By Henry V. Clarke.
When President Garfield made out General Wallace's commission as American minister to Turkey, he wrote across one corner of the document - the lower left hand corner, to be exact - "Ben Hur - J. A. G." The appointment was partly a tribute to him as the author of that remarkable book - a fact that may recall the days when the Athenians rewarded a popular speaker or a clever playwright with the command of a fleet or an army. It was also a merited recognition of his services as a gallant soldier and an able administrator.
Versatility is an American characteristic; but it would be hard to name a parallel to the career of the man who led the bold dash upon Johnston's forces at Romney, who turned the bloody tide of battle at Fort Donelson and again at Shiloh, who saved Washington by standing all day against overwhelming odds at Monocacy, who successfully governed a turbulent Territory, and who has won assured fame as a writer by work of a very high and very unique order. It almost seems as if the personality of the colonel of the famous Eleventh Indiana Zouaves and the brigadier general in command of the Middle District must be a separate one from that scholarly man of letters who writes and thinks and dreams in the quiet of his shady garden in a Western country town.
And yet the literary taste has run through all the changing scenes of General Wallace's life. In his boyhood, which was passed at the Indiana village of Brookville, although he persistently refused to go to school, he was a voracious reader. His father - who served in Congress, and was Governor of Indiana from 1837 to 1840 - had a fine library, which was always open to him, and he was seldom without a book in his pocket. It is said that he used to disappear from the house immediately after breakfast, and come back only when hunger and approaching night drove him home, spending the whole day in solitary wanderings, reading, or studying the wonders of plant and insect life. At sixteen he wrote a novel. It was called "The Man at Arms - A Tale of the Tenth Century," and was quite an ambitious affair, covering three hundred closely written pages of manuscript, of course, for it never saw the light of print. A romance of early Mexico was his next undertaking, and it was half finished when war arose on the Rio Grande and Wallace went off to fight in the country whose history had been his favorite study.
He went there as second lieutenant in a volunteer company that he raised himself, served his term of enlistment, and came back without any recorded military distinction but with some valuable material for his literary work. He took up the study of law, was admitted to the bar, married, and settled down to practice at Crawfordsville, his wife's home. As an amusement he continued his interrupted Mexican novel, which was finally completed a dozen years after its first page was written. "I wrote this Story only for pastime," General Wallace has said of it. "I never thought of the publication of it. It filled up evenings and idle hours generally. Going to New York on one occasion I concluded for curiosity to slip the manuscript into my trunk and submit it to a publisher. Whitelaw Reid gave me an introduction to a Boston firm," and the result was that "The Fair God" was issued and found a permanent place in literature.
Another occupation of his leisure hours was the organization and drilling of a militia company that was named the Montgomery Guard. What a thorough drillmaster he was was proved when the civil war came. His company was the nucleus of the Eleventh Indiana, and every man in it afterwards became a commissioned officer.
As colonel of the Eleventh Wallace was posted at Evansville, to cut off supplies sent to the Confederates by way of the Ohio River. After a few weeks of irksome police duty, in answer to urgent petitions for a chance to see active service, there came orders to join Patterson, who was facing Joseph E. Johnston before Harper's Ferry. On the way eastward he executed a daring attack on a Confederate detachment at Romney, in western Virginia. From Cumberland, which he had reached by the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, he led eight hundred men along an unguarded mountain road, getting within striking distance of the enemy, who numbered twelve hundred, at nightfall. The attack was wholly unexpected, and carried everything before it, capturing the Confederates' camp and battery and driving them off in utter rout. Wallace next morning reported that his men had in the previous twenty four hours traveled eighty seven miles - forty six of them on foot - without a rest, had won a brisk skirmish, "and are ready to repeat it tomorrow." And the blow thus boldly struck so alarmed Johnston that he withdrew from Harper's Ferry and retreated into Virginia.
Meanwhile Wallace's little force was menaced by a greatly superior body under Colonel McDonald, which cut his railroad communications behind him. For a time he was hemmed in at Cumberland, with no cavalry or artillery, and almost without ammunition. In momentary expectation of attack, and with only twenty rounds of cartridges to meet it, he nevertheless held his position, and maintained so bold a front that McDonald did not advance within five miles of Cumberland.
For three months Wallace held the line of the Baltimore and Ohio, the most important means of military communication between East and West, and during that time his force, insignificant in numbers - no reinforcements could be spared - was constant]y engaged in skirmishes with the enemy over a hundred miles of the railroad. His success was rewarded with a brigadier general's commission, and he went west to command a division of Halleck's army.
He was under Grant in the battle before Fort Donelson, and when McClernand was giving way before the furious assault of Pillow and Buckner Wallace thrust his brigade before the advancing Confederates and drove them back to their works. "God bless you, you saved the day on the right," was the message he received from headquarters.
At Shiloh he was in Grant's rear, and did not reach the battlefield till midnight, when the Union army, worsted in the first day's fight, was huddled beside the Tennessee in disorder that seemed irretrievable. It was Wallace's brigade that at dawn opened the conflict of the second day, which ended with the Federal forces completely victorious.
In the fourth summer of the war Wallace, now major general in command at Baltimore, heard that Jubal Early with twenty thousand Confederates had dashed down the Shenandoah Valley and across the Potomac, and was advancing upon Washington, which was practically undefended. Grant, held at bay before the bloody trenches of Petersburg, had detached Wright's corps to meet the raid; but unless Early's march could be checked Wright would be too late to save the capital.
Wallace's troops, few in number, were scattered all along the Maryland railroads to guard communications. He hastily gathered such forces as he could scrape together - some three thousand men - at Frederick, where on the 7th of July he had a sharp skirmish with Early's advance guard and drove it back. Then, posting himself behind the Monocacy River, he prepared to meet the main body of the Confederates. Reinforcements came up that nearly doubled his little army, but the enemy still had more than three men to his one.
Early was not ready to attack until the morning of the 9th, when he moved on the Federal position with his full force. Wallace held his ground for eight hours of desperate fighting, in which he lost, in killed, wounded, and captured, more than one third of his command. But he had saved Washington. Early had been delayed for a day and a half, and Wright had had time to reach the capital.
Immediately after the war General Wallace presided over the commission before which Lincoln's assassins were tried. President Hayes appointed him Governor of New Mexico, and it was in Santa Fe, the old city of the Pueblos, that much of "Ben Hur," on which he was spasmodically at work for seven years, was written. Then came his mission to Constantinople under Garfield and Arthur. Since his return from Turkey he has led the quietest of lives at his Indiana home, lecturing occasionally, but giving most of his time to another historical romance that is soon to be published. For this work he gathered materials during his three years at Constantinople. Its scene is laid in the ancient capital of the Eastern Empire at the middle of the fifteenth century, just before the Byzantine power was destroyed by the Turks.
As a writer, General Wallace's methods are the very acme of conscientious care and labored exactitude, both in the study of historical detail, the polishing and perfecting of style and diction, and even the mechanical spotlessness of his manuscript, which he writes and rewrites. again and again.
Originally published in Munsey's Magazine. 1892