In the city of Crawfordsville, Indiana, surrounded by modern houses, well kept yards, and the friendly people that the rural Midwest breeds, there lies a a building and museum dedicated to a man who lived a fascinating and multifaceted life. His name was Lew Wallace and he lived from 1827 to 1905.
Wallace achieved early fame by becoming the youngest Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War. His valiant command at the Battle of Monocacy, while a loss for the Union, delayed Confederate General Jubal Early’s forces long enough for the proper reinforcements to arrive in Washington D.C., which later prevented Early from taking the nation’s capital. Following the Civil War, Lew Wallace was appointed the Governor of the New Mexico Territory, and then the U.S. Minister to Turkey. In Turkey, Wallace broke traditional social customs and diplomatic protocol by asking to shake hands with Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Surprisingly the Sultan consented and from this unique start blossomed a mutual respect and friendship between the two men. Wallace was an avid reader, fisherman, painter, and would-be inventor.
As remarkable as these accomplishments are, however, Wallace’s great fame comes from his literary contributions. One of his books, in particular, made him a household name in the 19th century and granted him immense wealth and prestige. The book has been adapted for the stage, radio, television, and four motion pictures, the most famous being Charlton Heston’s 1959 version. This book is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It was the best selling American novel from its publication in 1880 until 1936, when it was replaced by Gone With the Wind. To date, Ben-Hur has never been out of print.
Lew Wallace wrote much of Ben-Hur while sitting under a tree at his Crawfordsville home. After its success, Wallace decided to build himself a study, away from his main house, in which he could write, research, and tinker with his other interests. The study took three years to build and was completed in 1898. Today, the study is a museum relating to the life of Lew Wallace, the solider, diplomat, and author:
The exterior of the study is a mixture of different architectural styles, many gleamed from Wallace’s time in Turkey. The interior of the study is basically one large room with a fireplace alcove, a small room to the side in which Wallace would nap, and a set of stairs which leads down to the basement which held the furnace, bathroom, and electrical system in Wallace’s day. To use a colloquialism, this study was Wallace’s “man cave”. It was the home of Wallace’s many passions and hobbies. There are shelves all around the room containing his huge collection of books and research materials that he used in his writing. The walls are covered with paintings he owned and ones he painted himself. There are cases for his hunting and fishing gear and his other experimental hobbies like sculpting and violin making.
While Lew Wallace may be best known for Ben-Hur, he also was involved in the Lincoln assassination story. General Wallace was one of the nine members of the military commission which tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators:
During the trial, Wallace passed the time by making sketches of all the Lincoln conspirators (except Mrs. Surratt). Those sketches, which show a great degree of talent, are now housed at the Indiana Historical Society, but are reproduced below:
Wallace would later use these sketches as models for a painting. That painting, known as “The Conspirators”, but actually unnamed and unsigned by Wallace is housed in the study:
In addition to the conspirators he made life sketches of during the trial, Lew Wallace also included depictions of John Wilkes Booth and John Surratt. The painting is said to be of the conspirators present at Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration. While Booth was present at the inauguration, it is unlikely any of the others were.
It is a very large painting, measuring 60″ by 66.5″. It dwarfs over all the other works of art in the study.
In Wallace’s time, he had the painting displayed on an easel in a corner of the room. Due to concerns for its safety, the study currently puts it up and out of reach.
Over the years, the painting of the conspirators has darkened. General Wallace likely contributed to this due to his avid smoking habit. The study hopes to restore the painting, along with some of the ornate designs on the interior of the study.
If you’re in the area of Crawfordsville, Indiana, a stop at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum is definitely worth it. For $5 admission you are presented with an introductory video about Lew Wallace’s life and then are given a personalized tour of the study by one of the knowledgeable guides. You are also free to roam around the grounds and visitor center free of charge. The study also has brochures giving directions to Lew Wallace’s grave which is only 3 or so miles from the study.
It appears to be the tallest monument in the whole cemetery and the top of the obelisk is carved to look like there is a flag draped on it.
Lew Wallace lived a unique life and his former study in Crawfordsville does a great job of educating its visitors about his accomplishments and legacy. For more information, visit their website: http://www.ben-hur.com
Thanks to the participants of Roger Norton’s Lincoln Discussion Symposium from whom I first learned of this museum and decided to visit.
General Lew Wallace Study & Museum
Indiana Historical Society