Wallace maintained his orders did not specify which route he was to take. Historians have no way of verifying either man’s account because the written orders disappeared during the battle.

Unfortunately for Wallace, officials made him a scapegoat, and he lost his command in June. For the rest of the war, Wallace led troops in combat only one additional time. Years later, Grant admitted in his memoirs that “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.”

Protecting Cincinnati

In September 1862, Confederate forces, commanded by General Kirby Smith, captured Lexington, Kentucky, and threatened Cincinnati, Ohio. Federal officials dispatched Wallace to Cincinnati to prepare the city’s defenses. Upon arriving in the Queen City, Wallace declared martial law and enlisted civilians to dig trenches and erect other defenses. Ohio Governor David Tod traveled to Cincinnati and ordered state officials to send any available militiamen and munitions to the city. Without Wallace’s approval, Tod also enlisted the aid of 15,766 volunteers from sixty-five Ohio counties to help protect Cincinnati. Popularly known as the “Squirrel Hunters,” most of the volunteers had no military training and carried antiquated weapons. Still, their presence in the Queen City, coupled with Wallace’s defenses, convinced Confederate leaders to cancel the invasion.

Early’s Raid

On March 22, 1864, Wallace received command of the Middle Department, which included Maryland west to the Monocacy River. Most of Wallace’s troops were inexperienced soldiers of the Potomac Home Brigade and the Ohio National Guard. In June 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early‘s Army of the Valley swept up the Shenandoah Valley, threatening Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC. by early July.

Wallace responded by marching west with approximately 2,500 soldiers to investigate. Wallace quickly determined that Early’s army was substantial and telegraphed Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant requesting reinforcements. Unsure if Early’s destination was Baltimore or Washington, Wallace deployed his troops along a three-mile stretch of the Monocacy River near Monocacy Junction on July 5. The Georgetown Pike to Washington, the National Road to Baltimore, and the B&O Railroad all crossed the river in that vicinity. Wallace reasoned that, by defending the three bridges, he could stall the Rebel advance until reinforcements arrived.

Battle of Monocacy

Early’s 14,000-man army began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland at Shepherdstown on July 5 and advanced toward Frederick. On July 8, reinforcements from Grant enlarged Wallace’s force to nearly 5,800 men. At sunrise on the morning of July 9, Early’s men began advancing toward the bridges over the Monocacy River defended by Wallace’s force.

Quickly recognizing the strength of Wallace’s defenses around the bridges, Early forded the river approximately one mile downstream to attack the Union left flank. The Rebels were across the river and began their offensive by 11 a.m. For four hours the outnumbered Federals withstood repeated Confederate assaults against their defenses. Finally, at 3:30, the Rebels broke the Union line. Running low on ammunition, Wallace ordered a general retreat between 4:30 and 5 o’clock.

Early won a tactical victory at the Battle of Monocacy because he forced Wallace from the field. Despite suffering heavier losses and being forced to retreat, Wallace enjoyed a strategic victory. His makeshift force stalled Early’s advance on the nation’s capital for one vital day, buying time for more reinforcements from Grant to arrive and to prevent the Rebels from occupying Washington. Upon hearing of Wallace’s retreat, Grant relieved him from command. To Grant’s credit, however, after learning the facts, he realized his mistake and reinstated Wallace two weeks later.

Military Judge

Wallace continued to serve in the Middle Department for the rest of the war. In May and June 1865, Wallace served as a judge at the military trial of the conspirators involved in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In August, he presided over the court-martial of Confederate Captain Henry Wirz, commandant of the infamous Andersonville Prison. After serving on a secret mission to Mexico later that year, Wallace resigned from the army on November 30, 1865.

Post-war Life

Upon leaving the army, Wallace returned to Crawfordsville, where he resumed his law practice. While living there, in 1873, he published his first book The Fair God, a work that he had been writing since the 1840s. In 1876 Wallace made an unsuccessful run for Congress on the Republican ticket. He then served as legal counsel for the Republican Party during the disputed Hayes-Tilden presidential election. After a special congressional electoral commission awarded the election to Hayes, the new president appointed Wallace as governor of the New Mexico Territory.

Governor of the New Mexico Territory

Wallace inherited an explosive situation known as the Lincoln County Wars in New Mexico. A feud between rival factions vying for economic control of Lincoln County established a climate of lawlessness marked by murders and other acts of violence. Among those involved was William H. Bonney, more popularly known as Billy the Kid. As governor, Wallace also contended with frontier violence from marauding Apaches, who encroaching white settlers had agitated during the Apache Wars. Although Wallace could not diffuse either situation, he oversaw some legislative reforms in other areas that advanced the development of New Mexico during his term.

Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ

While not dealing with his official duties, Wallace completed his second and most successful book, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ. Published on November 12, 1880, by Harper & Brothers, the novel became one of the best-selling books of all time. Hollywood has dramatized it on film on three occasions.

United States Minister to Turkey

Wallace resigned from his position as governor in March 1881. Later that year, President James A. Garfield appointed him as United States Minister to Turkey. Wallace held that position until 1885.

Dedicated Author

After completing his ambassadorship, Wallace returned to Crawfordsville, where he concentrated on his writing for the rest of his life. During the next twenty years, he authored six more major works, including his autobiography, which was incomplete at the time of his death.


Wallace died in Crawfordsville, Indiana on February 15, 1905, and he was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery. His wife, Susan, completed her husband’s unfinished autobiography and published it in 1906.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Lewis Wallace
  • Date April 10, 1827–February 15, 1905
  • Author
  • Keywords Lewis Wallace
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 26, 2024