Lew Wallace and his Autobiography

It took Lew Wallace almost 30 years to write and publish his first novel, The Fair God. He started working on it at about the age of 19 in the 1840s and it was published in 1873 when he was 46. After the success of his first book, it took him approximately seven years to write and publish his second book, Ben-Hur. Other books he completed did not take so long, but he clearly worked with great diligence and care and did not publish his efforts until he was fully satisfied. By the turn of the 20th century, Wallace was focusing his efforts on the writing of his autobiography.

In April of 1901, he travelled to Louisville and hosted a grand dinner. The papers reported that he was in town to gather data for his memoirs. He stayed at the Louisville Hotel and the papers reported that he had already been working on the autobiography for some time. According to the published reports he expected to be done with the book by Christmas of 1901 at which time he would begin writing his first “American” novel.

Wallace related to reporters that his autobiography would cover all the periods of his varied and eventful life with special attention given to his careers as governor of New Mexico and minister to Turkey. The book would also cover the important aspects of his military career and research for that aspect of his life is what took him to Louisville in 1901. As he stated:

“I am here to see some of the distinguished confederates who fought in the great battles of the civil war [sic] and to get their personal experiences. I believe that the best history is that which is not burdened with dull data, but enlivened by personal accounts. I have already seen Gen. Duke, who was a war-time opponent, and Gen. Buckner. I will also see Col. J. Stoddard Johnston. I intend to visit the library of Col. R.T. Durrett.”

As can be imagined, Wallace was particularly interested in securing information from the Confederates on the Battle of Shiloh. On April 26, Wallace hosted his formal dinner for former adversaries in the Louisville Hotel with guests General S.B. Buckner, General Basil W. Duke, Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston, Major D.W. Sanders, Captain John W. Leathers, Logan C. Murray, James S. Barret, and Marmaduke Bowden.

General Simon Boliver Buckner was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and had seen significant fighting in the Mexican War. Buckner was from Kentucky and when the Civil War broke out he was offered high ranking positions in the Union army before ultimately deciding to serve the Confederacy. In the Civil War, Buckner again saw action, including at Fort Donelson in 1862. Buckner was in charge of Fort Donelson when it was attacked by the Union forces led by his old friend, Ulysses Grant. When defeat at Donelson appeared inevitable, Buckner sent a message to Grant requesting an armistice and a meeting of commissioners to negotiate surrender. Grant famously responded with his words: “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.” Buckner quickly surrendered the fort. Grant was courteous to Buckner following the surrender and offered to loan him money to see him through his impending imprisonment, but Buckner declined. The surrender was a humiliation for Buckner personally, but also a strategic defeat for the Confederacy, which lost more than 12,000 men and much equipment, as well as control of the Cumberland River, which led to the evacuation of Nashville. Lew Wallace was heavily involved in the battle for Fort Donelson and keenly interested in visiting with Buckner in 1901.

Basil W. Duke was another Confederate officer from Kentucky and happened to be the brother-in-law to John Hunt Morgan. Morgan carried out a series of small guerilla invasions in southern Indiana and Ohio during the war that Duke was party to. Lew Wallace was one of the Union men dispatched to chase Morgan back South. Duke was also involved in the Battle of Shiloh where he was wounded. When Duke died in 1916, historians lauded him saying: “No Southerner was more dedicated to the Confederacy than General Basil W. Duke.”

Journalist Mary Hannah Krout, who helped Susan complete Lew's autobiography
Journalist Mary Hannah Krout, who helped Susan complete Lew’s autobiography

The other men that Wallace sought to interview, Colonel J. Stoddard Johnston, Major D.W. Sanders, Captain John W. Leathers, Logan Murray, Marmaduke Bowden, and James Barret each had their important stories to share from their Civil War experiences. This dinner was just one of many examples where Lew Wallace sought to build relationships with former adversaries in the years after the Civil War. Efforts such as these by Grant, Lee, Wallace, and other Civil War leaders from both sides were vital to mending the sectional divisions created by the war.

As Wallace’s autobiography progressed, it grew larger in scope and it was not finished by Christmas of 1901. In fact, it was not finished by Christmas of 1902, 1903 or even 1904. At the time of Wallace’s death in February of 1905, he was only about half-way through his personal recollections. When he put his pen down for the final time, it’s reported that he was working on his memories of the Battle of Monocacy, which took place in 1864. Wallace approached the work in a largely chronological format, so many of the most important aspects of his life were not yet penned.

Although Lew’s prediction that he would be working on his first great “American” novel by the end of 1901 did not come true, in the same interview he also expressed great confidence in Indiana’s literary future. He was much closer to the mark on this prediction as people like James Whitcomb Riley, Meredith Nicholson, Booth Tarkington, George Ade, George McCutcheon, Gene Stratton-Porter, and others flourished during the golden age of Hoosier authors in the early twentieth century.Throughout her life, Susan Wallace had supported her husband’s creative efforts. The autobiography was no exception. After Lew’s death, Susan and her friend Mary Hannah Krout took it upon themselves to finish the work Lew had started. In a little over a year, Susan and Mary Hannah completed what it had taken Lew many years of painstaking effort to get half done. The two-volume work was completed and in 1906 it was published. Just as the autobiography proved to Lew’s last major creative effort, it was also Susan’s last major work. She died less than a year after its publication.


The Crawfordsville Journal, April 17, 1901
The Crawfordsville Journal, April 26, 1901


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