Education the Lew Wallace Way

Lew Wallace in his 20s
Lew in the 1850s

As a youth, Lew Wallace managed to develop a reputation as a truant and a rascal. He used any number of excuses to avoid the classroom and undertake adventure in the great outdoors. He was part of an informal group of Indianapolis boys, who established “The Red Eye and the Hay Press Club,” which met in a loft accessible only by a trap door. The boys were reputed to raid gardens, pull bell ropes, and generally create havoc as they ran through the countryside. In 1840, when Wallace was about 13 years old his truancy hit a new level. A huge rally was planned in Battleground, Indiana, in support of William Henry Harrison’s bid for president. This promised to be far more interesting to Lew than any classroom studies.

Twenty thousand Whig supporters and delegates converged on the tiny community a few miles north of Lafayette. It’s said the procession coming up from Indianapolis formed a column twenty-five miles long. With his father away on business, Lew decided to join this parade—without letting his stepmother Zerelda or anyone else know—as it headed north. Fortunately, one of Lew’s uncles saw him on the road and got word back to the family. Lew stayed at this “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” rally for almost two weeks. As the rally concluded a church revival started up and Lew stayed to see part of that enterprise before finally wandering the seventy or so miles back to Indianapolis.

This was not his first, nor his last escapade. A few years later when Lew was about 16 years old he and a friend, Aquilla Cook, determined to create their own “Huckleberry Finn” adventure. Aquilla Cook was the son of John Cook, the first State House librarian, and disappeared from history a few years after his adventure with Lew Wallace. Aquilla married a dancer in Cincinnati and then killed a man who had reportedly made unwelcome advances to his wife. He escaped arrest and was last heard from when he wrote a letter to a Cincinnati newspaper boasting of how he fooled the police and escaped arrest.

David Wallace
Lew’s father David Wallace

However, years before this drama played out, Wallace and Cook had been reading about the Alamo and the heroics of the freedom fighters in Texas. Together the teenagers decided that it was their duty to reinforce Commodore Moore of the Texan Navy. Although they were unsuccessful in recruiting others to join them, the two boys commandeered a skiff and began floating down the White River, intent on finding a flatboat headed to New Orleans. Their plan to reinforce the Texas Navy was thwarted when Zerelda Wallace’s father, Dr. John Sanders, and a local constable caught up with the boys.

This adventure was the one that finally led to Lew Wallace’s father to throw up his hands and throw in the towel. As Lew reported in his autobiography, his father approached the boy with his accustomed good address and graceful manner saying:

Were I to die tonight, your portion of my estate would not keep you a month. I have struggled to give you and your brothers what, in my opinion, is better than money—education. Since your sixth year, I have paid school-bills for you; but—one day you will regret the opportunities you have thrown away. I am sorry, disappointed, mortified; so, without shutting the door upon you, I am resolved that from today you must go out and earn your own livelihood. I shall watch your course hopefully.

It took a few more years and a few more adventures before David Wallace began to see his son settle down, grow in resolve, and focus on accomplishments that brought credit to the Wallace name. Throughout his life, Lew Wallace adored and respected his father and, just as David Wallace predicted, Lew grew to understand what had been lost when he squandered his education. He grew to be a man who learned by experience, read voraciously, challenged himself routinely, and became a devoted life-long learner. While Lew Wallace’s time in the classroom may have been a disappointment, perhaps his education was not truly squandered—he was just a boy who never let school get in the way of his learning.

“The Early Life of Lew Wallace,” Indiana Magazine of History, September 1941 by Irving McKee.


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