The Trials of Lew Wallace
presentation to the Palm Beach County Civil War Roundtable by
by Robert Schuldenfrei
Good evening. Tonight we are going to discuss some small vignettes from the life of General Lew Wallace. Beyond the ranks of the great commanders like Lee and Grant, I have always had great interest in the bevy of men just below the top rank. Chief among them is Lewis “Lew” Wallace. I find him interesting for a number of reasons some of which will become obvious as the story unwinds. He lived a long and interesting life. When he was born in 1827 some of the founders were still alive; Adams and Jefferson had only died the year before. When he died in 1905 the frontier had closed, the Panama Canal was being built, electricity had come to the cities, and the Wright brothers had taken flight.
Obviously, in our time this evening, I can only focus in on small aspects of his life. As will become evident shortly, I have chosen these points to illustrate the theme which holds my imagination. The seven items shown on this slide are these points. I must explain his early life or else the theme will not have “grounding.” We will not, however dwell on this period. Likewise, we need to look at some events leading up to the battle of Shiloh, but only briefly. Shiloh was the seminal incident during his Civil War service so a fair amount of time will be devoted to same. Rumor and innuendo followed from this event so that they will have to be explained. He was then placed “on the shelf” so to speak. During this time fortune intervened a number of times such that he was recalled to service in spite of people who would have rather seen him on the “scrap heap” of history. Time and time again he was the right man, in the right position, at the right time. One of these times needs further illumination so we will focus for a bit on the battle of Monocacy. We will conclude with the trial of the Lincoln conspirators.
There could be more, a lot more, but these tales will consume all of the time we have for tonight. I hope when we are done that you all will see Lew Wallace in a new and different light. Like all of my Civil War talks, this one too has a central theme. I strive to get into the head of General Wallace; something which is very difficult to do and one that I am poorly suited by training to do. Lew Wallace, in my humble opinion, was badly treated by the Army of the United States. I believe he was unjustly accused for his action at Shiloh. He then had the opportunity to sit in judgment of others who might make the same claim of injustice. I want to explore how he tried others and perhaps understand how he came to the decisions that he did. This will not be easy to do because he had the mind of a warrior and the heart of a romantic.
This talk will be developed using the vehicle of four trials; two real ones and two that were going on in the head of Lew Wallace. The real trials were the investigation of Gen. Don Carlos Buell and the trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators. The “head trials” concern his reaction to the aftermath of Shiloh and how others judged him over the years.
Most of you know that I am not a historian and am far from the most knowledgeable member of our stalwart band. However, I do take a long time to research these talks and make every attempt to site references for my claims. This presentation is much more difficult as it deals with a man’s motivation. I have a keen interest in finding out why things happen. In my professional life I have always ascribed reasons to the behavior of human beings. Except for the insane, people do not behave irrationally. It is often hard to see that logic, but I am quite convinced that it is there if you but look for it. Shiloh and the conviction of Mary Surratt offer us a window into human behavior. Why did the characters behave as they did? I, for one, have not made up my mind about Mrs. Surratt, so I like Gen. Wallace do face a moral dilemma with her case.
Like all of my work on these lectures, this presentation is not original. It draw heavily from Robert and Katharine Morsberger’s book, Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic. In addition, I used the Internet to chase down the many facts and accounts of this very interesting life. In particular Lew Wallace, An Autobiography is Gen. Wallace’s own account of his life and times. It was very instructive. The accounts of the battles came from the website of the Civil War Trust and Time-Life The Battle Atlas of the Civil War. Other information came from my modest library of accounts of the Civil War.
What we know about Wallace’s early life comes from his autobiography and some of the letters he wrote in later life. Since the autobiography was published a year after his death, and written in old age, we can conclude that it has been colored by romance in a way that he developed the characters in his novels. If you read it, the story sounds a bit like Huck Finn. Indiana circa 1827 was still the wild frontier. Wallace claims he “ran wild in the great woods.” He lived in a modest house until he was four when his father, David, was elected lieutenant governor and the family moved to Covington, IN to another very modest wood house. During the spring of 1832 the Black Hawk War came close to home and young Lew saw his father, called the “Colonel” raise a rag-tag band of locals to defend their town. He recalled this event “splendid and inspirational.” It set the mind of Wallace towards its view of the warrior and warfare.
His formal education was full of fits and starts. It was begun in a one roomed schoolhouse with a sadistic Irishman at the helm. This teacher’s flogging, to use Wallace’s words: “made a playground for his practice” on the boy’s back. The Irishman had another, more benign, influence on young Lew; he taught him to read. Once that happen, he fell in love with the written word. On his first day in school he discovered another talent, drawing, about which more will be said. The next school year the Irishman had taken flight and in his place sat a woman. At first Lew was skeptical that a female could be much use as a teacher, but when the caning rods vanished and the learning began, all was forgiven. Of particular note was his exposure to Olney’s geography and the illustrations of foreign scenes. He continued to draw and be romantically drawn to exotic drawings.
When his mother died, in 1834, Lew and his brothers were “farmed out” to a neighbor. During his years in Covington he spent as much time as possible in the woods and by the Wabash River. Two years later his brother William was sent to the “preparatory department” of a college in Crawfordsville, 30 miles to the east. Lew age nine, determined to join his brother, mounted up his pony and rode away. Picture the sight: In turn, the two teachers and a handful of students were amused at the sight of a barefoot boy, one toe wrapped in a rag, his trousers rolled to his knees and supported by a single suspender, his buttonless shirt exposing a sunburnt chest and neck, his shock of unkempt hair covered by a ragged and rain-stained straw hat, demanding admission to college. Though only two years older, William seemed a sophisticated gentleman by contrast. He matriculated young Lew, clothe him, got him room and board, and played along with this farce for two months after which time Lew Wallace returned to the woods! When the next school year came around Lew found himself at a county seminary run by a clergyman who also had a sadistic fondness for flogging and terrorizing young boys. That experience did not last long as his father arranged for him to live and work on a farm six miles to the north.
In 1837 David Wallace, newly wed to a 19 year old, was elected governor so the family moved to Indianapolis. On again off again schooling was supplemented by long hours in the Indiana statehouse library. He gained as much from self-education as he did from formal education. Exasperated, his father sent him at age 13 to live with an aunt in Centerville. Here he got a first rate education from a reputable schoolmaster. Here he was encouraged to write and write well with a focus on clarity and an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon vocabulary over the Latinate. By 1841 he was back with his father and self-educating once again. But here he joined the Union Literary Society whose weekly meeting generated far more learning then most colleges. It was here that Lew discovered the law, parliaments, and moot legislatures. But, as often happened, adventure got in the way, so he ran off to see the world, got in a bit of trouble, and was returned home by the constable who was his father’s father-in-law. At this point David explained to his son that his “education” had cost him quite a bit and he was now turning him loose on the world. To make his way in the world he began to work in the office of the county clerk. So ended the formal education of Lew Wallace.
At this point I would like to casually expand three points: drawing, writing, and playing at war. What started as a diversion from schoolwork, drawing was to become a life-long passion. He had real talent to execute recognizable portraits such that his classmates peppered him with requests for their likenesses. At one point he stole some castor oil to fashion crude, homemade oil paints. During the aforementioned Black Hawk War the boy covered slates and papers with sketches of military maneuvers and combat scenes. In later life he was able to draw practical maps and views of military life as good as any professional illustrator.
Although he was indifferent to formal schooling, he began to have a deep interest in the written word. He had access to the state library and book collections in the place where he dwelled. At the age of 14 he joined the aforementioned Union Literary Society of Indianapolis. This organization held weekly meetings where he participated in debates, recitations, and critiques of member’s compositions. He even tried his hand at poetry, inspired by some young ladies. And as he put it: “lyrics flowed freely from my pen.” At this point he turned his hand to historical fiction and produced 15 chapters for a book titled: The Man-at-Arms: A Tale of the Tenth Century. It was a romantic fancy undeterred by the fact that Lew knew almost nothing about the 10th century! The plot was ridiculous, but the young author stuck with the writing such that it proved his ability to stay harnessed to a task. As we will see later, Wallace’s psyche was driven by honor, chivalry, and derring-do. This was to color his decisions throughout his life and have great bearing on the trials to be developed later in this presentation.
As noted above, the Black Hawk War brought military action right to his Covington doorstep. When his father gathered the “troops” Lew tagged along to the town square. Although the men had few real arms and all sported homemade “uniforms,” the sights and sounds of the assembly made a deep impression on the boy of five. When David Wallace marched his band to the river bank, Lew hid in a clump of weeds on the hillside. The thrill of regimental drill turned to panic when the mass of men wheeled around and fired a volley of musketry at the hill where our hero was located. With that the future general Wallace took flight and beat a hasty retreat. That night, tucked safely in bed, he began dreaming of military glory and becoming a soldier.
In 1842 Lew was inspired by the Texas war of independence, such that he tried to recruit other 15 year olds to travel down river and make their way to the Rio Grande. Alas, he could only scrounge up one other lad, so the two intrepid warriors acquired a skiff and supplies and headed off in search of adventure. They got about 10 miles south of Indianapolis where they were “ambushed and apprehended by Dr. Sanders, his father’s father-in-law and a local constable. Lew was grateful his capture was effected by the strong arm of the law so that he could save face in front of his classmates.
The story of Lew Wallace and the war with Mexico is not the glory festooned tale of his childhood. In fact, in his mind he did everything right, but fate and commanders kept him pretty much on the sidelines. In the beginning he did the things he thought would be good preparation for a military life. He joined an amateur military company called the Marion Rifles. Although not ready for prime time, this sad looking band defeated a much better equipped local unit in a mock battle. Lew, elected a sergeant, charged the “enemy” because his captain missed giving the order to sound retreat. Wallace’s unit took several prisoners and drove the rest from the field. His military education was self-taught from the pages of Winfield Scott’s Infantry Tactics.
Texas became an independent nation in 1836. President James Polk, an avowed expansionist, was dead set on swallowing up Texas as well as New Mexico and California. The dispute festered for years. Texas, was, by the mid-1840s, in a border war with Mexico, welcomed troops under Gen. Zachary Taylor who were sent under the guise of “defense.” When Mexico did not pay, what amounted to extortion money, Taylor marched into Mexican territory along the Rio Grande. By 1846 the fight was on.
Wallace followed these events with interest. While many people objected to the war, our boy was lusting for glory and hungry for war. In what would later become a familiar role, he opened a recruiting office and in three days had raised a company of men. These men honored him by electing him a second lieutenant. Three Indiana regiments were so raised. Wallace was surprised to discover that he knew more about drilling troops than almost any other officer in all three regiments. On July 5, 1846 the Hoosiers boarded a steamboat bound for New Orleans. Lew’s spirit was high, but the rain and mud of their Louisiana camp brought him down to a fairly soggy ground. All of them, the officers, the men, and Lew Wallace was glad to be sailing for Los Brazos de Santiago near Padre Island.
Other units stayed in Brazos for just a short period of time, but not the First Indiana. Wallace dreamed that the call would come to break camp, move inland on a grand march, fight a few battles, and enter in triumph Mexico City. But instead, he and his men were left to guard the beach and entertain themselves as best they could. Bugs, heat, and disease were the lot of Indiana’s finest. In six months one regiment buried 500 men who had succumbed, not to battle wounds, but dysentery, smallpox, mumps, and measles. Although many in command thought stern military discipline was the way to deal with the troops, Lew Wallace did not. This made him very popular with the men of his command, although not with his commanding officer, one CAP McDougal. McDougal was a tyrant and a stern disciplinarian. Which brings me to a sort of trial of Lew Wallace.
When the steamboat Colonel Henry was wrecked while bringing supplies to Brazos, Wallace assisted in the rescue of the crew and cargo. He borrowed an overcoat from a broken barrel of uniforms to keep warm during the night. The steamboat’s clerk claims that he also “rifled his trunk.” Never one to miss an opportunity, McDougal added to his grief with slanderous attacks. However, accompanied with a group of armed men Lew took the clerk from his berth and brought him before COL Drake. The clerk was forced to testify the next day before a court of inquiry whereupon he exonerated Wallace. This resolved the issue at hand, but not his disdain for those above him in the chain of command; a problem which will dog him during the Civil War.
Unit after unit left the coast to go into combat with Taylor, but not the Hoosiers. Finally, in December GEN Robert Patterson ordered the 1st Indiana to the front. Wallace and his men were jubilant. However, after a 200 mile boat trip and 180 miles of marching, Taylor ordered the unit to stop and return to their “accursed camp” Brazos. During the Civil War Wallace learned from Patterson that he had no authority to order the move and did so out of pity for the suffering of the Indianans.
All was not lost. On the way back to that “hell hole” of a camp, another set of orders came through. Two companies were to return to Brazos and the rest were sent to Matamoros. On the way by steamer, the troops ran out of supplies so a forage party was organized. That shore party was ambushed with 3 killed and 2 survived to return to the ship. Company H, commanded by Wallace was part of the volunteers who went to deal with the enemy. That force charged across a meadow, climbed a high bluff, clambered over a log palisade, and drove the Mexican from the town. The American units continued on to Matamoros which was a real town. Life in quarters was a whole lot better than their seacoast encampment.
The Hoosiers stayed there until February of 1847 when they finally got their orders to join Taylor. That too turned out to be a disappointment. Lew’s mental image of Zachary Taylor was that of a gallant commander. What he found was a “little fat, round-bellied, gouty old man who was slovenly dressed. Still, he longed for joining “Old Zach” in battle. The closest he got to real combat was on the fringe of Buena Vista. Not finding action there, he got himself attached to another unit. That group got themselves isolated in a hacienda and surrounded and surprised by Mexicans. They had a good defensive position and held out for three days on minimal rations until the enemy gave up and left. While Wallace won this little tussle, the battle of Buena Vista was taking place. So Lew missed out on another chance for glory. Once he got back he observed the aftermath of the battle which was a tad less glorious. Here the victors were dragging the bodies of the slain Americans to deposit them “in ghastly rows” in pits dug as mass graves.
However, Lew Wallace was a romantic to the core so his take on the horror of battle was one of indignation that General Taylor had, as we might say today, “dissed” the honor of the Indiana regiment. In his report Taylor stated that the Second Indiana had been driven back and could not be rallied. In fact the unit had been ordered to retreat by its commander who then abandoned the Hoosiers to fight as a Private with Jefferson Davis. The Second Indiana rallied themselves and fought with the Third Indiana. This was a foretaste of his dishonor at Shiloh.
Wallace was ordered to return home as the enlistments of the regiment was just about up. So he missed out on the battle of Chapultepec and the occupation of Mexico City. His last assignment in Mexico was to return to Brazos. It was here that he organized the reburial of the exposed bodies of his fallen comrades. Since this war was not popular back home his reception was not unlike returning Vietnam veterans ; full of scorn and hatred. There is no doubt that his experience both in Mexico and the facts of his return left their marks on his psyche.
The years from 1847 when he returned from Mexico until the outbreak of the Civil War were important for Wallace. They too shaped his character. On the way back from Mexico he was robbed of the $280. he planned to use to go back to college. So he returned to the law and planned to win the license he had failed to gain before the war. Since the Whig party had nominated Zachary Taylor, Wallace bolted for the Free-Soil party and their standard bearer, Martin Van Buren. Taylor won the election, and Wallace was left holding the bag for debts run up by the Free-Soil party. A man of honor, Wallace took six years to pay off this debt. Having no other choice, he became a Democrat.
Quite consistent with Lew’s romantic tendencies, marrying for love was concentric with his character. He set his sights on Susan Arnold Elston, daughter of one of Crawfordville’s most eminent men. In Susan, Lew had found a kindred spirit, however, it took a bit of time to convince the young lady of that fact. And once that had been accomplished, it took more persuasion to get her dad’s blessing. Major Elston had remembered Wallace’s boyhood antics. Having won the girl he promised to “make something of himself.” So he returned to his studies and passed the bar in 1849. He got a job in the court, ran for public office, met Abraham Lincoln, and finally in 1852 married the fair Susan. Her father still thought he would never amount to much, but he had given his consent.
Wallace found himself as a prosecutor and tried to use that as a jumping off point for a career in politics. The politics of the day was the rise of the factions. As a man of honor and principles, he could not support slavery even though the extreme views of the abolitionists caused him great angst. He found himself squarely in support of Union. He even looked forward to a fight over it. In 1856 he formed a military company called the Montgomery Guards. In order to lead, he once again returned to self-education devouring military textbooks. He found useful knowledge in Hardee’s Infantry Tactics. When he stumbled into a book on the French military, he converted his unit to a Zouave company that fed his sense of the theatrical. The unit paraded around the local towns and even in Indianapolis. Susan composed a company theme called “Song for the Montgomery Guards.”
Although he was pro-union, he continued to support Stephen Douglas. Impressed by Lincoln he still voted against him in 1860. When Lincoln won, local Democrats argued that Indiana should stand with the South. That was too much for Wallace. He went to Governor Morton, who had abandoned the party to become a Republican, and admitted that he too had been wrong. He offered Morton his services and the services of his unit should it come to war. And on April 13, 1861 it came to that with the firing on Fort Sumter.
Gov. Morton asked Wallace to become the Adjutant General and raise the six regiments Lincoln has asked for as the Indiana quota. Wallace designated these units as numbers 6 to 11 paying homage to the five that had fought in the war with Mexico. These were to be 3 month enlistments. Wallace chose to command the 11th Indiana.
By June the regiment was ordered to Cumberland, MD for training. On the way Wallace learned that the site was threatened by Confederate forces in Romney, VA, 45 miles to the south. Without orders, he marched at night over mountains and presented himself in front of Romney at dawn. Although outnumbered he led his Zouave troops into a fierce fire-fight. When the smoke had cleared the Rebs had fled leaving the 11th Indiana with a pile of booty which they took with them back to Cumberland. While this was not a great battle, the North was looking for any success so Wallace was praised by the leadership right up to the office of the President. After that, the unit was attached to commanders who were not predisposed to fight, so the big battle he was expecting never materialized. With the 3 month enlistments up, Wallace returned to Indiana to recruit new men for a three year term.
With a new 11th Indiana, Wallace found himself in Paducah, KY under the command of Gen. Charles Smith. While he got along with Smith, he once again complained in public about the lack of action on the part of the senior commanders. Wallace was labeled a malcontent. He was still basking in glory back east, so in September he was promoted to brigadier general. He was put in charge of a brigade that included the 11th Indiana. Grant replaced Smith and there were officers on Grant’s staff who would later come to mistrust Wallace.
Late in January, 1862, Grant proposed an advance up the Tennessee River. Wallace’s brigade was part of Grant’s forces, but during the successful attack on Fort Henry, the Indianans marched on Fort Heiman. This was a work in progress fort when the Confederates realized that Fort Henry was not the impregnable bastion they first thought it to be. Lew was anxious to be in combat, but General Smith wisely held him back to allow the defenders to flee in haste. Not a shot was fired. Even more disappointing to our gallant boy was the order from Grant to take command of forts Henry and Heiman while the rest of the expedition marched on Fort Donelson.
The initial fight there did not go well for Grant, so he ordered Wallace to send two regiments to the fray. When he arrived, Grant put him in charge of a division; 7 regiments 6,000 men. Although the fort destroyed many of the ships of the river fleet, and held off the Yankees in front, Gen. John Floyd realized his position was hopeless and devised a plan of retreat. First he tried a breakout sending Pillow and Bushrod Johnson to attack McClernand and Wallace. McClernand fell back and Wallace, disobeying orders to hold went to McClernand’s rescue. That carried the day and the rebels retreated. When Grant personally arrived he ordered Wallace and Smith forward. They were successful with Wallace holding high ground when a messenger from Grant ordered Wallace to stop and retire. Wallace did stop, but he once again disobeyed orders and kept the hilltop. At this point Floyd gave his command to Pillow who in turn gave it to Buckner; another story for another time. Floyd and Pillow escaped and Buckner asked Grant for “terms.” Grant gave his famous statement: “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately on your works.”
Grant obtained national exposure as “US Grant” and Wallace gained the fame he so craved. At age 34 he was promoted to Major General, the youngest to hold that rank in the west. This was a turning point in the war as it opened the Tennessee and the Cumberland rivers and caused the fall of Nashville.
Now the scene was set for Shiloh, but before we launch into that story, one incident must be told. Wallace was resting comfortably aboard his steamship headquarters writing his report of the action. About a week later Grant’s aide-de-camp Captain Hillyer, who had praised Wallace on the battlefield, confronted him by saying Wallace had omitted his role in delivering orders. After conferring with his staff, Wallace informed Hillyer the report would stand as no one had seen him delivering orders during the battle. Wallace was not happy to offend someone on Grant’s staff. And his unhappiness foreshadowed the grief that would come his way on the field at Shiloh.
Grant and Halleck had a command tiff with Grant being removed and then being reinstated in command. As Grant left for Savannah, TN, some 90 miles to the south, this dustup between the commanders was to impact Wallace in the days to come.
A grand flotilla headed south on March 13th Grant, Wallace, and 30,000 troops were all aboard some 70 riverboats. Due to the concentration of men and arms, this fleet was well escorted by gunboats. Lew enjoyed the spectacle from the pilothouse of the steamer John J. Roe. When they docked at Savannah, TN, General Smith explained to him that the Confederates had gathered in force at Corinth, MS, 20 miles to the southwest. His orders were to have his cavalry cut the railroad between Corinth and Columbus to the north. Further, and most significantly. he was to make his headquarters at Crump’s Landing and not with the main body at Pittsburg Landing. Smith told him to guard the Snake River by Wallace’s Bridge (no relationship to Lew) to prevent an attack by Rebels under BF Cheatham descending on the Union forces from the north. Then Smith left, lost his balance when boarding his boat at the river, and scraped his leg. The leg became infected and Smith died within the month. The very night of this meeting Cheatham destroyed Wallace’s Bridge and retired south of Pittsburg Landing. Thus Wallace was guarding meaningless territory with all of the enemy and friendly forces to the south.
In anticipation of a fight Wallace made a detailed terrain study such that he located the roads and bridges in the area. He was the best informed of all of the Union commanders as to the lay of the land. On the morning of April 4th one of Wallace’s scouts informed him that the “whole rebel army was on the way up from Corinth.” A second scout confirmed this news and both said the destination was Pittsburg Landing. Now armed with critical intelligence, Wallace sent a note to Grant with the news carried by his favorite orderly Simpson. Simpson rode to Pittsburg Landing by way of Wallace Bridge, which had now been repaired, but found that Grant had left for his headquarters in Savannah. As instructed, Simpson left his note for Grant with the postmaster. It was never delivered to Grant. Simpson further reported that the approach to Wallace’s Bridge was under water such that infantry could cross, but artillery could not.
Notice where Sherman is sitting, fat, dumb, and happy! He is certain that the Rebel Army is still in Corinth in spite of the fact his pickets have had several skirmishes with the enemy. Wallace has reconnoitered the Shunpike at D, and knows where Sherman’s right flank is now. Sherman even reprimands Col. Appler of the Ohio 53rd when he explains that there is a large body of rebels in front of his command. In fact 40,000 troops were in front of Sherman who reports to Grant that he expects no action. Grant, wires Halleck that there is nothing in front of him, but he is prepared for an attack if one should happen. In fact he is not prepared and the rebs are only two miles in front of Sherman.
With his untrained troops Johnston decides to hold off the attack until Sunday morning. At 4:55 AM skirmishers on both sides open fire. Johnston decides that the “battle has opened.” Meanwhile, Sherman’s wholly raw division is a sitting duck. Most of his men are washing, cooking, or eating breakfast. Once he realizes the situation, Sherman heads to the rear to bring up reinforcements and makes a stand. He held off four charges and fell back. Now he is no longer where Wallace “knows” him to be. This is critical to the understanding of what happens next.
At Crump’s Landing Wallace hears the gunfire and realizes the battle has begun. He orders his brigades to assemble at Stoney Lonesome, point “A” on the map. He is expecting to march to Purdy Road to support where he thinks Sherman’s right flank is. At 8:00 AM Grant arrives and meets with Wallace. Now the controversy starts. Wallace claims he told Grant that the division is at Stoney Lonesome and wants to move to support Sherman. Grant tells him to “hold the division ready to march in any direction.” Grant now leaves for Pittsburg Landing. Wallace is champing at the bit.
When Grant arrives at Pittsburg Landing the scene is really a mess. Men fleeing the battle makes organizing a counter attack difficult. He sends his quartermaster, CPT AS Baxter, to tell Wallace to bring his division up to reinforce Sherman’s right. It took Baxter until 11:30 to find him. In his Memoirs, Grant claims he instructed Baxter to tell Wallace to come to Pittsburg Landing “by the road nearest the river.” That would be the River Road leading to Wallace’s Bridge. It turns out that Baxter did not ride directly to Wallace, but took a boat to Crump’s Landing and then rode to him. That is why it took so long. Further, Grant did not write the order, so the paper handed to Wallace was written by Baxter. Wallace asked how the battle was going and Baxter told him and his staff that they were “repulsing the enemy.” Wallace had no reason to think that Sherman had retreated. In fact, he may have been to the west of Purdy Road. Wallace gave Baxter’s note to his adjutant who put it under his sword belt from which it fell out and was lost.
Here is where the story gets interesting. To take the River Road the division would have to back track and cross a water covered bridge approach. Then it would have to march west to meet up with Sherman. Wallace took the obvious route towards Purdy Road.
Wallace, not realizing the critical nature of the need, allowed his troops to take a half-hour dinner break. However, they moved 5 miles in record time and by 1:30 PM were just a short distance from the bridge at “D.” Just at that moment a lieutenant rode up, gave Wallace Gen. Grant’s compliments, asked him to hurry, and Wallace not suspecting anything said he would be up shortly. Shortly after 2:00 PM CPT Rowley, of Grant’s staff, rode up in great agitation. Now everything became clear. Sherman had been whipped. If they continued in the current direction they would behind the entire Confederate Army. For a moment Lew considered striking the enemy’s rear, but then Rowley gave him Grant’s order to march to Pittsburg Landing.
Now he had a number of problems. First, he had to turn his whole division by countermarch. He did this to keep his head brigade in the front so as to be ready for combat. Next he needed a guide to find a shortcut to Wallace’s Bridge. Finding a guide, who might be a rebel sympathizer, the division moved in the direction of a forest path noted by the letter “H.” Again, another of Grant’s staff officers, Rawlins, rode up fuming with dissatisfaction at the pace. As will later be important, Rawlins thought Wallace was “cool and indifferent.” Rawlins suggest that only the infantry move up, but Wallace refused. At the approaches to the bridge the water logged road made passage very difficult. Wallace kept moving albeit slowly.
He did not know it, but the day was lost. The only thing going for the Union was the death of Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston might have urged his troops to finish off Grant, but the ever cautious Beauregard saw his battle-weary troops and called off the engagement sure of victory the next day. As Wallace entered the battle-area he expected someone to guide him into position. No one came. As his men stumbled around in the rain and the darkness Wallace ventured out alone. When he finally encountered a sergeant he knew, he was told that he was a mere 400 yards away from a rebel battery. Calling up his own artillery he set up camp so as to destroy the Confederates at dawn.
It was the Indiana guns that opened the second day of the battle. Once that was begun Wallace went back to look for Grant. Grant, who had spent a terrible night was in a foul mood. He made no mention of the issues of Sunday. He seemed to Wallace as if he was confident and merely asked if they were ready for action. Grant, once again, gave the skimpiest of verbal orders to move out towards the west. Wallace asked if there were particular orders for the attack and Grant said “No, I leave that to your discretion.” Grant had every reason to be confident now that Buell had brought up the Army of the Ohio. In his orders Grant seems to have forgotten that Wallace was not on the battlefield on Sunday nor was he briefed on the current situation. Although he is ignorant that Buell has arrived and uncertain of his support on his left flank, Wallace does his Lew Wallace thing and advances on Braxton Bragg.
If Bragg had intended to fight he could have mauled the Indiana division badly as they moved down from their position on the high ground into gouge with Tilghman’s Creek at the bottom. But luck was with them as they went down into the valley, crossed the creek, and mounted the slopes on the far side. He engaged retreating rebels, performed a left turning maneuver, battered the enemy with artillery, risked being flanked himself, routed a cavalry charge, and stopped an infantry advance with long range canon fire. At about 10:30 Sherman’s supporting columns came on the scene and Wallace “admired the spectacle of bayonets glistening and regimental colors flying.” Lew was always the romantic!
The fight continued to go well as the Indiana troops moved against little resistance. They got to the area of Shiloh Church when a Louisiana artillery unit rained down murderous fire on both the units under Wallace and Sherman. At that point Sherman’s men, who had been victimized the day before turned tail and ran. Not wanting to retreat himself, Wallace ordered the First Brigade to halt and take cover. From noon until 12:30 he waited for Sherman to rally, which they did and continued the advance.
Amidst the blood and gore of battle it is good for us to consider his mindset. In An Autobiography he writes: “Up rose all the flags, and up the men, and forward - a glorious sight I may never see again!” In this respect he seems to have the same feelings about war as George Patton some 80 years later. A few minutes later, the Union right was under counter attack in what Sherman called “the severest musketry fire I ever heard.” Again Sherman’s men gave way with the Rebels whooping it up in pursuit. Once again Wallace’s officers calmed their men, held the line, until support from Buell’s Army arrived on the scene. In addition, for the third time, Sherman brought his men back and the advance continued. By this time the presents of Buell’s Army meant that there were an additional 40,000 men on the field and victory was assured. This became clear to Beauregard too such that by 2:00 PM the South was in full and general retreat.
At about this time Grant rode up and again talked briefly with Wallace. He commanded the division to wheel to the right in order straighten the Union line for an advance. That was all and Grant rode off. Wallace realized he was in advance of the whole Army. It gave him much satisfaction. Except for some light skirmishes, the battle had ended. The rain returned and ghastly task of burying the dead and trying to save the wounded began in earnest. It all appeared well to Lew Wallace. He believe his division and he himself had done a great job and was certain to bask in the glory in the near future. Sadly, this was not to be.
Both armies were exhausted. The Union, who held the field, had over 5,000 bodies to bury and many of the over 16,000 wounded on both sides to tend. There was no pursuit. As was his style, Wallace was full of pride in victory and overlooked the horror of the scene. Although he wrote Susan of the cost of the battle, he cloaked it in the cover of romanticism. He spent the night after the battle planning an attack on Corinth.
Things began to unfold in a different manner. On April 12th Halleck arrived and promptly relieved Grant of active command. Wallace figured that with 120,000 under his command, Halleck would move swiftly to defeat Beauregard. He did not. Grant was bitter about his treatment. Wallace, on the other hand reveled in the flood of congratulatory letters for his action. It led him to make statements in public critical of Halleck. It galled him that Halleck was promoted to command all of the armies in the field. Wallace and the division was stationed in Memphis. With Grant back in command, Wallace asked for and got two weeks leave to go back home.
Before the first week was up Gov. Morton asked him to come to Indianapolis to do some recruiting work. Wallace hated this kind of a job and told Morton he would rather be back with his unit. It was then that Morton showed Wallace a telegram from Stanton saying Wallace was relieved from command. It came as a shock. Without receiving anything about punishment or even a reprimand, Lew Wallace was put on the shelf. It looked like his military career was over. Wallace thought Halleck had done this to him, but the real story was a bit more complex.
In his rapid rise from colonel to major general, our boy had been very indiscreet. Drunk on dreams of glory, he had shot his mouth off many times. In the days that followed Shiloh the country was ablaze with magnitude of the loss of men and material. The nation was looking for someone to blame. At first the press wrote that Grant was drunk and Sherman had mismanaged the battle. There were cries for a court martial. When Lincoln was asked to relieve him he famously replied: “I can’t spare this man; he fights.” So Grant survived and Sherman was promoted. Wallace became the scapegoat.
At first Grant had only praise for Wallace. But as he grew resentful of the attacks upon himself, Grant began to blame Wallace’s late arrival on day one. Grant said that Wallace should have come to the aid of the army even without orders. When he got orders Grant concluded that he got them much earlier than was the case. Grant’s staff supported their boss to Wallace’s misfortune. The main charge against Wallace was his direction of march; to the Purdy road instead of to the River Road and Wallace’s Bridge. Captain Hillyer, who Wallace was unable to site at Fort Donelson, seemed to be Wallace’s most malicious defamer. Having let up on Grant and Sherman, the newspapers turned on Wallace with a vengeance. Even papers who had been supporters now joined in the chorus of blame. Wallace was certain that in time the truth would set everything straight, but he had little knowledge of how long it would take. He asked Stanton for a court of inquiry, but upon the advice of Sherman he withdrew same. Even after the war authors blamed him and the Indiana volunteers for delay and that caused the great carnage at Shiloh.
When Grant became president he collected versions of the battle that substantiated his version of events. Wallace wrote Grant at this time with his version of the facts and in a letter to Wallace Grant recognized his later service made it unlikely that he would not follow orders. However, Grant in public never varied from his feelings that Wallace was to blame. As in battle, Grant was stubborn so that once his mind was made up, he just stuck to his story. Wallace never received an official reprimand, but Grant and Sherman became national heroes, so the near defeat and horrible losses of men was shifted to Lew Wallace.
For the rest of his life Wallace suffered under the shadow of being badly treated. This trial by rumor and innuendo is what makes the next two trials important to us this evening. It is Wallace’s feelings toward Buell and Mary Surratt that I find so interesting.
However, for our boy, there was nothing he could do but follow orders and close his mouth as to “put a sock in it.” He seemingly was retired and so he returned to Crawfordville to await further orders. He spent time hunting and fishing, which he dearly loved, and stood down to see what fate had in store for him. And fortune, which had been so cruel up to now was about to favor him.
In August Governor Morton summoned him to deal with Braxton Bragg and Kirby Smith, who had broken loose from Chattanooga and was a threat to Kentucky and Indiana. Morton, who had organized five regiments that needed Colonels, asked Wallace, who was a Major General, if he would head one of them. Lew swallowed his pride, accepted the provisional rank of Colonel, and took command of the 66th Indiana. To get back into the field he was ready to do anything. That same day he reported to Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle. Needless to say Boyle was dumbfounded to have a Major General for a regimental commander. Wallace explained he was on “special business” and was glad to offer his services.
His orders kept changing. First, he was sent to Lexington, KY. When he got there he was ordered to the Cumberland Gap to support General George Morgan. Realizing Morgan had been bypassed, Wallace set up a defensive position to meet the much larger force under Kirby Smith. He found marvelous ground for a defensive position along the Kentucky River. He confiscated all of the boats and used river locks to flood the fords and there he waited for Smith. Four cannons from Cincinnati and the horses to bring them in were procured. Thus Wallace had supporting artillery. Everything was set for a great defense. But then an opportunity came up to pick off one of Smith’s advanced units. Wallace was all set to do this when he was placed under the command of William Nelson. Nelson rejected the planned attack and Wallace, deprived of his role, took a train to Cincinnati.
He was not back in town two days when he received a telegram ordering him to return to Lexington. Nelson had been disastrously defeated because he did not stay behind the defenses constructed by Wallace. The Union lost 4,000 of their 6,500 troops. While Wallace was on his way, another telegram ordered him back to Cincinnati to plan a defense of the city. His staff tried to tell him not to accept this command as there were no more troops with which to conduct a defense. Determined to try Wallace announced that the 200,000 residence of Cincinnati would have to defend themselves. He declared martial law and had every citizen report for work details. 15,000 citizens began to dig breastworks and rifle pits. Governor David Tod of Ohio mobilized the countryside. Some 60,000 irregulars nicknamed the “Squirrel Hunters” poured into the city armed with a motley collection of muzzle loading hunting rifles.
Kirby Smith divided his army and sent Henry Heth against Cincinnati. A cavalry unit tangled with Wallace’s pickets. When Heth rode up he probed the defenses for a weak spot. He found none. Heth withdrew leaving Cincinnati unthreatened. The citizens held a “splendid triumph.” Congratulatory telegrams poured in and Wallace felt vindicated for the first time since Shiloh. His fortunes were beginning to turn.
Wallace concluded that his service was appreciated everywhere except where it mattered, Washington and Indianapolis! Everywhere there was a need for an officer like him and where was he sent in September of 1862? Columbus, OH. He was to take command of Camp Chase, a place where paroled Union prisoners were to be organized to fight the Santee Indians, a branch of the Sioux. He thought the reason for this assignment was Halleck’s attempt to get him to quit the army and vacated his commission. But Wallace followed orders and attempted to make the best of it.
Wallace was appalled at the conditions at Camp Chase that was home to 6,000 soldiers. The men were dying in droves from the unsanitary conditions in camp. Forgotten by their own government, the inmates had sunken into depression. The place was ripe for mutiny and the citizens of Columbus lived in dread of the “nest of pestilence” in their midst. So what did Wallace do? He immediately dressed in full regalia with sword and sash for his first appearance in the camp. He rode is horse, Old John, into the warren of slovenly shacks that passed for housing at the site. As he rode amongst the stinking, verminous, and unshorn mob he was threatened and shouted down. Unperturbed, Wallace faced them down. He explained that he was a new man on the job and that things were going to change. He ordered the men to wash, shave, cut their hair, and restore self-discipline. He promised back pay, new uniforms, and new tents.
Three days later the first company was ready and was marched into Columbus to get paid. When the paymaster informed him that there was no money for that purpose, Wallace had him arrested, seized the keys to the safe, and took the money by force. He then went to the quartermaster and new uniforms were obtained. Within a week a new camp was established and named for Ohio Governor Tod. Camp Chase was abandoned. As to his mission to suppress the Sioux, Wallace overlooked mass desertion and recommended to Washington that they should just let these suffering men alone; which Washington did.
As for the Sioux, they had been captured earlier when their land and food had been seized by settlers and they had been driven by starvation to raid a warehouse. As one settler put it: “let them eat grass or their own dung!” In November these Santees were tried. 303 were sentenced to death. Lincoln reviewed the record, reprieved the vast majority, but 39 were hanged on December 26, 1862. This was the greatest mass execution ever held in the United States. Fortunately, Wallace was far from the scene when all of this high drama was playing itself out.
To say that Lew Wallace had seen and experienced injustice would be the height of understatement. Now we should look at him when he holds the fate of another officer in his hands. In November he got a telegram ordering him to back to Cincinnati to investigate and report on the operations of the Army under the command of Major General DC Buell in Kentucky and Tennessee. Buell had quite latterly saved Grant’s bacon at Shiloh, but found himself under a cloud because of his failure at Perryville. The facts were that he could not keep Bragg out of Kentucky and the battle of Perryville was, in a word, a disaster. Buell had 55,000 men that day when he was surprised by Bragg who had less than one third that number.
Although Buell’s headquarters was only about two miles away from the battle he did not know it was going on due to unusual acoustical conditions. He did not know the fight had started until it had been going on for two hours. Thus he failed to support Sheridan and McCook. Once he realized what was going on he sent orders for a full counter attack, but alas the courier got lost in the creek bottom and Bragg was allowed to escape into east Tennessee.
It was rich with irony as Halleck whose caution at Shiloh had allowed Beauregard escape from Corinth appointed Wallace to judge Buell. Wallace, who was relieved of his command for “dilatoriness,” was now the president of the commission investigating Buell for the same charge. Some have concluded that Halleck did this to heap even more shame on Buell. Wallace, however, did not see it that way. He believed that this assignment was a compliment; proof that higher commands had respect for him and his judgment. He argued that when Buell let Bragg and Smith slip through his hands it was Wallace alone who kept them from capturing Cincinnati.
Buell was not really on trial, as this was but an investigation. None the less Buell was a skilled litigant and he treated the proceedings as a trial. He cross examined witnesses as if he had spent his whole life at the bar. Wallace concluded that Buell did not get along with his own men. This was very strange to Lew Wallace. Because this inquiry brought in many of the high ranking and famous military leaders of the war, he snapped at the chance to befriend those who might have some influence on his career. But this assignment dragged on from November 1862 until May. The judge advocate, one Major Donn Piatt, made it very clear that this commission was to convict to enable Stanton and Halleck to get rid of Buell. It was the opinion of the commission, written by Wallace, that while Buell showed skill in moving his troops to Perryville, he was too cautious and rigid to be successful on the field of battle. The commission unanimously agreed. Wallace blamed Halleck for delaying Buell’s march, but in the end these proceeding ruined Buell’s career.
When the inquiry ended in May, Wallace found himself back home in Indiana waiting for orders. Vicksburg fell and Meade defeated Lee at Gettysburg; Lew felt frustrated. He tried writing Grant, but the rising Union star would have nothing for him. Grant even told Halleck he did not want Wallace serving under him. He tried writing others in authority, but to no avail. Nobody wanted him. Halleck did let him return to Crawfordville where fortune once again favored him.
While sitting at home he got a telegram from Governor Morton that the famous cavalry raider John Hunt Morgan had crossed the Ohio and entered Indiana. It was rumored that Morgan wanted to recruit Hoosiers, but if that was his goal he had a funny way of doing it by slash and burn. Morton put out the call and within two days had 65,000 armed citizens turned out to defend the state. Morton was all aflutter fearing Morgan could release 6,000 POWs and arm themselves from the state’s arsenal. He got Stanton’s permission to release Wallace so that he could command the state’s forces. Wallace told Morton not to worry, he could do it. When no men appeared, Morton informed him that he could only supply 1,100 raw recruits. Undaunted he loaded his ragtag crew onto filthy cattle cars and headed into the breach. Expecting an unfair fight, Wallace was greatly relieved to find that Morgan had already retreated into Ohio. He was next ordered by Morton to form a defense such that Morgan would stay in Ohio and not to menace Indiana again.
Morton was not interested in going after Morgan, but Lew Wallace was. But alas, he had to stay put and watch events unfold. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to cross into Ohio from the south, Morgan was captured and imprisoned in the penitentiary in Columbus. However, Morgan being Morgan escaped by tunneling out of his cell block and over the wall to freedom. This was late November. Changing into civilian clothes he coolly boarded a train to Cincinnati, crossed over into Kentucky, and rode home to North Carolina in time for Christmas. With the threat of Morgan gone, Wallace was back on the shelf.
He tried letter writing again. He asked Halleck for a court of inquiry and challenging Grant’s comments in the official record of the battle of Shiloh. Halleck did not respond, but did write on the back of the letter “ I do not think that Genl. Wallace is worth the trouble & expense of either a court of inquiry or a court martial.” Wallace wrote to Sherman asking for a position in his command. Sherman wrote back a long and tactful letter, but no offer of help. Sherman suggested that Wallace, once again lay low and wait for fate to intervene. Wallace took Sherman’s advice and withdrew his request for a court of inquiry.
Lack of tact again hurt Wallace. When he got word that Morton had asked Stanton permission to let Lew travel around the state making speeches, Wallace was hurt. He informed Stanton that nobody speaks for him. Stanton informed Wallace to go home. Stanton asked Lincoln to remove Wallace from the service. Now Wallace realized that Stanton was not the friend he had believe him to be, but an “implacable enemy.”
With the high command seemingly arrayed against him, it did not look good for our boy. This time Lincoln himself took action in assigning him to command a corps charged with keeping the peace in Delaware and most of Maryland. He would have preferred a field command, but was very pleased that Lincoln had thought of him. He found pleasure in the fact that Halleck had objected to the appointment and Lincoln had told Halleck in effect to “sit down and shut up.”
This was not a peach of an assignment. Maryland had many secessionists and was a hotbed of trouble for the Lincoln administration. The president wanted Wallace to subtly insure his reelection. Stanton told him that this would be your “first trial.” Adjutant General Townsend explained that the entire Middle Department was under martial law. He explained that Stanton is a dictator and you will be his agent. Stanton will do the driving and Wallace will do the pulling. With that Wallace set up shop in Baltimore.
With the election but two weeks away, he decided to see how much help Governor Augustus Bradford would be to him. So, with the style reminiscent of the demonstration at Camp Chase, Wallace gather up his entire staff in full mufti and boarded a special train to Annapolis. There he marched to the Statehouse and took the governor by surprise. No commander of the Middle Department had ever called on him before and never in full regalia. Wallace explained to Bradford that many Union men in the state had requested troops keep order on election day, but as head of federal forces he could not do this. But, the governor could request troops, and if he did Wallace would provide same. Would the governor do this? Bradford said he would. The election went Lincoln’s way.
In the summer of 1864 things were going well for the Union with Grant hammering away at Richmond’s door. The government felt secure in Washington. It was Lee who felt threatened when David Hunter attacked in the Shenandoah Valley. So Lee sent Jubal Early to strike at Hunter and then move north. When Early appeared in front of Hunter the latter thought he was outmanned. Like so many Union commanders before him Hunter beat a retreat. Early, not one to miss an opportunity to move forward followed Hunter in spite of the fact that he outran his logistical base. Even though many in his army were barefoot and hungry, Early pushed through the old battlefield at Antietam and into Maryland.
Only gradually did the Northern command become aware and only one commander did anything about it; Lew Wallace. Wallace seized the initiative while Halleck at first dawdled and then was frantically ineffectual. Although it was outside his area of responsibility, he decided to mount a defense at Monocacy after a reconnaissance on July 4th. The river and some stone buildings seemed to make for fairly decent ground to hold off the enemy, but Wallace had no idea what he faced. He was certain that Early’s goal was Washington, so this spot would slow them up. Wallace called up all the troops in the department that could be spared in spite of the fact that he had no authority to do so. Early was having his own problems fighting his way in the direction of Monocacy. By the time the battle was to begin Wallace had 5,000 men in his command. The forces that were bearing down on him numbered about 20,000. Wallace knew he could not win, but he reasoned that if he could slow up Early Grant could send reinforcements to protect Washington.
As the rebel forces reached the area near the Monocacy River, Early realized that a frontal assault would be futile. The obvious route would be to cross the river on his right, Wallace’s left. Around 11:00 AM on July 9, 1864 Gordon’s forces found a ford and crossed the river to face Ricketts’ Corp. By noon Wallace had delayed Early by five hours. It was obvious that with the rebs on his side of the river the fight would soon be over. If he could keep his positions until five or six o’clock he could burn the bridges and thus keep Early from advancing on Washington before the next morning. Ricketts repelled the first thrust with the confederates surprised with the fight left in the Yankees who were outnumbered at least three to one. When the next assault came Ricketts men held their ground and even counter attacked. By 3:00 PM it was essential to begin to organized a withdrawal. Wallace tried to send telegrams Grant and Halleck, but found his telegraph operator had fled. He ordered a rider to go to the next telegraph station and alert the high command. At 4:00 PM, after two more repulses of Gordon by Ricketts, the weight of the attack was more than the Union forces could handle. With their work done these men withdrew in an orderly fashion.
The rebel pursuit was not particularly effective as Early’s forces had been badly mauled. Wallace praised his men to Halleck saying the 6th Corp fought magnificently. It was not until Monday afternoon that Early reached the outer defenses of Washington, DC. On Sunday only 209 soldiers manned Ft. Stevens, but by the time Early arrived there were 10,000 troops available for the defense of the capitol. Early was late. Late by the one day Wallace had gained for the Union. As usual, Wallace was blamed for not beating Early at Monocacy. He was even removed from command by Grant. But, as the panic died down Wallace was given credit for saving Washington. Newspapers praised his gallant stand and even Grant grudgingly spoke well of him. As for Wallace himself, he believed that this “defeat” did more for himself than any of his victories.
Finally, Lew Wallace got his reputation back. Grant invited him to City Point such that Wallace felt redeemed. One cannot be sure Grant felt all that kindly as he never restored him to his staff. There is no doubt that, however, that the War Office felt good about General Wallace as the savior of Washington. While the Civil War was raging trouble was also brewing in Mexico. A series of coup d'états were taking place culminating with the installation of Archduke Maximilian as a puppet emperor in Mexico City. He came to power because Napoleon III, nephew of the great Napoleon wanted land in the Americas. With the United States at war with itself, the Monroe Doctrine was as dead as any soldier in battle.
Wallace, who had kept his eye on Mexico all these years, argued that in desperation Confederate forces might broker a deal and fight on forever from Mexico. Wallace’s old foe Kirby Smith had actually begun arrangements for just such a strategy. In January, Grant agrees to send Wallace to the Rio Grande to inspect the military situation. It took until March 5th for Wallace to make connections and arrive at Brazos, his old haunt from the days of the war with Mexico. After a bit of time he met up with Confederate General Slaughter and Colonel Ford under a flag of truce. Wallace sent a message back to Grant that these two rebels were looking for an honorable way to get out from under a failing South. They agreed to take a message to Kirby Smith that the trans-Mississippi states would be accepted back into the Union with full amnesty for the soldiers in exchange for Kirby Smith’s surrender. Wallace thought he had a deal, but it fell apart when higher ups, namely General Walker and Kirby Smith, wanted no part of surrender. Smith offered his services to Maximilian, but by May 26th it was an empty gesture. With only a handful of followers, Smith went into exile south of the Rio Grande. In November he returned to the United States, took the amnesty oath, and became a college professor. Archduke Maximilian did not do so well. In June of 1867 he was captured by his Mexican enemies, court marshaled on the spot, and executed by firing squad soon thereafter.
Wallace was on the train returning from Texas when he learned about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Shocked, he continued directly on to Baltimore to resume command of the Middle Department. He was instructed to search all water craft for the assassins. When the news of Booth’s death came that search was called off. When Lincoln’s funeral train started out it headed to Baltimore for its first stop. Wallace supervised the casket’s display in the Exchange Building. All went smoothly.
On May 9th he was relieved of his responsibilities at the Middle Department to serve on the military commission charged with trying the eight prisoners charged with conspiring to murder Lincoln and top members of the government. The evidence against most of those charged was overwhelming. We will look at one of these who may or may not be guilty in more detail shortly. I believe it offers great insight into Wallace’s own psyche.
The whole trial and the treatment of the accused is an interesting study of the difference between justice and vengeance. The Military Commission convened for the first time on May 8th in a newly-created courtroom on the third floor of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary in Washington. Note that this was before all of the commissioners were assembled. The fact that this was a military trial and not a civilian trial was questioned by many including Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The President of the court was Major General David Hunter. He was appointed to this role perhaps because he agreed with Stanton that the courts martial should be brief followed by the rapid execution of the defendants. Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt served in the problematic dual roles of chief prosecutor and legal advisor to the Commission. Lew Wallace had personal experience with this kind of justice.
I find the case against Mary Surratt of particular interest as it speaks to Wallace directly. Now I personally think that Mrs. Surratt had more knowledge of the conspiracy then she let on and more than her apologists acknowledge. However, and this is important, Wallace did not lift a finger nor speak of the procedural injustice. Wallace was the second ranking member of the commission, he was a lawyer, and he had seen “railroads” up close and personal. He had full knowledge of evidence being withheld from the record and he did nothing. When a plea was made by defendants Surratt and Mudd, Judge Advocate Holt overruled the plea. Mrs. Surratt wanted Senator Reverdy Johnson to defend her, but this was disallowed because he was a Southern sympathizer. The charges of murder and conspiracy should have been separated. While Surratt may have had knowledge of the conspiracy she was not part of it and certainly did not partake in anyone’s murder or even attempted murder.
While the government’s case was being presented there was little for Wallace to do. But, he had a responsibility to listen. What did our boy Lew do? He resurrected his boyhood interest in drawing. He drew fine portraits of the commissioners, distinguished visitors, and the defendants themselves. Later in life he committed these pencil sketches to oil paint. He even painted a hypothetical scene with all the conspirators posed together, except for Mary Surratt, but including Booth and Mary’s son John. Obviously, such a scene never took place, but the painting reveals his commitment to the equal guilt of all concerned.
Wallace seems to have been set against Mary Surratt. Most of the evidence against her comes from the testimony of Louis Weichmann. In an attempt to save himself, Weichmann gave states evidence. It turns out that in spite of his testimony he probably knew more of the plot than Mary did. Wallace believed his story completely. The prosecution used a drunk and a convicted horse thief to testify against Surratt. Holt along with Wallace suppress the evidence that would surely have disqualified that witness. This was transparent even to the press who criticized Wallace by name for unethical practices.
In the end there was some movement to spare Mary Surratt from the death sentence. President of the commission Hunter and four of the commissioners sent a plea of clemency to President Johnson. Wallace was not among the four. Johnson never received the plea and the executions were carried out. Wallace had no remorse for his actions. Members of the commission received criticism for the actions in later years, but not Wallace. This time it was his fame that kept him from abuse. This is a marked turnaround from the period after Shiloh. Wallace was quick to forgive the southern officers he met after the war. He could admire a fellow comrade in arms. I, for one, find this interesting.
There are other trials and the story of Lew Wallace’s career after the war. It is time, however, to bring this tale to an end for now.
Last changed: 01/09/13