Born in 1827 in Brookville, Indiana, Lewis “Lew” Wallace was one of four sons. His father, having retired from the military, was working as a lawyer. His mother, sadly, died when he was young and she was replaced by a younger woman called Zerelda, who eventually became known for her suffragette and temperance ideals.
Unsurprisingly, Lew was difficult to handle at school and eventually was sent to a private academy where his writing skills were encouraged. At sixteen, Lew was working to earn a living at a clerk’s office where he started to write his first book The Fair God. He also joined the Marion Rifles, a local militia unit.
The Mexican-American War started in 1846 when Lew was nineteen years old, studying law at his father’s law office. He was a second lieutenant in the Militia, and by June the entire unit was mustered into active military duty. He rose quickly to the first lieutenant but did not get to participate in any combat. He returned to his studies, and in 1849 was admitted to the bar.
He served with Union forces in the American Civil War and became major-general of volunteers. He became a full-time military officer after Fort Sumter was attacked in the Civil War. He was used often by Grant to investigate Military Operations, sometimes on his own side. His task was to look into the behavior of fellow officers and help decide their punishment if warranted– for example, when Major General Buell retreated as the Confederates invaded Kentucky.
He joined the courts of inquiry that tried the people accused of assassinating President Lincoln. After he returned to law at the end of the Civil War, he found it no longer suited him, so he turned to politics. He was Governor of New Mexico and then minister to Turkey in two diplomatic roles.
Over his lifetime he wrote a play, some poetry, as well as novels. His well-known works are The Fair God about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, The Prince of India about the Wandering Jew and the Byzantine Empire, and the most famous book of all, Ben-Hur, set in the Roman Empire. In his biography, he admits using writing as a distraction from law. The book Ben-Hur was written while he was the Governor of New Mexico.
This cemented his reputation for being an author, and it also made him a rich man. In the 1900s it became a bestselling novel, while in 1980, at its 100th anniversary, the book had the distinction of never having been out of print. This book is still popular today and has been used to create stage plays and movies bearing the same name.
Wallace was a very active man even after retirement. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, he tried to volunteer but was turned down due to his age of seventy-one. Lew died in 1905 while he was still writing his autobiography.
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With the help of his wife and another writer, it was published in 1906. Since his death, he has been honored with a marble statue of his likeness in the US Capitol, and in 1926 the Lew Wallace High School was opened in Indiana.