In all the chronicles, memoirs and histories of the war, then and now, some generals have, fairly or not, gotten a disproportionate share of attention. Of course, it is easy to see how Grant and Lee should get the lion’s share of ink. Yet no war is won—or lost—by just one man. Often the one who is hailed as victor in truth may owe his laurels to the efforts of those of lesser rank whose contribution to the cause has been overlooked or even deliberately slighted. Such is the case with the two generals Wallace.
General William Hervy Lamme Wallace and General Lewis Wallace, although from different states and different backgrounds, in many ways followed a similar path to the war. Both were “political generals.” As many military historians come from a professional military background, there has been a tendency to look down on such military commanders; the “political general” is almost universally regarded as either incompetent, venal or vainglorious—or a combination of all three. Some political generals were unfit for high command. However, a civil war is in essence a political conflict, and men who are politically committed to their cause can often of great service on its behalf. Such were these two men. Conversely, a commander who possesses technical competence, yet has little appetite for the cause he serves can not only be of limited value, but may at times even harm the cause they ostensibly serve.
William Wallace, named after the famous Scottish national hero, was born in Ohio but grew to manhood in Ogle County, Illinois. Young William attended the Rock River Seminary, a school of higher learning for young men, whose alumni also included John A. Rawlins, who would later rise to become General Grant’s Chief of Staff. After graduating from there in 1844, William resolved to pursue a career in the law and was fully intending to apprentice with the firm of Logan and Lincoln. On the way, however, he met the acquaintance of Judge T. Lyle Dickey—and his daughter Ann—and decided to clerk with that esteemed Illinois jurist. Earning his admission to the Illinois Bar, Wallace became friends with Abraham Lincoln and rubbed shoulders with many prominent lawyers and politicians of the day, many of them of like mind as Lincoln. Wallace and his wife attended the Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 that was held in Ottawa, Illinois. There is little question that William Wallace was a Lincoln man through and through.
When the Mexican War broke out, William Wallace volunteered and served as a lieutenant in the 1st Illinois Volunteer Infantry, seeing active combat in Mexico, particularly at the Battle of Buena Vista. Having witnessed the battle first hand, his comments regarding the role of volunteers versus regular troops are instructive as to his views of their respective abilities. Wallace was particularly irked at efforts by the regular army commanders to take credit for the victory–a victory which he felt was due to the volunteer troops in the army. Wallace wrote, “the bull-dog courage (and) perseverance of the volunteers saved the day.”
As a friend and associate of Lincoln, William Wallace tirelessly worked for the latter’s election and when secession came, William Wallace was quick to volunteer his services, becoming Colonel of the 11th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Although most of 1861 was uneventful for Wallace, late in the year he saw action in the field, joining General Grant’s expedition against Forts Donelson and Henry and earning a promotion to brevet brigadier general.
When Fort Henry on the Tennessee River felt easily to the Federal flotilla under Commodore Foote, General Grant resolved to march across the thin strip of land that separated it from Fort Donelson, which guarded the Cumberland River, and attack that fortress from landward. Wallace’s brigade was part of General McClernand’s division, assigned to the right flank of the besieging Federal force.
In truth, General Grant’s force was smaller than the Confederate army he was besieging inside Fort Donelson, although the Rebel commanders did not know it. On February 15, however, the Confederates resolved to break the siege and escape southward towards Nashville, where they hoped to regroup and renew the fight. The brunt of the Rebel attack therefore fell on Grant’s right, where McClernand’s troops were blocking the roads southward to Nashville.
Although attacked with overwhelming force, William Wallace’s regiments resisted valiantly, until at last, their ammunition exhausted, they were forced to retreat. Other brigades of McClernand’s division broke under the pressure of the assaults and fled in panic, but Wallace managed to keep his men together and fell back in good order. Still, the situation was critical, as the Rebels were on the verge of making good their escape; if they realized how weak Grant’s force truly was, they may even turn and overwhelm his vulnerable force.
As fate would have it, however, as William Wallace led his battered brigade back, another Union force, fresh to the battle, was advancing to fill the gap. This was a hastily assembled division, made up in large part of troops transferred from General Buell’s Army of the Ohio and under the command of General Lewis Wallace. Leading the troops relieving William Wallace was General Lew Wallace.
The two Generals Wallace exchanged brief courtesies, with General Lew directing William to his ammunition wagons to resupply, even as Lew Wallace’s troops advanced in battle formation to counter-attack. The Rebel breakthrough was blunted and then forced back by Lew Wallace’s men; General Grant’s victory at Fort Donelson was thus assured. Thanks largely to the two Wallace’s, Grant earned his laurels as the victor of Forts Donelson and Henry.
—–To Be Continued—–
For more about General William Wallace and his wife Ann Wallace, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground. For more on General Buell and the Army of the Ohio, see Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife.