As I think about people I admire historically, a spectrum of Federal commanders come to mind: Winfield S. Hancock, Nelson Miles, John Gibbon, etc. But recently, I have come to steadily respect and admire more and more Lew Wallace.
Wallace sits atop the mantle for a number of reasons. His tenacity, fearlessness in the face of overwhelming odds, and refusal to back down from half-truths are all traits that we can continue to draw inspiration from almost 155 years later.
His tenacity: When Wallace made a decision to do something, he never went at it half-hearted. He threw everything he had into an endeavor; on the battlefield that meant keeping control of his troops, and moving them to the best of his ability. Out of a warzone, as a budding writer, it meant re-examining perceptions if he realized they were wrong, and out of that doggedness came Ben-Hur, one of the America’s greatest novels.
Fearlessness in the face of overwhelming odds: Wallace is one of those people in history that honestly enjoyed combat. Serving as a young teenager in the waning years of the Mexican War, Wallace grew to love the martial lifestyle. With the onset of the Civil War, Wallace quickly put his services to the Union cause. Rising steadily through the ranks, Wallace’s star fell once he was scapegoated by Ulysses S. Grant and others for the battle of Shiloh (more on that below). Relegated to behind-the-lines details, Wallace once complained to his wife, “Soon will be heard the thunder of captains, the sound of the trumpet and the shout, and I not there.” He wanted action, no matter where it may be found. In that yearning for action, he oversaw the defense of Cincinnati in the fall of 1862, and finally, defended the banks of the Monocacy River. Though he had scant resources and faced a juggernaut of Confederate veterans, when asked to serve, Wallace rushed to the scene and fought an action that came to be known as the “The Battle that Saved Washington.” Though he didn’t have orders to do-so from higher officers, Wallace knew what had to be done, and rushed to action. Sometimes in life, we just have to do what’s right, and there isn’t time to ask for guidance, or permission. Wallace embodied that.
Refusal to back down from half-truths: I’m sure that at some point, most people have been the subject of rumors or slander. It’s frustrating, and more than that, infuriating if those rumors aren’t true. Wallace found himself in that position starting in 1862, and defended himself for the next 43 years, only being silenced when he died. At the battle of Shiloh, in April of 1862, Wallace marched his division across the bog of drenched and barely navigable roads around Pittsburg Landing. After the battle, Wallace was accused of being lost, and not following orders. The scapegoating started with Ulysses S. Grant, and Henry Halleck, and grew from there. But Wallace was never lost at Shiloh, and he followed orders he had received to the best of his ability. And so for the rest of his life he defended his actions, refusing to back down. That can equally be transmittable to the modern-day. When you’re in the right, and you know you’re in the right, say so, and keep saying so. Fortunately for Wallace, more and more historians are realizing that truth to the battle of Shiloh, and 112 years after his death, his truth is starting to emerge.
So I look up to Wallace, and I expect I will continue to do so.