Lew Wallace: Biography & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

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.

Lew Wallace
Lew Wallace Portrait

Early Life

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.

Public Service

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.

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