We get a lot of great questions from visitors to our museum and website. Here, we answer some of those frequently asked questions.
Was Lew Wallace a Christian?
Yes. Here is Wallace’s answer to that question, from the first chapter of his autobiography:
I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. Not that churches are objectionable to me, but simply because my freedom is enjoyable, and I do not think myself good enough to be a communicant. None the less I believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ; and that there may be no suspicion of haggling over the word “divinity,” permission is besought to quote the preface of a little volume of mine, The Boyhood of Christ: “Should one ask of another, or wonder in himself, why I, who am neither minister of the Gospel, nor theologian, nor churchman, have presumed to write this book, it pleases me to answer him, respectfully–I wrote it to fix an impression distinctly in my mind. Asks he for the impression thus sought to be fixed in my mind, then I would be twice happy did he content himself with this answer–The Jesus Christ in whom I believe was, in all the stages of his life, a human being. His divinity was the Spirit within him, ‘and the Spirit was God.'”
Did Lew Wallace write Ben-Hur on a bet?
No. He wrote it after a discussion with famous agnostic Robert Ingersoll. From Lew’s autobiography:
It is possible to fix the hour and place of the first thought of a book precisely enough; that was a night in 1876. I had been listening to discussion which involved such elemental points as God, heaven, life hearafter, Jesus Christ, and His divinity. Trudging on in the dark, alone except as one’s thoughts may be company good or bad, a sense of the importance of the theme struck me for the first time with a force both singular and persistent.
My ignorance of it was painfully a spot of deeper darkness in the darkness. I was ashamed of myself, and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured, or, if it be preferred, the punishment of spirit, ended in a resolution to study the whole matter, if only for the gratification that there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.
Forthwith a number of practical suggestions assailed me: How should I conduct the study? Delve into the theology? I shuddered. The theology of the professors had always seemed to me an indefinitely deep pit filled with the bones of unprofitable speculations.
There were the sermons and commentaries. The very thought of them overwhelmed me with an idea of the shortness of life. No; I would read the Bible and the four gospels, and rely on myself. A lawyer of fifteen or twenty years of practice attains a confidence peculiar in its mental muscularity, so to speak.
Next the subject was considered dry. Was there no way of making it the least bit light and savory? No incidental employment or task which would give it a color of pastime, and, while compelling thorough investigation, keep me interested? Then it came!
The manuscript in my desk ended with the birth of Christ; why not make it the first book of a volume, and go on to His death? I halted–there was a light in my mind!
….after weeks of reflection, at last I decided to use the blank to show the religious and political condition of the world at the time of the coming. Perhaps those conditions would demonstrate a necessity for a Saviour.
Did Lew Wallace write Ben-Hur to disprove Christianity?
No. Before writing Ben-Hur, he had no strong opinions regarding Christianity one way or another. From his autobiography:
At that time, speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I never believed nor disbelieved in them. The preachers had made no impression upon me. My reading covered nearly every other subject. Indifference is the word most perfectly descriptive of my feelings respecting the To-morrow of Death, as a French scientist has happily termed the succession of life. Yet when the work was fairly begun, I found myself writing reverentially, and frequently with awe.
Did Lew Wallace invent the snooze button?
No, and we’re not sure how this rumor got started. General Wallace died in 1905, a full 51 years before the first marketed snooze alarm. He also could not have invented the alarm itself because an Ottoman engineer, Taqi al-Din, writes about a mechanical alarm clock in his book, The Brightest Stars for the Construction of Mechanical Clocks, which was published somewhere around 1556. For more detail, see our blog post Lew and the Snooze.
Didn’t Lew Wallace get lost on the way to the Battle of Shiloh?
No. While it is true that General Grant didn’t know where Wallace’s division was during the first day of the battle, Lew always knew where he was.
A full explanation requires an understanding of the situation at Shiloh. In April 1862, Grant’s 47,000-man Army of West Tennessee was organized around Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River. Wallace’s division was five miles north at Crump’s Landing. Wallace wanted to keep his men busy and realized it would be advantageous to improve a nearby road so other Union units could reinforce him, if necessary. Scouts advised him to improve the Shunpike because it was further from the river and driver. Wallace took their advice and improved the road, but he did not tell Grant which road he had chosen for communication with the rest of the army.
On the morning of April 6, the Confederates surprised Union forces at Shiloh. Wallace could hear the battle and prepared to move his division, although Grant’s first order held him in place. Around 11 am he was ordered to join the rest of the army. Grant gave his order verbally to an aide, who wrote it down and took it to Wallace; Wallace gave the order to one of his staff, who lost the paper in the ensuing march. Grant expected Wallace to move along the River Road. Wallace maintained that Grant’s order told him to join the right of the Union army, which, as far as Wallace knew, was at the end of the Shunpike.
Wallace was two-thirds of the way to the battlefield when one of Grant’s aides found him and told him that the Union army had been pushed back so far that Wallace was actually marching into the rear of the Confederate army. Wallace turned around, but because of the length of his march, the terrible mud of the River Road, and the late hour he had received his movement order, he did not reach Grant’s army until dark.
As battle reports were filed after the two days of fighting, Grant came to believe Wallace was late the first day because he disobeyed orders. In 1885, as Grant finished his memoirs, he received new information and added a footnote absolving Wallace, but this footnote remains largely unknown. The Shiloh controversy continued to follow Wallace for the rest of his life.
Did Lew Wallace know Abraham Lincoln?
Yes. He first encountered Lincoln in Danville, Illinois, while both men were lawyers. Wallace describes the future president in his autobiography:
Altogether I thought him the gauntest, quaintest, and most positively ugly man who had ever attracted me enough to call for study. Still, when he was in speech, my eyes did not quit his face. He held me in unconsciousness….to be perfectly candid, had one stood at my elbow that night in the old tavern and whispered: “Look at him closely. He will one day be president and the savior of his country,” I had laughed at the idea but a little less heartily than I laughed at the man. Afterwards I cam to know him better, and then I did not laugh.
In March of 1864, Wallace was assigned command of the Eighth Army Corps and the Middle Department, headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland. He called on the president soon after receiving this order, and wrote, “Time and care had told upon him….Nevertheless, the smile with which he spoke and the certain indefinable cheeriness in his clear voice were winsome even more than ever, and they stayed with me.” Shortly after Wallace took command, Maryland voted on the matter of emancipation, and Wallace worked with Governor A.W. Bradford (the civil governor, though Maryland was under martial law) to make certain the election went smoothly. Lincoln praised Wallace on his handling of the matter.
Do you have the Ben-Hur manuscript at the Study?
No. In the mid-1930s, Josiah K. Lilly, Jr. noted Indianapolis philanthropist and partner in the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical business was acquiring papers and memorabilia significant in Indiana history. One of the documents he acquired was the original manuscript of Ben-Hur. He purchased the document, hand-written in purple ink by Lew Wallace, from the author’s grandson, Lew Wallace, Jr. J.K. Lilly, Jr. donated over 20,000 books and 17,000 manuscripts to Indiana University in the 1950s. These gifts became the foundation for the Lilly Library at Indiana University, which was dedicated on October 3, 1960.