Long before he published Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace rose from a career as an obscure small-town Indiana lawyer to take a prominent role in the Civil War.
BY ROBERT E. MORSBERGER
During the first months of the war, when the Union suffered almost continual setbacks, Wallace received adulatory publicity for leading his Indiana Zouaves on a 45-mile dash through the mountains to Romney, Virginia, where he surprised a much superior Confederate force, drove them off, and captured their equipment and supplies. Three months later, he was promoted from colonel of volunteers to brigadier general. At the Battle of Fort Donelson, the first major Union victory, Wallace played a decisive role in stopping a Confederate sortie, and he received the commander’s surrender. Shortly thereafter, he became a major general, the youngest in the army and the third highest ranking commander in the Western Theater.
But a month later, in April 1862, his brilliantly begun military career almost foundered. At Shiloh, the union army was surprised and almost driven into the Tennessee River on the first day of combat; reinforcements arriving, Grant took the offensive the second day and drove the Confederates from the field. But the Union suffered 13,000 casualties, and public opinion demanded a scapegoat. This was Wallace.
Though Grant had been nine miles north of the field when the battle began and did not arrive until midmorning, he blamed Wallace for the first day’s near defeat. Wallace, following Grant’s hasty and unclear command, marched his 6,500 troops from Crump’s landing, five miles upriver, to where the right of the Union army should have been, only to receive a second message from Grant informing him belatedly that the Union forces had retreated several miles and that he was heading into the main body of the enemy. Wallace had to countermarch and then begin again on another route, so that by the time his troops arrived after sixteen miles of forced marching, the first day’s fight was over.
Though Wallace’s division was the first in the field the next morning, and though Grant’s orders had been confusing, Grant blamed Wallace for incompetence in taking the wrong route and for “dilatoriness” in obeying orders. After Shiloh, Wallace proceeded to capture Memphis. Then he went home on leave of absence, only to find himself rusticated because of his role at Shiloh. But by one of the war’s many ironies, Wallace’s personal defeat at this time benefited the Union, for his removal from the field caused him to be the one general on hand to save Cincinnati from an unexpected Confederate offensive drive.
Relieved from field command, Wallace retired to Crawfordsville, Indiana under a formal order from Secretary of War Stanton to remain there until further instructions. During July and most of August, he found some solace in hunting and fishing on the Kankakee River. But late in August he was summoned unexpectedly to Indianapolis by Governor Oliver P. Morton, who notified him that General Braxton Bragg had “broken loose” from Chattanooga and was moving into Kentucky, posing a threat to Louisville and to Indiana across the river.
What had happened was that Bragg and Major General E. Kirby Smith decided to work together to destroy the Union army of Major General Don Carlos Buell. In early August, they met in Chattanooga and planned a campaign that would lead to the retaking of Cumberland Gap and the expulsion of the union forces from central Tennessee and Kentucky. But Kirby Smith started precipitously on his own; without support from Bragg, he left Knoxville alone and marched north into Kentucky. Trying to protect Smith, whom Buell outnumbered three to one, Bragg then moved north from Nashville into the mountains between Buell and Smith and then entered Kentucky himself with Buell in pursuit. Kentucky was thus invaded on two fronts, and someone had to stop the Confederate thrust before it reached Ohio and Indiana.
Morton explained to Wallace that he had organized five regiments for which he needed colonels and in this emergency he asked several generals to accept these commands. three others refused; but Wallace, though a major general, agreed to take the provisional rank of colonel and command the 66th Indiana. To get back into the field, he was ready to do anything–provided Morton would take Stanton and General-in-Chief Halleck off his back during the emergency.
The same day Wallace took a train to Jeffersonville, where the 66th was in camp, and reported to Brigadier General Jeremiah T. Boyle, who was dumbfounded at having a major general who ranked him turn up to serve under his command. Wallace explained that he was a volunteer on special business. Boyle then ordered him to proceed with his regiment to Lexington, Kentucky and to take command of the forces there–six infantry regiments, four of them from Indiana. Shortly after his arrival, he received another order from Boyle, explaining Kirby Smith’s march and ordering Wallace to march south to Cumberland Gap, to relieve the Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan there.
Wallace questioned the soundness of this order, considering that he men would simply put a strain on Morgan’s limited provisions and that the proper position was a defensive one. In fact, Kirby Smith had bypassed Morgan; leaving about 9,000 men before Cumberland Gap to contain the equal number of Union forces holding it, he set out from Barbourville on August 25, and led his ragged troops north through the rough terrain of the Cumberland Mountains. Badly outnumbered by Smith’s 21,000 men. Wallace saw that the place to hold the Confederates was at the Kentucky River, about fifteen miles below Lexington. Accordingly he confiscated all boats and closed the river locks to flood the fords. Flanked by limestone cliffs, near the site where Daniel Boone had built Fort Boonesboro in “the Dark and Bloody Ground,” the river offered Wallace a natural defense that could prove deadly to the attackers.
Meanwhile, Wallace obtained four guns from Cincinnati, procured horses and harness for them, located an artilleryman, a and thus had a battery. When word came that Kirby Smith was proceeding north to London, en route to Lexington and the cities beyond it, loyal Kentuckians rallied to Wallace’s support, including that fiery old abolitionist and bowie knife expert, Cassius Marcellus Clay of White Hall. Even so, Wallace saw that his best strategy was to avoid having his raw regiments fight against Kirby Smith’s veterans’ if his forces were lost, Cincinnati would fall.
Word then came that Colonel Leonidas Metcalfe’s regiment had been defeated by Kirby Smith’s advance force under Colonel John S. Scott at Big Hill near Berea and that Scott, with about 1,200 men, was advancing on Richmond, a nondescript town on the edge of the Bluegrass, just twenty-five miles away. Here Wallace thought , he had an opportunity; by sending one of his regiments on a night march from Nicholasville to Scott’s rear and then advancing himself from Lexington, Wallace could crush Scott before the main Confederate force came up and thus avoid harassment by Scott as he himself retreated to Cincinnati. But just as Wallace’s column was departing, four generals arrived; and one of them, William Nelson, handed Wallace a dispatch from Buell placing Nelson in command over Wallace and all the troops at Lexington. Six feet, 4 inches tall and weighing 300 pounds, Nelson was notoriously “ardent, loud-mouthed, and violent.” He rejected the operation against Scott; and Wallace, deprived of his role, took the train to Cincinnati.
On his second day there, while he was casting about for some way to get back into active duty, he received an urgent telegram from General Horatio G. Wright, commander of the Ohio military department, ordering him to return immediately to Lexington. Nelson had been disastrously defeated. Instead of withdrawing behind the Kentucky River, where he might have made an effective stand, he had loitered south of the river, and Kirby Smith caught him. Arriving at Richmond to find his troops already in a disorganized rut after preliminary skirmishing, Nelson rallied them in the town cemetery where, despite the cover offered by tombstones, they failed to hold. His 6,500 raw recruits were overwhelmed, and Smith took some 4,000 prisoners. With the Union army virtually destroyed, Nelson’s remnants became fugitives. (He himself was shot to death a month later in the lobby of a Louisville hotel.)
Before Wallace’s locomotive could reach Lexington, he was intercepted at Paris by another telegram from General Wright, ordering him back to defend Cincinnati. Wallace’s staff reminded him that there was nothing with which to defend the city and that he was not bound to accept the command. The staff officers insisted that since the city had no army, artillery, nor fort, defense would be futile. Nevertheless, Wallace determined to try to the utmost and turned briskly to a plan of his own. He announced that the 170,000 residents of the city would have to provide their own defense. Over Cincinnati and the opposite Kentucky towns of Covington and Newport, he proclaimed martial law, to be enforced by the police until they could be relieved by the military. At 9 a.m. on September 2, 1862, all businesses were to close down, and within an hour all citizens were to report for work details: “citizens for the labor, soldiers for the battle.” Ferryboat service across the Ohio was suspended.
Wallace’s decisiveness snapped the citizens out of their anxiety, and after the initial complaints that even marriages and milk delivery must be postponed, the residents turned up with revived morale. The Cincinnati Gazette announced, “To arms! The time for playing war has passed. The enemy is now approaching our doors!” Wallace gave local surveyors and civil engineers a quick course in defensive fortifications and sent 15,000 citizens across the river with “ploughs, picks, shovels, and scrapers obtained from the hardware-stores” to dig breastworks and rifle pits on the Kentucky shore. There was no looting nor picnicking; all activity was strictly supervised. Though it had taken engineers three months to construct one at Paducah, Wallace had a 25-foot-wide pontoon bridge of coal barges set up across the river within thirty hours, to allow his forces passage. Governor David Tod of Ohio mobilized the countrymen, and each road entering the city and each train coming in was full of volunteers for the defense. Some 60,000 irregulars, whom a paymaster nicknamed the “Squirrel Hunters,” poured in, armed with muzzle-loading hunting rifles.
Wallace and his subordinates did an amazing job of organizing and directing all these forces, and supplying them with food and lodging. He posted 55,000 armed men behind breastworks stretching along the bend of the river and concentrated at Covington and Newport. Another 15,000 were stationed at possible fords, while sixteen impressed steamboats armed with 6-pounder cannons patrolled the river. By this time, Wallace had a staff of about 150 members, many of them volunteers from the professional, artistic, and intellectual elite of the “Queen City” of the Ohio. Several became his lifelong friends and admirers. At night, in his headquarters at the Burnet House, they put on impromptu entertainments of song, story, and recitation. Wallace contributed a 15-stanza doggerel poem, “The Stolen Stars: an Hysterical Ballad,” which tells how dying Father Washington bequeathed the American flag to Uncle Samuel, only to have a conflict develop between Puritans and Cavaliers, the latter seceding and stealing eleven stars with them, which the Puritans vowed to bring home. The ballad was later published in Harper’s Weekly and issued with music as a broadside.
Meanwhile, Wallace learned the Kirby Smith, having occupied Lexington, had divided his forces and led on to capture Frankfort, the Kentucky capital, while sending the other under Brigadier General Henry Heth up the Lexington pike against Cincinnati. Colonel Scott’s cavalry, coming on ahead, skirmished with Wallace’s pickets; and on September 6, a week after the Battle of Richmond, Heth’s main column appeared at Covington. Heth reconnoitered along Wallace’s defenses, probing for the weakest point. For six days, the Confederate army and the Union volunteers faced each other, while some raids and skirmishes took place. Wallace successfully sent into the heart of Heth’s camp two spies, who reported to him in detail on the size and organization of the Confederate forces. He knew that Heth was also infiltrating his lines but let the Confederate agents pass to report back the strength of the defenses.
Wallace had spent an almost sleepless week and a half. He feared that a determined assault by Heth might rout the citizen defenders, driving them to a deadly congest rush on the pontoon bridge. But Heth found the defenses too strong and withdrew during the night of September 11. The next morning found Cincinnati unthreatened and the Lexington pike once more open. Back in the city, there was “a splendid triumphal march, with music and banners” through a cheering crowd. Wallace recalled it as “one of the gladdest days” of his life; he had, he thought, justified himself after Shiloh. Congratulatory telegrams poured in, and the city passed unanimous resolutions testifying to “the promptness, energy and skill” with which he organized the defense that saved Cincinnati and “Prevented the rebel forces under Kirby Smith from desecrating the free soil of our noble State.”
Before leaving, Wallace issued the following proclamation, which indicates the dramatic style of the man.
For the present, at least, the enemy have fallen back and your cities are safe….When I assumed command there was nothing to defend you with, except a few half-finished works and some dismounted guns; yet I was confident. the energies of a great city are boundless; they have only to be aroused, united and directed. You were appealed to. The answer will never be forgotten.
Paris may have seen something like it in her revolutionary days, but the cities of America never did. Be proud that you have given them an example so splendid. The most commercial of people, you submitted to a total suspension of business, and without a murmur adopted my principle–‘Citizens for labor, soldiers for battle.’
In coming time, strangers, viewing the works on the hills of Newport and Covington, will ask, ‘Who built these intrenchments?” You will answer, ‘We built them.’ If they ask, ‘Who guarded them?’ you can reply, ‘We helped in thousands.’ If they inquire the result, your answer will be, ‘The enemy came and looked at them, and stole away in the night.’
You have won much honor; keep your organizations ready to win more. Hereafter be always prepared to defend yourselves.
Whether or not Cincinnati long remembered, Wallace did not forget, and his experience in directing the defense provided him with firsthand background for his story of the siege of Constantinople in The Prince of India. And a year and one half later, by his stubborn fight at Monocacy, Maryland, he probably saved yet another threatened Northern city, the Capital itself, Washington D.C.
The defense was sufficiently impressive to keep the Confederates from making more than a feint. Bragg never did catch up with Smith, and by moving to Bardstown, he left Buell an open route to Louisville. A major battle never materialized in the area, and Kentucky failed to rally to Confederate support in the overwhelming numbers that had been hoped for.
Several years after the war, Wallace met General Heth in the bar of the Burnet House and learned that Heth would have held Cincinnati for $15,000,000 ransom or else have sacked the city. The two veterans compared notes on the campaign, discussed the spies each had sent intotheother’s camp, and Heth learned that the seemingly unguarded spot where he had planned to attack was actually a trap set up by Wallace in which the Confederates would have been cut to pieces in a cross fire of artillery and sharpshooters.
The fact that a battle was not fought is due to Wallace’s prompt and decisive action. Had he not taken command, nothing would have stood in the way of the Confederate army, which could have taken the city as readily as Wallace took Memphis after the Confederate collapse at Shiloh. Heth’s plans to hold the city for ransom (as Jubal Early later did to Frederick, Maryland) or sack it indicated that he felt his forces were too weak to hold it for the Confederacy, but he might have caused the Union to divert troops from critical operations elsewhere. Wallace earned the city’s gratitude, but the absence of a battle prevent him from regaining the standing he lost at Shiloh and kept the defense of Cincinnati from being as celebrated as it deserves.