Don’t believe everything you read when it comes to Lew Wallace.

Moral of this story: Don’t believe everything you read when it comes to Lew Wallace. Wallace was comfortable with firearms and by all accounts was a capable shot. In his youth, dueling was a matter of honor practiced by some of the leading men of the day. At least three newspaper interviews discussed Wallace’s brush with duels, but in each case there seem to be factual errors that bring question to the supposed dueling challenges.

In an 1894 interview in Field and Farm, Lew discussed his time as Governor of New Mexico. He noted that the territory was being terrorized by desperate men and that by virtue of his office, he became Billy the Kid’s deadliest enemy. Wallace offered a reward for the capture of Billy which caused a sensation in the region. According to this interview, Wallace said: “Well, the result was that after a most exciting chase the outlaw was surrounded by overwhelming numbers and compelled to surrender at the point of fifty guns after shooting down three pursuers. He was taken to Lincoln County, away down in the territory, to answer for an unusually flagrant murder. He was wildly outraged at having been trapped and swore that the moment he ever got free he would ride straight through to Santa Fe, shoot me down and then gladly hang.”

While Wallace never expected Billy to get free, he decided that he’d go ahead and practice his shooting. He went out and bought a “brace of the best pistols” and began a routine of an hour long target practice each morning. “. . . as I became more and more skillful, I felt correspondingly safer and didn’t much dread an open meeting even with the caged murderer.” A couple of months later Billy escaped, killing two lawmen as he made his getaway. According to this interview, Billy started for Santa Fe with the threat, ‘now for the governor and then hang.’ Wallace began practicing several hours every day, and for weeks he was in daily expectation of meeting Billy. He still went about his routine duties, but was heavily armed with his pistols ever ready.

This interview concluded: “Finally, one day there rode up to my residence a travel-stained six-footer in wide sombrero hat, mounted on a pony worn out with hard work. He got off, let his pony wander loose and came up to the door. I met him on the front step with my guns ready for instant use and asked him his errand. ‘I am Pat Garrett, Governor, and shot ‘Billy the Kid’ out here at Fort Sumner.’ And it was true. He had come up with the desperado heading for Santa Fe to end me, had got the drop on him and without a word shot him through the heart. I have still kept up my practice somewhat, but not under as thrilling circumstances.” It is a bit unclear how Wallace could have remembered this meeting with Pat Garrett as Garrett shot and killed Billy the Kid on July 15, 1881. By that time, Wallace and his wife had returned to Crawfordsville for a brief visit and in June of 1881 had begun their trip across the Atlantic Ocean to his new posting as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

Prior to this interview, on November 7, 1892 The Indianapolis Journal related another story about Wallace being challenged to a duel during the early days of the Civil War. According to the Journal, the Washington Post reported that during a luncheon in the Pension Building on November 6 an unidentified man who had served in the Civil War shared a story about an unnamed brigadier general from Massachusetts who was commanding a brigade in which then Colonel Wallace of Indiana and General Starkweather of Wisconsin each commanded a regiment. This unnamed Massachusetts general managed to insult both of his subordinates who each issued a challenge to a duel. Starkweather’s challenge reached the Massachusetts General first. Being the challenged party, the General selected short swords as the weapons for the duels. When Wallace’s challenge arrived it was accepted with the comment from the Massachusetts General that he would attend to Wallace as soon as he was through with Starkweather.

According to the man relating the story, Wallace was most undone and immediately set about writing a note to his wife, Susan, and his father stating that he was not much of a swordsman and feared the worst. When Starkweather heard of the comments made to Wallace, he went to Wallace and assured him that he (Starkweather) was an expert with the deadly short sword and that there wouldn’t be much of the General left when he finished with him.

It was decided that the duels would be fought in a large headquarters tent that evening. At the appointed hour, Starkweather and his second went to the tent. They were met at the entrance with great formality and ushered in. Instead of a Brigadier General ready for battle they found the superior officer seated at the head of a table “spread and fairly groaning with good things, both solid and liquid.” The Massachusetts General stood, greeted Starkweather and said that if he was of the same mind, they would proceed to “eat, drink, and be merry.” Starkweather agreed to the offer and a junior officer was sent to notify Wallace that the General was ready for him.

When Wallace received the officer and heard the summons, Wallace exclaimed: “My God, he hasn’t killed Starkweather already has he?” The officer sent to fetch Wallace responded that it was only his duty to escort Wallace to the big tent without unnecessary comment. Recovering from his surprise he accompanied the man to the tent and received an even bigger surprise at seeing the loaded table surrounded by his smiling associates. According to the interview: “The situation being explained to him [Wallace], he remarked in his usual happy vein, that the apology was accepted and the party would proceed to attack the enemy’s line of edibles.”

In this interview, there are a number of unanswered questions that bring this event into some question. The name of the correspondent and the Massachusetts General are never revealed nor is the nature of the insult. If it really did happen in 1861 as the narrator relates, Wallace must have been truly undone when he sat down to write his sad lament to his wife and father—his father had died two years earlier in 1859!

And yet, this is not the last of Lew’s supposed close calls with dueling. Wallace was not a man with “filters.” The news media often turned to him for a quote or a story because he said what he thought, when he thought it. His comments were often insightful and prescient, but not always appreciated by some in the audience. In 1898, at the age of 71, Wallace was again challenged to a duel. The New York Times reported on February 20, 1898, that George E. Oaks of Indianapolis had taken exception to comments Wallace made during a Lincoln Day celebration in Lochinvar Hall in Lebanon, Indiana. The Times ran a short article originally published in Lebanon, Indiana on February 19. According to the Lebanon article Wallace was relating stories of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, and Wallace told a previously unpublished story which reflected poorly on General George B. McClellan.

Wallace said that Lincoln had made a special trip to Harrison’s Landing on the James River in Virginia after the Seven Day’s Battles to keep McClellan from surrendering to the Confederates. Oaks served as a private under McClellan’s command and in February of 1898 he heard Wallace’s speech. In a letter to the General, Oaks denounced the story as untrue and asked the General to meet him upon the field of honor at such time and place and with such weapons as the General chose.

The Seven Days Battles were a series of six major battles over seven days from June 25 to July 1, 1862 that were fought near Richmond, Virginia. Confederate General Robert E. Lee drove McClellan’s invading Union Army of the Potomac away from Richmond and into a retreat down the Virginia Peninsula effectively ending McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. Although a Confederate victory, it was a devastating campaign with over 20,000 casualties on the Confederate side and 16,000 casualties for the Union army.

The effect of the battles was immense. Northern morale was crushed by McClellan’s retreat while Confederate morale skyrocketed in spite of the casualties. Lee pursued his aggressive strategy with the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Maryland Campaign. Hopes for a quick end to the war in 1862 were quashed. On several occasions McClellan had disappointed President Lincoln and his failure to secure success in this campaign was a blow to the administration. McClellan had been general-in-chief of all of the Union Armies but rather than being reappointed to this position, vacant since March of 1862, Lincoln filled it with Major General Henry Halleck after McClellan’s poor performance in Virginia. While McClellan did not surrender to the Confederates as Wallace suggested he might have done without Lincoln’s intervention, he failed in his campaign to destroy Lee’s army and lost his high position in the army.

Mr. Oaks did not take kindly to Wallace’s description of the battle and Oaks’ calling out Wallace caused much excitement throughout Indiana. What Wallace thought about this affair is not recorded and no duel took place. As with the two previous stories of dueling and Lew Wallace, a lack of facts seems to complicate the veracity of the report.

It is certainly possible that Lew simply ignored this episode as Susan’s sister, Mary Braden, died in the old Elston Homestead (currently owned by Wabash College) the previous day and the family had more important issues to deal with. At any rate, by the 1890s, dueling was a thing of the past and both men would have been in serious trouble had they chosen a time, place and weapons and met on a field of honor.

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