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Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War

by Gail Stephens, Indiana Historical Society Press, 2010, $27.95

IF ULYSSES S. GRANT HAD had been able to read Shadow of Shiloh, it wouldn’t have taken him 23 years to exonerate Lew Wallace for his alleged tardiness in coming to the Union commander’s support on the critical first day of the Battle of Shiloh.

Gail Stephens’ new biography covering the war years of Indiana’s most controversial Civil War general argues that Grant’s displeasure with Wallace at Shiloh was unfounded. She makes quite a convincing case, too, perhaps because she diligently retraced the route Wallace and his division took from Crump’s Landing to the battlefield. This kind of attention to detail is typical of the scrupulous research Stephens conducted for her incisive analysis of the haughty, ambitious, brave and, at times, conflicted Hoosier, whose prickly personality and vainglorious behavior bedeviled him throughout his life.

Wallace looked like a soldier and enjoyed being one, even though he was a lawyer by profession. During the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor criticized his volunteer regiment, a slight Wallace never forgot. When President Lincoln called for volunteers in April 1861, Wallace quickly organized the 11th Indiana Volunteers. As colonel, he rigorously drilled it into an effective fighting unit. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, his soldiers adored him because he was a natural leader and looked after their welfare.

His innate abilities and close ties to Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton ensured Wallace’s rapid rise through the ranks. He quickly became the youngest major general in the Union Army. But, Stephens insightfully concludes, “it was nevertheless unfortunate that he did not serve longer at the regimental level…his quick rise probably reinforced Wallace’s natural arrogance and his tendencies to work outside the system.” These tendencies persisted throughout the war, causing him particular trouble with Grant’s staff and with General Henry W. Halleck, his area commander and later Lincoln’s general in chief.

Stephens’ prose is sharp. She meticulously describes Wallace’s triumph at Fort Donelson, his fall from grace at Shiloh, the two years he was forced to spend in virtual exile and his July 1864 redemption on the banks of the Monocacy River near Frederick, Md., where he lost the “battle that saved Washington, D.C.” After the war, Wallace served on the military tribunal that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators and Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Andersonville Confederate prison. While territorial governor of New Mexico, he wrote the novel Ben Hur.

A good collection of photographs and period illustrations, plus simple yet informative maps, add texture to this superior piece of Civil War historiography, a welcome reinterpretation of a complex and frequently misunderstood individual. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read.


Originally published in the March 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.