The Wild West of Yester-Year

Lew Wallace: The Author and the Outlaw
By Rachel Kovaciny

When I was growing up, my family watched the classic movie Ben-Hur (1959) around Easter every year. Sometimes before, sometimes after, sometimes on Easter. It was one of my favorite movies so I loved that tradition. It's got a little of everything: action, romance, suspense, intrigue, chariot racing, Charlton Heston, Bibilical figures, Roman soldiers, and a massive sea battle. Also, an epic score by Miklos Rozsa. Now, I know what you're thinking. This column is called 'The West of Yesteryear,' not 'Hollywood of Yesteryear.' Did she get sidetracked? Did she run out of western history to talk about already? Where is she going with this? Bear with me. This involves the American West, I promise. The movie Ben-Hur is based on a novel titled Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. General Lewis Wallace, to be more precise. Wallace had a long, illustrious career in both the military and the judicial system. And along the way, he encountered one of the most famous figures of the Wild West. Which I'm here to tell you about today. Lucky you!

After a brief stint in the military during the Mexican-American War, Wallace was admitted to the bar in 1849 and began practicing law in his native Indiana, eventually becoming his district's prosecuting attorney. When the American Civil War began in 1861, he was appointed Indiana's adjutant general in charge of recruiting troops. He recruited twice as many as he was asked to sign up, then resigned his role with the state government to join the military. He received a colonel's commission and served under General Ulysses S. Grant in the Union Army of Tennessee, where he was promoted to the rank of Major General at the young age of only 34.

During the war, Wallace not only led troops in battles such as Shiloh and Monocacy, but also presided over several military courts of inquiry. After the war, he presided over the court of inquiry that tried Confederate officer Henry Wirz, the man who ran the deplorable prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Wallace was also part of the court that tried those accused of assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. After he'd finished with his military court duties in 1865, Wallace resigned from the army and resumed practicing law. But in 1878, the President appointed him governor of New Mexico Territory, where he stayed until 1881. While Wallace governed New Mexico Territory, he did two things I find interesting. First, he wrote the novel Ben-Hur. Second, he tried to put an end to the Lincoln County War in 1879. (This is the conflict showcased in the 1970 movie, Chisum, if you're a fan of John Wayne movies or '70s westerns.)

The Lincoln County War was a series of violent disagree-ments between various residents of Lincoln County. Wallace intervened, but his efforts to end the trouble were unsuccessful until he ordered the arrest of several people involved in various Lincoln County killings. One of them is someone you may have heard of: William H. McCarty Jr., alias William H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid. Yes, that's correct: the guy who wrote Ben-Hur and helped try Abraham Lincoln's assassins also met up with Billy the Kid. They met in secret in March 1879. Billy the Kid had witnessed a murder, and Wallace arranged for him to testify in exchange for a full pardon of his crimes. Although Billy the Kid did testify at the murder trial, the local authorities refused to honor Wallace's agreement. Billy the Kid escaped from jail and went back to his life of crime, and Governor Wallace eventually signed his death warrant. Billy the Kid died at the hand of Sheriff Pat Garrett a few months after Wallace left office in the spring of 1881. Wallace was then appointed U.S. minister to the Ottoman Empire and eventually went back to practicing law privately.

If you want to learn even more about General Lewis Wallace, I recommend checking out for a wealth of information about him and his writing.