This article details the life and work of Lew Wallace, and highlights both his literary and military achievements, including his most famous work, Ben-Hur. After you read the lesson, you can test your knowledge through the quiz!
Who Was Lew Wallace?
In many ways, the life of Lew Wallace followed much of the most exciting times of the 19th century. He was born on the frontier of American life, worked as a lawyer and a newspaper publisher, fought in two wars, and served as a governor and an ambassador.
However, most people today remember Wallace for his second book, Ben-Hur.
The importance of public service was pressed into Lew from a young age – his father, after all, was a graduate of West Point, as well as a future Congressman and Lieutenant Governor of Indiana.
However, at the time Indiana was very much a frontier state, still being developed after gaining statehood only a few years before Wallace’s birth in 1827. From an early age, Lew loved to write, and spent time working in a number of odd jobs that permitted him to encourage that skill, as well as joining the local militia.As he approached adulthood, Wallace joined the military at the start of the Mexican-American War, where he served as a staff officer behind the front lines. Despite never having been in battle, he got out of the army in 1847 and opted to study law and work for a small newspaper.
As a former staff officer, Wallace had a lot of influence in local circles and was soon appointed to command the local militia.
When the Civil War broke out, this militia became the army’s 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, with Wallace in command. Within six months, he was promoted to brigadier general. Wallace was an able commander and was crucial to a number of Union victories in the West, especially in battles fought in Tennessee. However, a controversy following the battle of Shiloh meant that he would not really see command again until 1864.
As if to make up for lost time, Wallace demonstrated his abilities by preventing the South from capturing Washington in the battle of Monocacy Junction.Following the war, Wallace tried to run for office, but was unsuccessful. However, his commitment to a number of Republican politicians paid off. He was appointed territorial governor of New Mexico. While there, he actually oversaw the capture of the famed outlaw Billy the Kid. Within a few years, another opportunity a world away would be offered to him, as the Minister to the Ottoman Empire. In a moment of irony, he replaced an old Confederate adversary, James Longstreet, as the ambassador in Constantinople.
Already obsessed with the Near East from his world in Ben-Hur, which he completed as governor of New Mexico, Wallace enjoyed his time as the American representative to the Ottomans. In fact, he proved to be so good at his work that the Ottoman Sultan offered him a job as the Ottoman ambassador to Great Britain! Instead, Wallace returned to live out his final years in the United States.
While he wrote several books, Ben-Hur was Wallace’s most famous book, and by far the best-selling book he wrote (indeed, it narrowly surpassed Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be the bestselling book in America during the 19th century). Surprisingly, Wallace only decided to write the book after deciding that he needed to learn more about Christianity. That said, the story of a family that lived at the time of the birth of Christ was one that was simply too engrained upon the American imagination, certainly the American middle class imagination, to be ignored.
Ben-Hur focuses on the life of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish man who lived at about the same time as Christ. While their lives intersected at many times, Wallace does not attempt to rewrite the story of Jesus. Instead, as suggested by many experts, he seems to try to explain part of his life through Ben-Hur’s life.
A parallel can easily be drawn between Wallace’s mistakes at the Battle of Shiloh and the early mistakes that condemn Ben-Hur to a life of slavery. Some have even gone as far as to claim that the antagonist in the book, Messala, is based on General Ulysses S Grant, the person who most publicly blamed Wallace for the events at Shiloh. However, neither man ever gave up, and eventually Ben-Hur becomes a wealthy man, converts to Christianity, and is able to finance the expansion of his new-found faith.
Lew Wallace’s life exemplified the 19th century in the eyes of many Americans. From serving as an officer in the Mexican-American War to a general in the Civil War, he showed the kind of progress that was possible with an ever-extending frontier. This is a fitting metaphor, since Wallace spent so much time advancing the frontier from Indiana to New Mexico to around the world as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. However, he is most well remembered for his greatest book, Ben-Hur, which showed the story of a Jewish man’s life intersecting the life of Christ.