The Incredible Life of Lew Wallace, Civil War General and Author of Ben-Hur

Then, again.
March 26 2013 5:30 AM

The Passion of Lew Wallace

The incredible story of how a disgraced Civil War general became one of the best-selling novelists in American history.

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Grant praised Wallace’s actions and warmed to him personally. One day, he invited Wallace to visit him at his headquarters in Virginia. Wallace arrived on his horse Old John, a red bay with white feet and a piebald face. The horse was unusually tall and unusually fast. “Old John in full gallop looked like the incarnation of the wrath to come,” said a friend who had seen him in action. He was beloved by Wallace and by his men. At Fort Donelson, Old John had gone without forage for two days. Wallace’s soldiers crumbled up their hard tack, put it in their hats, and offered it to the general’s horse.

Grant and Wallace rode out to inspect a fort on the left of the Union lines. Grant, a gifted horseman, admired Old John and proposed a race back to camp. Wallace assented, but reined his horse in as the race began. “Let him out!” barked Grant, seeing that he was being afforded a handicap. Wallace did as he was ordered, and though Grant was in a furious gallop, Old John easily sprinted ahead. After a mile or two, Grant called a halt—and offered to buy Old John on the spot. Wallace refused. “Neither love nor money,” he said, “can buy Old John.”

The great chariot race from William Wyler’s 1959 film adaptation of Ben-Hur, with Charlton Heston in the title role.
The great chariot race from William Wyler’s 1959 film adaptation of Ben-Hur, with Charlton Heston in the title role.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

An account of the impromptu race appeared in the Denver News on Feb. 19, 1905, a few days after Wallace had died. The article was written by J. Farrand Tuttle Jr., the son of the president of Wabash College (located in Wallace’s hometown of Crawfordsville) and a friend of the family. Wallace himself never wrote of the race. Perhaps, in a rare demonstration of tact, he realized it wasn’t to his advantage to brag of beating Grant at a favorite pastime. Or perhaps Tuttle was merely relaying a local legend, a story passed around the Wallace paddock.

Or maybe Wallace did write of the race, but only under the veil of fiction. In every incarnation—novel, play, the 1925 silent film, Wyler’s 1959 spectacle—Ben-Hur’s most celebrated scene has always been the chariot race between Judah and his friend-turned-rival Messala. Early in the story, Messala betrays his boyhood companion, accusing Judah of a crime he didn’t commit: the attempted murder of Judea’s Roman governor. After years of suffering in exile, Judah is afforded an opportunity to avenge himself in the arena. Though Messala is heralded as the greatest charioteer in the empire, he can’t contain the superior horsemanship of Judah, who rides to victory.    

It’s hard not to read some wish fulfillment into Judah’s triumph. In the wake of the chariot race, Judah is cleared of the charges that have tarnished his good name, and, having goaded Messala into betting heavily against him, his victory also wins him a fortune to rival the emperor’s. Whatever satisfaction Wallace may have felt racing Grant through the fields of Virginia, it did nothing to improve his reputation or finances. But Ben-Hur would indeed fulfill its author’s wishes, making him fantastically wealthy and dimming the memory of Shiloh—in the public imagination if not Wallace’s own.

VIII.

Ben-Hur wasn’t an immediate success. Sales were slow for the first few months as the book absorbed mixed reviews. With its story of a noble prince endeavoring to save his family and restore his good name (winning the heart of a humble but beautiful Jewess in the process), the novel resembled the romances Wallace had loved as a child, which had long since fallen out of critical favor. With its chariot race and sea battle, it shared something with the dime novels then enjoying wide popularity but no literary esteem. Always a lover of the bold stroke, Wallace had written out his final manuscript in purple ink, a color his critics would have found apt for some of the novel’s loftier passages.

Lew Wallace composes under the Ben-Hur beech.
Lew Wallace composes under the Ben-Hur beech.

Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society, M0292

Yet what the critics dismissed the reading public soon came to love. Tracking book sales in the 19th century is an inexact science, but the Morsbergers, Wallace’s biographers, estimate that Harper Brothers sold a million copies of the novel between 1880 and 1912; in 1913, Sears, Roebuck ordered a million more, at the time the largest book order ever placed. James David Hart’s The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste (1950) cites a study conducted in 1893, which found that only three contemporary novels were held by more than 50 percent of public libraries. Ben-Hur was first among them, present in 83 percent of the collections surveyed. (The other two were Little Lord Fauntleroy and Ramona.) “If every American didn’t read the novel, almost everyone was aware of it,” Hart concludes.  

Carl Van Doren, in The American Novel (1921), credited Ben-Hur with winning “practically the ultimate victory over village opposition to the novel,” arguing that it was likely the first work of fiction many Americans ever read—or at least the second, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Howard Miller, a professor emeritus of history and religious studies at the University of Texas, has argued, if Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel played a role in dividing the Union in the 1850s, “Wallace's Ben-Hur helped to reunite the nation in the years following Reconstruction.”

Wallace’s novel is about the visceral thrill of vengeance and the spiritual thrill of forgiveness. The chariot race is rightly the most famous scene in Wallace’s novel, a stirring set piece and a surprise if you’ve only ever seen the 1959 movie. In Wyler’s film, Messala outfits his chariot with vicious metal spikes that shred the wooden wheels of his competition. Hollywood’s Messala is a villain through and through, not only responsible for Judah’s exile, but a cheater in the arena too. But in the novel, Judah is the aggressor, running down Messala’s chariot, wrecking it from behind with "the iron-shod point of his axle" and leaving its driver to be trampled by oncoming horses. 

Having vanquished Messala in the Antioch arena, Judah sets out for Jerusalem to continue his campaign of retribution, a Jewish William Wallace bent on freeing Judea from its Roman oppressors. But when he arrives in the Holy Land he encounters a rabbi from Nazareth, a man promising not an earthly kingdom but a heavenly one. (Lest Judah have any doubt as to the truth of the rabbi’s teachings, the Nazarene cures his mother and sister of the leprosy they’ve conveniently contracted while wasting away in a Roman jail.) After witnessing Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, Judah lays down his sword and instead takes up the work of honoring Christ’s message of forbearance. The novel closes with Judah deciding to spend his vast wealth to finance a catacomb where Christian martyrs can be buried and venerated.

Offering the satisfaction of a revenge plot while preaching the gospel of compassion, Ben-Hur resonated with a country that was moving from vengeance to forgiveness itself. The National Soldiers Reunion that Wallace and Ingersoll attended in 1876, at the tail end of Reconstruction, was a strictly Union event, with speeches and parades honoring the North’s just cause. But at the Reunion held just two years later, in Cincinnati, blue mingled with gray: Joe Johnston, John Bell Hood, and Robert E. Lee’s nephew Fitzhugh were among the invitees, and the order of the day was celebrating the heroism of combatants on both sides of the conflict. Ex-rebels were now in the halls of power as well. Wallace’s first official duty as minister to Turkey was to relieve his predecessor—Former Gen. James Longstreet, the trusted Lee lieutenant who had fought at Chickamauga, Antietam, and Gettysburg. After the war, Longstreet had joined the Republican Party and been embraced by his former enemies.

“Over the Deadline,” a painting by Lew Wallace based on testimony given at the trial of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz. It was alleged that union prisoners who crossed the so-called “deadline” were shot by the guards.
“Over the Deadline,” a painting by Lew Wallace based on testimony given at the trial of Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz. It was alleged that union prisoners who crossed the so-called “deadline” were shot by the guards.

Courtesy of General Lew Wallace Study and Museum

The details of Wallace’s interview with Longstreet are lost to history, but it’s likely the meeting was cordial. Wallace had presided over what would be the Union’s only act of retributive justice after Appomattox: the trial of Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville. If he had any misgivings about executing Wirz (whose degree of culpability for the camp’s atrocities has long been a matter of dispute), he didn’t record them. The drawing he made during the proceedings—of a Union soldier who’d been shot while trying to get a drink of clean water—suggests he was content to see the commandant hang. But by 1880 Wallace harbored no grudge against his former adversaries; on the contrary, ever the romantic, he held the sacrifices they made in high esteem. Speaking at the dedication of the Chickamauga battlefield, he described the Confederates as having made “an honest mistake.” He encouraged his audience to remember “not the cause, but the heroism it invoked.”

Wallace’s admiration for the heroes of the Lost Cause seeped into his novel. As the literary historian David S. Reynolds has noted, in Ben-Hur’s portrait of the Jewish people, readers in the American South could find a subjugated, slave-holding, and yet noble people sympathetically described. And indeed, despite being authored by a Union general, the book found an avid readership in the former Confederacy, making Ben-Hur among the first mass entertainments to transfix all corners of the reborn nation. One of the earliest fan letters Wallace received came from Paul Hamilton Hayne, a respected poet and editor and a Confederate veteran. “It is—me judice—a noble and very powerful prose poem!” Hayne wrote. “Simple, straightforward, but eloquent.”

Wallace was thrilled to learn that a former rebel had enjoyed his novel. In his reply to Hayne, he expressed delight at receiving such high praise from “the Singer of the South.” He then delicately asked the poet if he had any objections to Wallace’s publishing the letter. After his long string of financial failures, he was eager to join in the prosperity of the nascent Gilded Age, and hoped testimonials like Hayne’s would help him move copies.

For Wallace as for many Americans, the profit motive had extinguished any lingering sectional enmity. That Judah Ben-Hur finds Christ and wins a great fortune was surely not lost on the novel’s newly affluent readers, North and South. (The most popular of the many of novels of Christ that followed in Ben-Hur’s wake picked up this theme; In His Steps (1897) imagined a small town whose citizens earn spiritual and financial reward by constantly asking themselves “what would Jesus do?”)

Ben-Hur’s action-packed middle section undoubtedly accounted for much of its popularity, but the novel also benefitted greatly from its interpretation of the life of Christ, which opens and closes the novel. As Reynolds demonstrates in his study of American religious literature, Faith in Fiction (1981), Biblical novels had already begun to flourish in America by the time Wallace sat down to write Ben-Hur, books like David Ingraham’s epistolary novel The Prince of the House of David (1855) and William Ware’s Julian: Or, Scenes in Judea (1856). But Ben-Hur was among the first American novels to make Jesus a full-fledged character in its story.

Wallace was in some ways cautious in his treatment of Jesus: His speaking part is small, and the dialog is taken verbatim from the King James Bible. But in other ways Wallace was daring. At the outset of Judah’s trials, as he’s being marched off to slavery, a young man in Nazareth wordlessly offers the prisoner a drink of water:

“...looking up, [Judah] saw a face he never forgot—the face of a boy about his own age, shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.”

The scene is remarkable for having been created out of whole cloth; inventing occurrences in the life of Jesus simply wasn’t done in 19th-century Biblical fiction. It’s also notable for its detailed physical portrait of Christ, who is described as he’d rarely been before, in the Gospels or elsewhere. Wallace wrote of the pallor of Jesus’ complexion, the “reddish golden” highlights the sun leaves in that chestnut hair, and even the impressive length of his eyelashes. Iras, the novel’s femme fatale, derisively refers to Jesus as “the man with the woman’s face”—perhaps with a touch of jealousy.

Wallace was equally attentive to the geography, topography, and even flora and fauna of ancient Judea. (Rarely in American fiction has the camel been described so extravagantly.) He spent long hours researching the setting of his story, travelling to libraries in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. When he later traveled to Jerusalem during his term as minister to Turkey, he congratulated himself on his accuracy: “At every point of the journey over which I traced [Judah’s] steps to Jerusalem, I found the descriptive details true to the existing objects and scenes.”

Wallace’s careful descriptions are not incidental to the novel’s appeal. He made the figure of Christ, and the times in which he lived, come alive for readers at a moment when faith was under assault, by the speeches of Robert Ingersoll, the writings of Charles Darwin, and the lingering trauma of the Civil War. “The horrors of battle and the magnitude of the carnage were difficult to put aside,” writes Drew Gilpin Faust in This Republic of Suffering (2008). “The force of loss left even many believers unable to abandon lingering uncertainties about God’s benevolence.” One of the only rivals to Ben-Hur’s popularity in the 19th century was Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ The Gates Ajar (1868), which painted for its readers a detailed, and comforting, portrait of the heaven that awaited the thousands of dead soldiers. In Ben-Hur, Wallace gave readers a flesh-and-blood Jesus who walked through a realistically rendered landscape, reassuring the wavering reader of Christ’s divinity by making the case for his historicity.

Letters Wallace received from readers attest to the novel’s descriptive power. “The messiah appears before us as I always wished him depicted to men,” wrote a Roman Catholic priest. “The various descriptions surpassed in their attraction, glowing colors, and truthfulness all I have ever read before.” According to a contemporary newspaper account, pastors and school superintendents were fond of pointing out that “the most vivid picture of the Holy Land in the time of Christ was in Ben-Hur.” As a result, “no boy who went to Sunday school could have escaped the story if he tried.” (Teachers who ignored the novel may have done so at their peril. In Anne of Green Gables (1908), the young heroine sneaks Ben-Hur into her Canadian history class. “I had just got to the chariot race when school went in,” she later confesses. “I was simply wild to know how it turned out.”)

The novel had a strong effect on its readers, young and old. “I feel that I am a better man for having read it,” wrote Samuel Moore to the author, on the stationery of Moore, Morgan & Co, Wholesale Dry Goods and Notions of Lafayette, Ind. “In my knowledge of books it has but one superior, and that is The Book.” For others, it accomplished what even the Bible could not. Perhaps the most remarkable response Wallace received was from a man named George Parrish, a self-described “drunkard” who had lost everything to his addiction. “I had no future to hope for,” he wrote to Wallace from a YMCA in Kewanee, Ill. “No past but of which I was ashamed.” Ben-Hur, however, inspired Parrish to find religion, and recovery. “It seemed to bring Christ home to me as nothing else could,” he explained, and “resting on his strength, I stood up again in this community and was a man.” Parrish wrote that it had been a year since he read the novel, and he’d “faltered” not once in that time. “I want to thank you for that book,” he wrote to Wallace. “Thank you as a man who has come up from midnight into midday.”

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