General Lew Wallace Study & Museum

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.

Gen Lew Wallace NARA

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:

Lew Wallace Study 1

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.

Interior Lew Wallace Study 3

Books and paintings on one wall of the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, Indiana. The painting on the left was painted by Lew Wallace himself and the center painting was a gift to him from the Sultan of Turkey.

Interior Lew Wallace Study 1

Interior Lew Wallace Study 2

The chair closest to the fireplace was the chair in which Lew Wallace wrote much of Ben-Hur in.

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:

Part of the military commission which tried the Lincoln conspirators.  Lew Wallace is seated, second from the right. NARA

Part of the military commission which tried the Lincoln conspirators. Lew Wallace is seated, second from the right. NARA

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:

The Conspirators in the Lew Wallace Study 3

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.

The Conspirators in the Lew Wallace Study Labeled

It is a very large painting, measuring 60″ by 66.5″.  It dwarfs over all the other works of art in the study.

The Conspirators in the Lew Wallace Study 1

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.

Study during Wallace's day

This photograph of Lew Wallace’s study during his life, shows the painting of the conspirators with a prominent place on an easel.

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.

Lew Wallace Grave 1

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 Grave 3

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

Lew Wallace Grave 2

References:
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

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 17 Comments

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17 thoughts on “General Lew Wallace Study & Museum

  1. Rob Goffredi

    Very good article about a very interesting man, however,no mention of Wallace as Territorial Governor of New Mexico and his dealings with Billy the Kid.

    • Rob,

      You’re right that I neglected to mention Lew Wallace’s involvement with Billy the Kid. At one time Wallace almost had Billy turn state’s witness, but Billy escaped from prison before he could testify. In the end Wallace wrote out the death warrant for Billy the Kid.

  2. Richard Sloan

    Another fine feature, Dave! I always puzzled over what appears to be a canvas bag in front of the group pictures of the members of the Military Commission. ( In another pose the bag sits directly beneath the little table.) I get the impression that it was deliberate. WQhat do you think it was? Does it contain the canvas hoods? Is it symbolic? It can’t be accidental.
    There appears to be a Star of David on Wallace’s obelisk. I don’t believe Wallace was Jewish. It’s no doubt a reference to Judah Ben-Hur, the central character in Wallace’s book..(A quotation from the book is near the base of the obelisk.) By the way, did you know that the Lew Wallace Study/Museum was originally named the Ben-Hur Museum, and that the term “film rights” started because “Ben-Hur” was first made into a movie two years after Wallace died, without getting permission or money from Wallace’s estate? I always wondered if Wallace had the desire and the ability to go to New York City to see the play that was made about his book. That was six years before he died. Can you recommend any good, reliable biographies of Wallace? He seems like a fascinating man.

    • Richard,

      The item on the floor in the picture of the commission is actually a newspaper. If you zoom in you can see the word “Chronicle” at the top. Why they put a newspaper on the floor is beyond me.

      With regards to a good book about Wallace, I believe he wrote his own autobiography. There are also two books I found online that look promising: “Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War” and “The Sword & the Pen: the Life of Lew Wallace”.

      • Scott S.

        Dave,

        Great post as always.

        I can definitely recommend Shadow of Shiloh. As the full title would suggest, it’s focus is on Wallace’s Civil War exploits. I does touch, however, on his early life and a little on his later years.

        The Sword and the Pen is a good read but it is very short (152 pages) and isn’t super detailed. It does a give a good overview of Wallace’s life.

        Another book I have come across is titled Lew Wallace Militant Romantic (published 1980). I have not read this one but from what I understand it gives a more detailed account of other aspects of his life.

        As I posted on the Lincoln Discussion Symposium thread, there have been postcards made of Wallace’s “Conspirators” painting. (Did you happen to pick any up?!). They are also considering making posters of the painting…if they do will likely be available in the Spring.

        Scott

        • Scott,

          First off, thanks for posting about the study on the Lincoln Discussion Symposium. Though I has seen Wallace’s painting reproduced in Swanson and Weinberg’s book “Lincoln’s Assassins”, I never thought about where it was held. My visit to the study was very educational and I have you to thank for bringing it to my attention.

          I asked about the postcards but they told me that they did not have them made yet. They had postcards of other things relating to the study but not the painting. I was informed that they were going to create postcards to sell at a later date. I was a bit disappointed since I was looking forward to buying a few.

          Thanks for all the help!

          Dave

    • Hi Richard!

      Lew did actually get to see the Broadway play of Ben-Hur. After the play, he commented, “My God, did I set all this in motion?” The two books Dave recommends (“Shadow of Shiloh” and “The Sword and the Pen”) about Lew are our two favorites at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum.

      Stephanie Cain
      Visitor Services, General Lew Wallace Study & Museum

  3. Wonderful post, Dave, as always!

    I have always wanted to visit the Lew Wallace study – it seems like such a wonderful place and Wallace was a true “Renaissance Man!”

    I’ve always wanted to see “The Conspirators” painting in person. I’ve contacted their staff regarding information on the General, and they are extremely helpful and knowledgeable. I’m so very glad that you got a chance to visit.

    • Thanks, Betty. I drove back to IL for the 4th of July and decided to make a detour in Crawfordsville just to see the painting. Though there was some talk about making post cards with the painting on it, the museum had yet to do so. Hopefully with the recent inquiries about it, they will make postcards and a poster of it available for sale.

      The guide I had was extremely knowledgable and answered all the questions I had. If you’re ever road tripping through the midwest, Betty, it’s worth a stop.

  4. Laurie Verge

    What a wonderful write-up, and the photos are great. Thanks for making my day.

    • Laurie,

      The study had a very “Surratt House” feel to it. They have a separate visitor center with a modest gift shop and some exhibits. Instead of a talking map they have a 15 minute video. The guides are very knowledgeable and friendly.

      If you ever want to move to Indiana, a job at the study would certainly make you feel at home.

  5. Richard Sloan

    The first time I ever learned about the painting of the conspirators watching the Inauguration was when I opened up my spanking new copy of Theodore Roscoe’s 1959 book, “Web of Conspiracy.” There it was, as the frontispiece. I think Jeannine Clark was the first “Boothie” to visit the Wallace Museum (c. 1979) and to report on Wallace’s sketches of the conspirators. (His sketch of Dr. Mudd is emblazoned in gold on one of the reprints of Nettie Mudd’s book about he father.). Thanx for identifying the “bag” in the photo as really being a newspaper. Certainly odd!

  6. What a great post! Thanks for visiting the Study and writing so eloquently about it. It’s always wonderful to know people enjoyed their time with us. 🙂

    • Stephanie,

      Thank you for linking this post on the Study’s Facebook page! You all have a beautiful museum there and it was wonderful to visit. Once you guys make postcards and posters of the conspirator painting, I’ll be sure to buy a few.

      Dave

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