Until he started writing books, history might have had a mixed review of the life of Civil War General Lew Wallace. But, in 1880, he published “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” and it is for that achievement future generations remember him still.
Circumstances that conspired against his reputation and willingness of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to blame Wallace for the high number of fatalities at the 1862 battle of Shiloh in Tennessee left Wallace’s reputation with the Union Army damaged.
Details that surfaced at the end of the war confirmed Wallace’s version of what happened, and by 1880, Wallace had served the government with distinction in several other capacities. That included being on the commission that tried conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, and serving as territorial governor of New Mexico and as foreign minister to Turkey.
But these achievements became little more than footnotes after Wallace wrote the book that became the best-selling novel of the 19th century.
A copy of “Ben-Hur” autographed by Wallace has been in the collection of the Brown County Museum of History for several years. It was donated by the daughter of a Brownwood postmaster who arranged for the body of Wallace’s brother Edward to be moved from Brownwood to Indiana in 1899.
That brother had worked for J.C. Weakley in Brownwood before the brother’s death in 1885. Weakley, who founded Weakley-Watson here in 1876, and Wallace had been neighbors when they lived in Indiana.
In 1942, Weakley’s grandson W. Lee Watson wrote that Weakley and Lew Wallace left Indiana sometime after the Civil War. They parted company in Missouri, and Weakley went south, ultimately settling in Brownwood. Wallace, according to Weakley, was westward bound. But at some point, Wallace returned to Indiana, where he started writing the story about Judah Ben-Hur, intertwining his life with that of Jesus Christ.
Details on Wallace’s activities could not easily be tracked during the five years between 1873, when his first novel “The Fair God” was published, and 1878, when he was appointed governor of New Mexico Territory. A summary of major events in Wallace’s life can be found on the website of the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum, located in Crawfordsville, Indiana. But based on Weakley’s timeline, they would have left Indiana together no later than 1873.
That Wallace would have traveled west, as Watson wrote in his memoirs, is no surprise. Biographers document that in 1865, Wallace led a secret mission in Mexico to stop the flow of supplies to the Confederacy, and in 1866 he returned to Mexico to help the Juaristas overthrow Maximilian.
In between, Wallace served on two commissions, one as second-in-command of the Lincoln assassination trial, and another as President of the Court for the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the infamous Confederate POW camp at Andersonsville, Georgia.
As a practicing lawyer in Indiana, Wallace turned to politics, making unsuccessful attempts for Congress in 1868 and 1870. It was during his service in New Mexico that Wallace completed “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” and it was published in 1880. While in New Mexico, he also presided over the Lincoln County War crackdown that resulted in the arrest of Billy the Kid.
After serving in New Mexico from 1878 to 1881, he was appointed U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, where he served until 1885.
A marble statue of Wallace was placed in the U.S. Capitol Building in 1910.
The book Wallace sent to the Brownwood postmaster was published in 1880, but is not a first edition based on language included in the printed dedication. Wallace’s mention of the wife of his youth, “who still abides with me,” was added in later printings.
The signature in the museum’s book is dated Nov. 18, 1899, just days before a stage adaptation of “Ben-Hur” made its debut at the New York Theatre on Nov. 29, 1899. The production was reportedly remarkable due to its elaborate on-stage rendering of the chariot scene.
Several other stage adaptations have been produced, including one in London in 2009 that also featured the chariot race.
Wallace’s book has been made into movies three other times in addition to the 1959 and 2016 releases — in 1917, 1925 and an animated feature in 2003.