Book Review: Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War


by Christopher R. Mortenson

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 286. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0806161957

Lew Wallace’s Civil War

Prof. Mortenson (Ouachita Baptist), has written an excellent biography of Lew Wallace (1827-1905), the Indiana lawyer and politician who, albeit best known as the author of the novel Ben Hur, rose from colonel to major general during the Civil War.

Wallace’s military career can be said to have been punctuated by two notable events. He turned in an apparently lackluster performance at Shiloh in 1862 which led to some contentious exchanges with his superiors. Mortenson makes an excellent case that this apparent failure to comply with orders was a matter of the “fog of war” rather than one of disobedience or mis-communication. Nevertheless, Shiloh resulted in Wallace being put on the shelf for most of the war. It was only by chance, that he was able to salvage his reputation, by an impressive rear-guard action at Monocacy, northwest of Washington, in 1864, which delayed the arrival of Jubal Early’s corps at the fortifications of Washington by at least a day, permitting an effective defense to be made. Postwar, Wallace served on the courts martial of both the Lincoln assassins and Andersonville commandant Henry Wirz.

Mortenson gives us Wallace warts and all, demonstrating that many of the man’s problems with his superiors were of his own making, but also demonstrates that he had some real ability, though mostly on the sidelines, Mortenson also gives us brief looks at Wallace’s literary career – Ben Hur was not his only book, and arguably not even his best – and his service as governor of New Mexico, including his interactions with Billy the Kid, along with some insights into the often open tensions between professional and political generals in the Civil War.

Politician in Uniform is a valuable read for anyone interested in the Civil War.


Note: Politician in Uniform is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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