Indiana at 200 (51): Lew Wallace
by Andrea Neal
Upon the death of Lew Wallace, The New York Times struggled to sum up — in a single headline — the 77-year-old Hoosier’s accomplishments. “Won fame in many ways,” it declared.
Wallace, his 1905 obituary noted, “achieved widespread distinction as a lawyer, legislator, soldier, author and diplomat” and was a man of “exceptionally refined manner, broad culture and imposing personal appearance.”
It was quite a resume for someone who lost his mother to consumption at age 6, hated school, gave fits to teachers and spent much of his life in small-town Crawfordsville.
By the time of his death, Wallace was internationally known, a Renaissance man whose celebrity was comparable to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s after World War II, evangelist Billy Graham in the 1960s and ’70s, and author J. K. Rowling after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone — combined.
“I think his greatness lay in his ability to see the critical center of an issue, his personal integrity and willingness to address difficult issues, and his fearless curiosity,” says Larry Paarlberg, director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville.
Born in Brookville in 1827, Wallace first came to the nation’s attention during the Civil War when as major general he commanded troops in the Tennessee battles of Fort Donelson, Fort Henry and Shiloh. In 1864, he was promoted to Commander of the 8th Army Corps and saved Washington, D.C., from Confederate assault at the Battle of Monocacy.
Following the war, he served as a judge at the Lincoln assassination trial and presided over the trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Andersonville prison where thousands of Union soldiers died.
In 1878, President Rutherford Hayes appointed Wallace to be governor of the New Mexico Territory. In 1881, Wallace became minister to Turkey.
Though impressive, none of these distinctions brought him the acclaim that came from Ben-Hur, his novel published in 1880 that tells the story of Jesus through the eyes of a Jewish noble condemned for a crime he did not commit.
Ben-Hur was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, translated into 20 languages and still available today in mass-market edition. It was made into a movie in 1925 and remade in 1959 starring Charlton Heston, a production that broke box-office records and won 11 Academy Awards. A new version, with Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman, is scheduled for February 2016 release.
Wallace did most of his writing of Ben-Hur under a beech tree on the property of the Crawfordsville home he occupied from 1868 until his death. Although the house was sold outside the family and remodeled beyond recognition, much of the original Wallace property remains. The carriage house, Wallace’s personal study and a 3.5-acre arboretum have been preserved as a museum and natural space open to the public.
Wallace himself designed the study as a place to read, write and entertain. Around the exterior, a limestone frieze features hand-carved faces from Wallace’s books, including Ben-Hur’s Judah Ben-Hur and Tirzah.
Paarlberg labels the study “a 19th-century man-cave” that brings Wallace’s many passions to life. Wallace is one of two Hoosiers honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (The other is Gov. Oliver P. Morton). A copy of the statue is on the museum grounds adjacent to the study.
Directions: The Lew Wallace Study & Museum is at 200 Wallace Ave., Crawfordsville, 47933. For access to the main entrance and parking lot, follow the brick wall around the block to Elston Avenue.