“I never heard music as fascinating
and grand as that of battle.”
Lew was fascinated by soldiers and the military, even from a young age. His father, David Wallace, was a West Point graduate. Living in Covington, Indiana, near the Illinois border, there was a fear that the community might be attacked by Chief Black Hawk and his Indian confederation. Lew often watched his father lead citizens in military drills in preparation for an Indian attack.
Mexican War Soldier
As a teenager, Lew was elected second sergeant of a militia unit at Indianapolis known as the “City Greys.” When the Mexican War began, he recruited and organized what became Company H, 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry. He entered service on June 18th, 1846, as a 2nd Lieutenant and was mustered out June 14, 1847.
In April 1856, Lew organized the Montgomery Guards, a volunteer militia group. Due to his hard work, it became one of the best in the Middle West. In October 1858, Wallace was elected to the Indiana State Senate, where he served a single term.
At the start of the Civil War, Lew’s militia reputation led Governor Oliver P. Morton to appoint him Indiana Adjutant General with the job of organizing six regiments of troops, Indiana’s first contingent for the Union army. It was Lew’s responsibility to recruit and organize troops, although he only kept this post for ten days. Early enthusiasm for the war made the task easy; he had enough men to form thirteen regiments within five days. Lew asked the governor to assign him as colonel of one of the regiments and he was appointed colonel of the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
“Battle has a fascination which draws men as birds are said to be drawn by serpents. They listen; then wish to see; lingering upon the edge, they catch its spirit, and finally thrill with fierce delight to find themselves within the heat and fury of its deadly circle.”
A Civil War Soldier
The 11th Indiana was initially assigned to West Virginia. There Lew led his soldiers in a successful attack on a Confederate encampment, which led to national headlines. Lew and the 11th were next assigned to Kentucky, where he was promoted to brigadier general in September 1861. Lew, now a brigade commander, led a division in the first big Union victory of the war–U.S. Grant’s seizure of Confederate Ft. Donelson in February 1862. This victory resulted in Lew’s promotion to major general, the highest rank in the Union army at the time.
In April 1862, at Shiloh, Lew’s division did not reach the battlefield on the first day, due to command confusion, but fully participated in the second day of the battle. His new commander, Major General Henry Halleck, was prejudiced against officers who were not West Point graduates and assigned Lew and his division to menial military tasks. Bored, Lew took leave from his division and never returned.
Lew had hoped to get a new assignment but none was forthcoming from Halleck, who by the summer of 1862 was commander of all the Union armies. Lew’s next assignment finally came in March 1864, after he had been home for nearly a year. President Lincoln appointed him commander of the Middle Department of Maryland and Delaware, headquartered in Baltimore. In July 1864, Wallace led the Union force at the battle of Monocacy. There, with 8000 men, he delayed a Confederate army of 14,000 bent on nothing less than the seizure of the Union capital, Washington, DC, only thirty miles away. Lew’s force held for a day which gave the Union time to reinforce the poorly defended capital and thwart the Confederates. His defense earned him the gratitude of Lincoln, his Secretary of War and the new commander of all the Union armies, U.S. Grant.
In early 1865, Grant sent Lew on a mission to Texas to obtain the surrender of the Confederate army there, so Confederate and Union units could join to aid the legally-elected Mexican government of Benito Juarez in ejecting the French army which had installed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. He was unsuccessful but did make valuable contacts with the Mexican republicans for the U.S.
In May of 1865, Lew was appointed second-in-command of the court martial that tried the Lincoln conspirators. He made sketches of those on trial and later painted the picture known as “The Conspirators” that hangs in the Study today. In August, Lew was appointed president of the court that tried and convicted Henry Wirz, Commander of the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
The Post-war Soldier
Lew resigned his commission in November 1865 and returned to Crawfordsville. He spent part of 1866 and 1867 in Mexico, with U.S. government approval, supplying arms to the Juarez forces in the successful attempt to overthrow Maximilian.
In 1898 General Wallace tried to re-enter the military one last time. At the age of seventy-one, he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War. He was turned down due to his age.