00932 - Major General Lew Wallace; Author of 'Ben Hur' [LC-DIG-cwpbh-00932]
When you think of bestselling authors of the 19th Century, you might think of Mark Twain and “Huckleberry Finn” or Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” but by far the most successful was Lew Wallace’s “Ben Hur” It has never been out of print, is still a best seller and has been adapted for screen four times as well as numerous stage adaptations.
Lew Wallace’s father was a lawyer who would eventually become Governor of Indiana, his stepmother who was prominent in both the suffrage and temperance movements. At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War Wallace had followed his father into law, but left to serve as a First Lieutenant. Following the war he returned to law and politics.
At the start of the Civil War he helped to raise troops in Indiana and was appointed Colonel. Within six months he was given the rank of Brigadier General. During the battle of Shiloh, in April of 1862, Grant sent orders for Wallace to move his division to support Sherman. Studying the maps Wallace chose to use an upper path that was reported to be in good condition, but rarely used. When he arrived to support Sherman, the battle had shifted and Sherman could not be found. He soon received new orders instructing him to move to the lower road. After spending time realigning his army he moved to the center of the upper road and then began to march on a new path to join with the lower road. By the time all of the marching was over more than six hours later it was almost dark and the fighting was over. The following day Wallace’s men did join the fight and the Union army won the battle.
With success in hand, Wallace’s mistake in providing support to Sherman on the first day was overlooked. Soon however with 13,000 killed or wounded the North soon was looking for answers. Grant shifted the blame to Wallace and his delay in supporting Sherman on the first day. Removed from command Wallace had little responsibility for much of the war.
Following the war took a position with the Mexican Army trying to expel the French which had occupied Mexico in 1864. Left in extreme financial debt when Mexico did not make good on its promise of compensation Wallace turned to political appointments for work. In 1878 he was appointed Governor of the New Mexico territory. It was here that he met with Billy the Kid and agreed to offer a pardon in return for information and testimony in the Lincoln County Wars. When the pardon was not delivered Billy the Kid continued as an outlaw till his own death in 1881. While serving as Governor Wallace penned his best known work, “Ben Hur” which many claim was based at least partially on his experiences at Shiloh. Made into a play in 1899 it ran for more than 21 years and was seen by more than 20 million people. Featuring a live chariot race with real horses it was considered a spectacular stage production. The first movie version appeared in 1907 and has been remade three more times.
While Wallace wrote a number of other novels, biographies and memoires he is still best remembered for “Ben Hur” and his offer of pardon to Billy the Kid.