"My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862.
General Lew Wallace has at least three major claims to fame in American history: his leadership of the so-called "Lost Division," which arrived too late to assist the rest of Ulysses Grant's army at the first day of the Battle of Shiloh; his tactical defeat at the Battle of Monocacy, which nevertheless successfully delayed a Confederate attack on Washington; and his authorship of the bestselling novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. In "My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune," Charles G. Beemer focuses on the first topic, seeking to defend Wallace from charges that his late arrival was due to any negligence or laxity on his part. Beemer zealously argues, "Wallace was a victim at Shiloh: a victim of mistakes and errors committed by Grant and his aides, a victim of his own arrogance and inflated sense of self-importance, a victim of a decided prejudice against the civilian, amateur soldier, and, lastly, a victim of an intentional cover-up" (8). For all the author's zeal, however, this may be a case of protesting too much.
The controversy is a complicated matter dealing with communications between Grant and Wallace and their respective staff officers and of Wallace's troop movements as he marched to the sound of the guns. To summarize briefly, Grant ostensibly wanted Wallace to take a direct route to join the battle, although Wallace believed he was ordered to take a different route that would bring him in on the right of the Union army. As a result, Wallace marched his men down one road, received orders that convinced him he must turn his men around to use the other route, and thus arrived too late to fight in the first day's battle. In the wake of Shiloh, Wallace found his military career curtailed, leaving him striving to defend his generalship ever afterward.
Beemer's work begins promisingly, offering a solid sketch of Wallace's early life and Civil War career. A compelling but warts-and-all picture of the Indiana general emerges, one not only of an energetic, intelligent, self-educated citizen-soldier but also of a man who admittedly thirsted for glory and renown and whose often impolitic remarks damaged his relationships with fellow generals.
Things begin to go awry, however, when it comes to Shiloh. Beemer does not offer a concise account of the battle or Wallace's role. Instead, he skips ahead to address the fallout and Wallace's career, then backtracks to reconstruct Wallace's march based on the conflicting accounts from the officers involved. Without a concise narrative summary, readers may find the "he said, he said" approach difficult to follow. Moreover, Beemer's tone becomes increasingly polemical, repeatedly charging Grant's staff officers with deliberately creating a "cover up" and fabricating evidence without presenting a full picture of the events of 6 April 1862. Nor does the author adequately answer why Wallace should have countermarched his troops, a more time-consuming maneuver than simply reversing his entire column.
Beemer's work offers some compelling insights regarding Lew Wallace, the Battle of Shiloh, and the politics of Civil War generalship, but readers may need to study it with an especially critical eye to decide for themselves whom to believe.
Jonathan M. Steplyk
Texas Christian University
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|Title Annotation:||THE AMERICAS|
|Author:||Steplyk, Jonathan M.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2017|
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