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Lew Wallace

Born: 4-10-1827 - Died: 1905

By William H. Wroth

Lew Wallace (1827-1905) served as territorial governor of New Mexico from 1878 to 1881. Wallace was born in Brooksville, Indiana, on April 10, 1827, and moved to Indianapolis in 1837 when his father David Wallace was elected governor of Indiana. With the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846 the nineteen-year-old Wallace raised a company of troops, Company H of the 1st Indiana Volunteer Infantry. As lieutenant in the company from June 1846 to June 1847, he served in Mexico where he saw little action, but acquired a working knowledge of the Spanish language. In 1848 Wallace actively but unsuccessfully opposed the election of Zachary Taylor as president because he objected to Taylor’s treatment of Indiana regiments during the war. In 1849 he was elected to the bar and began to practice law in Indianapolis. In 1850 he moved to Covington, Indiana, where he was elected prosecuting attorney. In 1852 Wallace married Susan Arnold Elston (1830-1907) and moved to her home town, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was elected to the Indiana State Senate in 1856.

In April 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War, Wallace was appointed adjutant general of Indiana by Governor Oliver P. Morton and then was commissioned as colonel in the 11th Indiana Infantry. He served in West Virginia seeing minor action at Romney and Harpers Ferry and was promoted to brigadier general in September 1861. In February 1862 Wallace was in command of a division under General Ulysses S. Grant, taking part in the capture of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, the Union’s first major victory in the Civil War. In March he was promoted to major general. In April he took part in the battle of Shiloh, a controversial episode in his career due to confusion concerning his orders from Grant. Although the Union finally won the battle, Wallace was later blamed for the high number of casualties. He never accepted this blame, maintaining that Grant’s orders were not clear. In September 1862 he successfully commanded the defense of Cincinnati from the advances of Confederate general Edmund Kirby-Smith in Kentucky. In 1864 he was given command of the Middle Division in Baltimore and played an important part in the defense of Washington. In the battle of Monocacy with fewer than 6000 men against General Jubal Early’s 11,000 men he was able to delay the Confederate advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive and defend the city.

As the war ended, in May and June of 1865, Wallace took part in the military court which tried the assassins of President Lincoln. In August he served as judge of the court which tried and convicted Confederate Captain Henry Wirz who had been commander of the notorious Andersonville Prison. Later in 1865 Wallace traveled to Texas and northern Mexico to raise arms and money for Mexican liberal Benito Juarez in his fight to regain control of Mexico from the Emperor Maximilian. He returned to Crawfordsville in 1867 where he resumed his law practice, but he was more interested in creative writing than in the practice of law, and in 1873 he published his first novel, The Fair God, a romantic tale of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. In 1876 he made an unsuccessful run for Congress on the Republican ticket and returned, not happily, to his law practice in Crawfordsville.

Wallace had been since the Civil War a loyal supporter of the Republican Party and in 1876 he acted as legal counsel for the Republicans in the disputed Hayes-Tilden contest which was resolved by giving the contested electoral votes in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida all to Rutherford Hayes, thereby assuring his election. In September 1878, Hayes appointed Wallace governor of New Mexico territory, replacing Samuel Axtell. Axtell had been accused of corruption and was closely linked in business dealings and political patronage with several members of the notorious Santa Fe Ring, a powerful group of entrepreneurs and land speculators in Santa Fe. Axtell had done little or nothing to quell the lawlessness and violence in New Mexico, especially in Lincoln and Colfax Counties where members and minions of the Santa Fe Ring were at war with local ranchers and businessmen. In both Lincoln and Colfax Counties Axtell was accused of contributing to the violence through his support of the Santa Fe Ring parties.

It is most likely that Wallace was appointed – and accepted the appointment – in order to clean up the lawlessness and corruption of New Mexico. His reputation for honesty and his record in cases such as the trials of the President Lincoln conspirators and the Andersonville prison trial made him an ideal candidate for the position. Further he had a long-standing interest and some experience in Mexico, dating back to the Mexican-American War over 32 years previously, and he knew some Spanish. Wallace first went to Washington for briefings on his new position, and then traveled by train to Trinidad, Colorado and buckboard carriage to Santa Fe, arriving September 29, 1878. His first task was to inform Axtell that he was removed from office.

Within four days of arriving Wallace requested information from the United States marshal on the situation in Lincoln County and two days later telegraphed Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, requesting that the President declare a state of insurrection in the county. Two days later on October 7 Hayes issued a proclamation demanding that the warring parties cease and disperse by October 13. In November for many of the participants in Lincoln County War, Wallace issued a general amnesty, but for others, including the outlaw Billy Bonney (Billy the Kid), he issued arrest warrants. The amnesty calmed the situation somewhat, but the lawyer for the widow of Alexander McSween, one of the murdered protagonists in the War, was himself murdered on the streets of Lincoln in February 1879. Bonney, having witnessed the murder, attempted to receive pardon by offering himself to Governor Wallace as a prosecution witness. He had at least two secret meetings with Wallace and testified against the men accused of the murder, but charges against them were dismissed by a friendly judge.

Governor Wallace found that the commander at Fort Stanton, Colonel Nathan Dudley, was also implicated in the Lincoln County War; Dudley was accused of favoring the side of the Santa Fe Ring, which resulted in the murder of McSween. In March 1879 Wallace made a personal journey to Lincoln to investigate the situation, accompanied by the military commander for New Mexico, General Edward Hatch. Wallace twice requested Dudley’s removal as commander, and Hatch finally suspended him on March 8. Dudley was brought to trial for complicity in the murder of McSween, and Billy Bonney also testified against him, but he was acquitted. In spite of Bonney’s cooperation, Wallace bowed to his powerful enemies, and did not grant him the pardon. Bonney continued his lawless ways and was involved in another murder. He soon came to be considered the most notorious outlaw in New Mexico. The newspapers sensationalized his exploits and dubbed him “Billy the Kid.” Wallace issued a proclamation offering a reward of $500 for his capture. In 1881 he was captured and jailed in Santa Fe where he wrote four letters to Wallace, still petitioning for pardon, to which apparently Wallace made no reply. Wallace’s lack of response is not surprising since Mrs. Wallace later noted that Bonney had threatened to ride into the Santa Fe plaza and shoot her husband. Bonney was moved to jail in Mesilla, tried on murder charges and convicted in April 1881. Wallace signed his death sentence, just as Bonney broke out of jail at Lincoln where he had been transferred to await execution, killing his two guards in the process. He was finally killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in July 1881. While the case of Colonel Dudley was pending, Wallace did not want to rely on United States troops under his command, so he organized a local militia company of armed riflemen in Lincoln County to keep order and empowering them to make arrests.

Governor Wallace was also concerned with the problems caused by the nomadic tribes, especially the Apaches in southern New Mexico who resented the Americans settling on their traditional lands and frequently raided the ranches of settlers. Wallace was responsive to the concerns of the settlers and made a trip to Hot Springs (now Truth or Consequences) and Silver City in December 1879. In 1880 with the legislature’s approval he organized a territorial militia to attempt to deal with the Apache and other Indian problems. The death of the Apache leader Victorio in Mexico in October 1880 eased the problem somewhat but did not solve it.

To his credit Wallace made efforts of great insight and importance for preservation of the cultural heritage of New Mexico. He was the first official to realize that the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe was a remarkable historic monument dating from 1610, as well as being the center of government (and home of the governor) in constant every day use. He promoted its renovation with various authorities in Washington. Although Congress did not appropriate funds for this purpose during his administration, he had planted the seed for the future restoration of this important building. He also recognized the great value of the early Spanish and Mexican-period archives of New Mexico which had been badly neglected and were at that time stored in a leaky outbuilding of the Palace. Past governors had mistreated them, used them as waste paper, and even sold them to local shopkeepers for wrapping paper. In February 1879 Wallace requested funds from Washington to hire an archivist to organize and preserve the papers. In October with no federal funds forthcoming, he hired on his own authority Samuel Ellison who was fluent in Spanish and had served as translator for the legislature. In 1880 Ellison was appointed territorial librarian. Mrs. Wallace shared her husband’s concern with the neglected archives. She claimed to have discovered them in an unused office north of the Palace, and she assisted Ellison in the work of preserving them. She described them prophetically as a “rich treasure for the mining of the future historian.”

In addition to his administrative duties, Governor Wallace took the time to finish his most famous novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, while in residence in Santa Fe. He completed the sixth, seventh and eighth books, working evenings by candle light in his quarters at the Palace of the Governors. When he finished the manuscript in March 1880, he set out for New York, delivering it to Harper and Brothers for publication. Ben-Hur became one of the most popular and best-selling novels in history, with several film versions of it made in the twentieth century. Susan Wallace was also a writer and wrote at least some chapters of her popular The Land of the Pueblos while in residence at the Palace of the Governors. This account of Indian and Hispanic New Mexico as seen through eyes of typically biased eastern American woman of the day is illustrated in part with sketches by her husband.

In March 1881 after two and a half years as governor, Wallace resigned his position and was soon appointed by President Garfield as Minister to Turkey where he served in Constantinople until 1885. After returning to Crawfordsville, he published two more novels and died there in 1905. At the time of his death he was part way through the writing of his autobiography. Susan Wallace finished writing it, and it was published in 1906, a year before she died.

Sources Used:

Jones, Oakah L. “Lew Wallace: Hoosier Governor of Territorial New Mexico, 1878-1881.” In New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 60, no. 2 (April 1985), pp. 129-158.

Morsberger, Robert E. and Katherine S. Morsberger. Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1980.

Utley, Robert M. “Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War” in New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 61, no. 2 (April 1986), pp.93 -120.

Wallace, Lew. Autobiography. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1906.

Wallace, Susan E. The Land of the Pueblos. New York: John B. Alden, Publisher, 1888.