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Walking in Lew Wallace’s Shoes

October 28, 2010

A retired U.S. Department of Defense employee who serves as a volunteer at the Monocacy National Battlefield, Gail Stephens, author of the new IHS Press book Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War, also lectures on the Civil War, teaches courses at area colleges and gives battlefield tours. Here she talks about her experiences in writing about Wallace.

What inspired you to write a book about Lew Wallace’s Civil War career?

I’ve been a volunteer at Monocacy National Battlefield, south of Frederick, Md., for 10 years. On July 9, 1864, at the battle of Monocacy, Wallace, with 6,500 men, half of whom had never fought in a battle, held a veteran Confederate army of 14,000 for an entire day, giving Ulysses S. Grant time to reinforce a vulnerable Washington, D.C, only 30 miles to the south.

I was curious how a man who had accomplished this feat could have been out of field command between the fall of 1862 and March 1864. I was told that he had failed Grant at Shiloh on April 6, 1862, when he arrived too late to fight that day, and that Grant had gotten rid of him. That Wallace should have been so very careless, cowardly or incompetent was difficult for me to reconcile with the man who fought at Monocacy. I decided to see what answers I could find in the primary sources and this book is the result.

How important were your actual visits to battlefields in writing the book?

Crucial. A battlefield must be seen to be interpreted and ground must be walked in order to understand why officers and men made the decisions they made. In October 2005, with seven other historians, I walked the entire route of Wallace’s controversial April 6 march to the battlefield of Shiloh. What we learned that day in terms of the length, difficulty and timing of the march is key to my conclusions about that controversy.

Just how good a general was Wallace?

I think that the battle of Monocacy and his defense of Cincinnati in September 1862 demonstrate how good he actually was. He understood the importance of terrain because at Monocacy, he picked a position on high bluffs with a river in his front, where he had an edge that would in part make up for his much smaller force. He placed his best troops the veteran division from Grant’s army where he expected the most fighting and his green troops along the periphery. He used his one six-gun battery of artillery judiciously to protect a bridge and to provide aid to his veteran division. Most important, he knew how long to fight and when to give it up.

At Cincinnati, he showed that he was not only good at fighting but good at organizing. Between Sept. 2 and 10, 1862, with Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith‘s Confederate army just 80 miles away, he assembled a force of 72,000 volunteers, completed seven miles of fortifications with eight artillery batteries, and armed 18 steamboats to patrol the Ohio River, a herculean task. On Sept. 10, when Maj. Gen. Harry Heth‘s division of 10,000 moved on Cincinnati at Smith’s order, Heth judged the city to well defended and retreated. Wallace had good military instincts, was a tough, scrappy fighter, and had a natural ability to lead men and choose where and how he would fight. However, Wallace had a problem with authority and he was not a team player, fatal qualities in the army.

What was Wallace’s greatest service to the Union cause during the war?

Wallace had some great military moments, his afternoon attack at Fort Donelson, which regained the potential Confederate escape route for the Union, his defense of Cincinnati, and his “brilliant little battle of Monocacy,” which helped save Washington, D.C., but one non-military event may trump those.

In 1864, when Wallace took command of the Middle Department, President Abraham Lincoln told him that he had a most important task to ensure that slavery was abolished in Maryland by a constitutional process and without excessive military intervention. In previous elections, the Union military had exercised a heavy hand in secession-prone Maryland. The stakes were very high in 1864 when Maryland first prepared to vote on which delegates they would send to a constitutional convention where the key issue was whether to abolish slavery. The state’s voters would then be asked whether they approved of the amended constitution. Lincoln desperately wanted one of the border states to abolish slavery via a peaceful constitutional process and demonstrate that democracy was firmly entrenched in the Union. Wallace worked closely with the Unionist governor of Maryland, Augustus Bradford, and local judges of election to ensure that the election was fair and peaceful, so his troops remained in their encampment. It worked. Slavery was abolished in Maryland on Nov. 1, 1864, and Wallace had a 100-gun salute fired from Fort McHenry, the inspiration for The Star-Spangled Banner. One Marylander wrote Wallace that his name would forever be associated “with a cause more enduring than that of many a stricken field that of free institutions and their consolidation forever.”

Did Wallace every achieve any kind of “peace” about what happened at Shiloh?

I don’t think so. Shiloh was widely discussed and even though Grant exonerated him in his memoirs, but even after they were published, the criticism continued. For a man to whom honor was a tangible concept, this criticism was a constant thorn in his side. He fought the charges whenever and wherever he could, but they always pained him.

What is your next project?

I’m writing an essay on the role of national cemeteries in battlefield preservation, more specifically on whether the men who created the national cemeteries on Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Shiloh understood that in creating these hallowed places, they were preserving the core of what would become today’s national battlefield parks. When that’s published, I would like to dig more deeply into the 1864 advance on Washington, D.C., so memorably delayed by Wallace, in particular the reasons behind Robert E. Lee‘s decision to send an army to seize the Union capital, the reasons why the Union high command was so slow to realize Washington was vulnerable, and the repercussions from the campaign.


Ray E. Boomhower is senior editor for the IHS Press. He likes to think he can write faster than anyone who can write better and write better than anyone who can write faster.

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