Lewis Wallace came from a political background, much as had William Wallace. His father had been a successful lawyer and jurist and later served as Lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Indiana. Lewis followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer in his turn.
Lew Wallace was active in Indiana politics but remained a Democrat even when Oliver Morton, disenchanted with the party’s growing appeasement of the militant pro-slavery Southern wing, bolted the party and joined the new Republican Party.
Lew Wallace’s career, like William Wallace’s, was interrupted by service in the Mexican War, where he served in the 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
However, when Lew witnessed the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he was greatly impressed by Lincoln’s performance–far more so than that of Stephen Douglas’s. Witnessing the growing sectarian division in the country, Lew even organized a militia company–The Crawfordsville Guards Independent Militia–in Indiana several years before the outbreak of war, looking towards the day it would be needed to help preserve the Union.
After the Election of 186O, as it became obvious that it was pro-slavery militants who were actually going to precipitate a civil war, Lew Wallace finally threw his lot in with the Republicans. Lew was what was called a “War Democrat.” Wallace went to Governor Oliver Morton to volunteer his services for the Union.
Initially, Wallace was made Adjutant General and put in charge of helping organize the masses of recruits flooding into the training camps throughout Indiana. Lew was then given commission as Colonel of the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and dispatched with his command to help liberate western Virginia (later West Virginia). The core of Wallace’s regiment consisted of his old company of volunteers, now expanded to a full regiment of zouaves. After seeing some brief skirmishing in Virginia, the regiment’s term of enlistment expired, but it was soon replaced by a three year regiment. In September, however, Colonel Lew was promoted to general and given a brigade to command.
In February, 1862, Brigadier Lew Wallace took part in the expedition to attack the Confederate forts guarding the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers on the border between Kentucky and Tennessee. Now part of General Smith’s division, Wallace’s brigade was at first given the passive role of garrisoning Fort Heiman, an unoccupied Rebel defense across from Fort Henry, which had been blasted into submission by Flag Officer Foote’s flotilla of gunboats.
Soon, however, Grant precipitous advance on Fort Donelson necessitated his calling up Wallace’s unit to close the siege of the Rebel stronghold. Although told not to take offensive action by Grant, General Wallace, now in charge of a full division, realized that nearby Federal troops were about to be overrun and, against orders, advanced to prevent an enemy breakthrough. He arrived to find General William Wallace’s outnumbered troops falling back and rushed to their rescue, saving the day. The Confederate counter-attack a failure, the enemy inside Fort Donelson soon surrendered to Grant.
After the successful conclusion of the Donelson Campaign, Lew Wallace found himself promoted to Major General and in command of a division on a permanent basis. He was soon dispatched up the Tennessee River where the next campaign, aimed against the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi, was starting to take shape. Lew’s first mission was to cut the Mobile and Ohio Railroad north of Corinth, even as Sherman’s division was to cut the railroad south of the city. Wallace’s mission was a success and he returned to his temporary camp along the Tennessee. General Lew Wallace expected an advance on Corinth proper would follow almost immediately as that post was still weakly held. But it was not to be.
Instead, General Henry Halleck, the departmental commander–nicknamed “Old Brains”– had decided to wait and have both Grant and General Buell’s armies rendezvous near Savannah, Tennessee, before moving against Corinth. In the wake of the spectacular victory at Fort Donelson and the fall of Nashville, Wallace’s superiors believed the Rebellion was all but over. Wallace’s temporary advance base at Crump’s Landing was therefore made his division’s bivouac, as he awaited the rest of the Union forces to accumulate further downriver.
As the bulk of the army gathered at Pittsburg Landing, some six to eight miles distant, Lew Wallace feared that his isolated division was vulnerable to enemy attack. Wallace deployed his brigades in depth, even as he sent out cavalry patrols and scouts (spies) to reconnoiter the countryside.
Wallace also familiarized himself with the roads in the area and set work details repairing all the roads and bridges leading to Pittsburg Landing. Unfortunately, Generals Sherman and Grant were not so diligent in scouting and patrolling, nor in constructing roads to link the separated sections of their main camps at Pittsburg Landing. Of redoubts and barricades, there were none built by Grant to slow an enemy attack.
Several days before the April 6 attack, Lew Wallace’s spies reported a major movement of the Confederate Army from Corinth, headed for Pittsburg Landing. Lew Wallace immediately sent a dispatch to Grant, which should have been in Grant’s hand no later than the morning of the 5th of April. In his memoirs, Wallace gives Grant “the benefit of the doubt” as to whether or not Grant received the dispatch. In any case, Wallace informed his brigade commanders to make ready to move on short notice, expecting an attack at any time.
In the actual event, on the morning of April 6th, although Grant and Sherman were not technically surprised—several frontline units had tried to warn their superiors to no avail—in fact the Confederates caught them unawares and totally unprepared.
When Wallace, at Crump’s Landing, first heard the firing around six a.m., he immediately put his command in readiness to march, awaiting Grant’s marching orders. It wasn’t until about 8:30 that Grant appeared on the Tigress at Crump’s Landing and at that time merely instructed Wallace to “hold yourself in readiness to march upon orders received.” When Wallace informed Grant that his command was ready to march immediately, Grant simply said “hold the division in readiness ready to march in any direction.”
It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. that Wallace finally received Grant’s marching orders via one of Grant’s aides, who had translated Grant’s verbal orders into writing. Whether the written orders actually reflected Grant’s verbal intent has been the subject of dispute.
General Wallace’s column was actually making good progress towards the battlefield, when a series of orderlies and aides came up from behind, with panicked instructions from Grant, urging Wallace to “hurry up.” Finally, Grant’s assistant adjutant, Major Rawlins, came up and under threat of being relieved, told Wallace he was on the “wrong road,” and to divert towards the low-lying road close to the river.
In fact, Wallace had long since surveyed all the roads towards Shiloh and was proceeding on the shortest route; it was a route that would put him on the right of Sherman’s original camp, where Grant’s original instructions ordered him to go. However, the Union forces had been forced backwards towards the river since the early morning and Wallace’s route would put him behind and on the flanks of the Confederate attackers—as it turns out, exactly where he would have been able to make a difference in the first day’s flight.
However, taking Major Rawlins petulant demands as a direct order from Grant, General Lew turned his column around and marched it back to a road that would take the division southward to the sodden and marshy river route—a route which was in places covered with water as high as a horse’s breast. After making this detour, Wallace’s progress slowed to a crawl and his force was not able to reach the battlefield until after dark–after the end of the day’s fighting and too late to make a difference in the first day’s battle.
Earlier that day, as General Lew Wallace awaited orders, the situation at Shiloh had gone from bad to worse, as the Union forces were repeatedly outflanked and pushed back towards the river.
William Wallace, now in charge of the Second Division, had his command’s bivouac close to the river. Nevertheless, as soon as William Wallace heard the distant sound of firing, he ordered the drummers to sound the “Long Roll,” mobilized his division and arrived close to the front in short order. Initially, the Second Division was employed as a reserve, detaching units to the support of the frontline divisions that were desperately attempting to repulse the repeated Confederate attacks. However, because of a lack of unified command—each division fighting on its own front and lacking coordination from Grant—and a lack of prepared defenses to rally around, the Confederates were able to penetrate between the separated Union forces and flank them repeatedly. Whole regiments and even brigades of Federal troops disintegrated and fled to the rear—but not the men under William Wallace’s direct command.
It was not until the afternoon that Wallace, along with the surviving fragments of General Prentiss’ division and miscellaneous units, were able to form a stable front on the crest of a thicket covered ridgeline with a shallow sunken road meandering along it—what the Rebels called “The Hornet’s Nest.” For a large part of the afternoon Wallace’s division, along with the other units, held back repeated Confederate attacks, drawing off Rebel units from other parts of the battlefield and allowing the beaten and demoralized survivors elsewhere to retreat to Pittsburg Landing, where they crowded the riverfront by the thousands—perhaps the tens of thousands.
Finally, subjected to a massed artillery barrage and nearly surrounded, William Wallace ordered a fighting retreat. All was going well for the Second Division as it escaped the tightening noose. However, as he directed his men’s withdrawal, a sniper shot hit William Wallace in the head and he was left for dead as the retreat became a rout.
The next day, General Lew Wallace launched a counterattack on the right on his own initiative, lacking any direct orders from Grant since the day before. Similarly, on the left of the field, General Don Carlos Buell’s troops also counterattacked. Supposedly, the survivors of the first day’s fight, compressed into the center of the semi-circular federal line defending the landing, also attacked—although by mid-afternoon on Monday, April 7th, General Buell’s extreme right was covering General Lew Wallace’s extreme left.
The action of the 7th—which Buell’s men forever after called “Buell’s Battle”—is what allowed Grant to claim victory in his reports and memoirs. In all the recriminations following the Battle of Shiloh, Lew Wallace was criticized as “going slow” on the 6th and becoming either confused or lost on his way to battle—none of which was true.
General William Wallace, whose courage and rock-steady leadership in the face of overwhelming odds helped save Grant’s command, received scant recognition in all the reports of the battle. Due in large part to his fatal wounding and being unable to tell his version of the battle, William Wallace never received the full credit due him at Shiloh.
As for Lew Wallace, while Grant ultimately exonerated him of any wrongdoing, his reputation remained under a shadow even after the war.
The two Generals Wallace, both “political generals,” men committed to the cause and competent leaders in peace and war, each deserved far better of History than they have so far received.
For more about William Wallace and his wife Ann and the Battle of Shiloh, see Chapter 12 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; for other, more unusual aspects of Shiloh and its aftermath, also see Chapter 11 of Ghosts and Haunts, as well as Chapter 31 of Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground.