Lew Wallace (1827–1905) won fame for his novel, Ben-Hur, and for his negotiations with William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, during the Lincoln County Wars of 1878–81. He was a successful lawyer, a notable Indiana politician, and a capable military administrator. And yet, as history and his own memoir tell us, Wallace would have traded all these accolades for a moment of military glory in the Civil War to save the Union. Where previous accounts have sought to discredit or defend Wallace’s performance as a general in the war, author Christopher R. Mortenson takes a more nuanced approach. Combining military biography, historical analysis, and political insight, Politician in Uniform provides an expanded and balanced view of Wallace’s military career—and offers the reader a new understanding of the experience of a voluntary general like Lew Wallace.
A rising politician from Indiana, Wallace became a Civil War general through his political connections. While he had much success as a regimental commander, he ran into trouble at the brigade and division levels. A natural rivalry and tension between West Pointers and political generals might have accounted for some of these difficulties, but many, as Mortenson shows us, were of Wallace’s own making. A temperamental officer with a “rough” conception of manhood, Wallace often found his mentors wanting, disrespected his superiors, and vigorously sought opportunities for glorious action in the field, only to perform poorly when given the chance.
Despite his flaws, Mortenson notes, Wallace contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort—in the fight for Fort Donelson and at the Battle of Shiloh, in the defense of Cincinnati and southern Indiana, and in the administration of Baltimore and the Middle Department. Detailing these and other instances of Wallace’s success along with his weaknesses and failures, Mortenson provides an unusually thorough and instructive picture of this complicated character in his military service. His book clearly demonstrates the unique complexities of evaluating the performance of a politician in uniform.
“Christopher R. Mortenson provides readers with an excellent reconsideration of Wallace’s military career. With its clear descriptions and analysis of Wallace’s actions on and off the battlefield and its insights into the ambitions and perspectives that drove Wallace’s efforts and fueled the various controversies that arose from them, Politician in Uniform effectively reminds us that, in many ways, the American Civil War truly was ‘a continuation of politics.’”—Ethan S. Rafuse, author of Robert E. Lee and the Fall of the Confederacy, 1863–1865 and editor of Corps Commanders in Blue: Union Major Generals in the Civil War.
“Christopher Mortenson has captured the totality of the war service of a man better known for his political intentions than his battlefield prowess. This is an outstanding study of an exceptionally complicated figure. Politician in Uniform deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in Civil War leadership, command, and the intersection of politics and military operations.”—Paul Springer, author of America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror