Lew wanted to be a soldier from a young age. His father, David Wallace, graduated from West Point. Living in Covington, Indiana, near the Illinois border, they feared Chief Black Hawk and his Indian confederation might attack. Lew often watched his father lead citizens in military drills in preparation for an Indian attack.
“I never heard music as fascinating and grand as that of battle.”
– Lew Wallace
Mexican War Soldier
As a teenager, Lew was elected second sergeant of the “City Greys” militia unit in Indianapolis. When the Mexican War began, he recruited and organized Company H, 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry. Lew entered service on June 18th, 1846, as a 2nd Lieutenant. He 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. Governor Morton appointed Lew 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. The attack on Romney 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. At thirty-four, Lew was the youngest major general in the Union.
In April 1862, at Shiloh, Lew’s division did not reach the battlefield on the first day. This was partly due to command confusion and partly due to a lack of communication. Lew’s division participated fully in the second day of the battle.
Major General Henry Halleck disliked officers unaffiliated with West Point. After Shiloh, Halleck 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.
Wallace Scholar and author Gail Stephens explains the battle in this video.
After Lew had been home for nearly a year, his finally received his next assignment in March 1864. 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. During the battle, Lew’s force held for a day. This 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. Lew intended to stop the flow of goods across the Mexican border into the Confederacy. Lew also hoped obtain the surrender of the Confederate army there. If he succeeded, Confederate and Union soldiers could join to aid the legally-elected Mexican government of Benito Juarez. Juarez fought to eject the French army, which had installed Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico.
Lew was unsuccessful in garnering a surrender, but he did make valuable contacts with the Mexican republicans for the U.S.
In May of 1865, Lew served as second-in-command of the military tribunal that tried the Lincoln conspirators. He sketched the men on trial. Later he painted the picture known as “The Conspirators” that hangs in the Study today. In August, Lew served as president of the court that tried and convicted Henry Wirz, Commander of the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
The Soldier Post-War
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 their successful attempt to overthrow Maximilian.
In the years following the Civil War, veterans groups and reunions became popular. Lew was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic. He often spoke at reunions and monument dedications.
Lew visited Shiloh several times. Lew attended a reunion at Shiloh in 1894 and attempted to retrace his march route from the fateful battle. He returned to the battlefield in November 1901 and again retraced the route, this time discovering the correct route of nearly sixteen miles. He returned to Shiloh one more time in 1903, to speak at the dedication of the Indiana monuments on the battlefield.
In 1898 General Wallace tried to become a soldier one last time. At the age of seventy-one, he volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War. The US Army declined because of his age.