Thursday, November 19, 2015

Beemer: "'MY GREATEST QUARREL WITH FORTUNE': Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862"

["My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862 by Charles G. Beemer (Kent State University Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:257/339. ISBN:978-1-60635-236-6. $39.95]

As author Charles Beemer amply demonstrates in "My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune": Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861-1862, the Indiana political general was a fine field commander whose Civil War career was marginalized largely due to his personality and conduct off the battlefield. Readers will perhaps recall that another book on the subject [Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War by Gail Stephens (Indiana Hist Society Press, 2010)] was published only a short time ago. While the authors find themselves in agreement on most key issues and controversies surrounding Wallace, their approach angles and analyses are different enough in nature to make both highly recommended reading. Unlike Stephens's more comprehensive career assessment, Beemer zeroes in on Wallace's first twelve months as a general in the western theater, concentrating on the disputed events of Shiloh's first day.

According to Beemer's interpretation, Mexican War veteran Wallace was highly motivated in the early months of the Civil War to redeem the military reputation of his home state, which was tainted by allegations of bad conduct by Indiana volunteers at the 1847 Battle of Buena Vista. His well executed 1861 surprise attack at Romney in western Virginia using the regiment he recruited and trained (the 11th Indiana, "Wallace's Zouaves") restored Indiana's honor in the mind of Wallace. Unfortunately, several troubling command traits would also be established early in the war. The impatient Wallace was ever ready to disregard or exceed orders and he repeatedly ignored the chain of command to promote his own views and concerns. As first demonstrated through his efforts at undermining Charles F. Smith in Kentucky, Wallace's military character would not include the loyalty to superior officers that was expected of subordinates.

During the February 1862 Henry-Donelson campaign, Wallace's value as a combat commander blossomed, although he would not receive the personal accolades he felt he deserved. With Grant temporarily absent, and his division commanders left with orders to remain in position, the Confederates attacked at a propitious moment on February 15, caving in the Union right and threatening to completely rout the federal army. On his own initiative, Wallace advanced up Wynn's Ferry Road and repelled multiple Confederate assaults, forcing the enemy to fall back. While Beemer is justly impressed by Wallace's actions, his characterization of them as offensive moves in direct disobedience of Grant's orders seems open to question. Surely high ranking officers possess the latitude to use their own judgment in moments of crisis, especially when the overall commander is absent from the field and unable to provide further direction. Also, it's debatable whether setting up a blocking position astride a key road behind one's own lines should be deemed an "offensive" move. Regardless, Beemer's characterization of Wallace as a cool-headed combat commander of considerable tactical acumen is well established in the book. On Wallace's part, he performed well and should have been satisfied with promotion to major general but he simply could not keep silent when talking would only cultivate powerful enemies.

By this point in history, most neutral observers of the Battle of Shiloh have accepted what we might call the "Wallace view" of events on April 6 and rejected most key tenets of the "Grant view" (principally created by staff officers William R. Rowley and John A. Rawlins). The charges central to the Grant view — that Wallace chose the wrong road to the battlefield, got "lost," and moved inordinately slow — have been effectively refuted in the literature and Beemer's own conclusions on these matters are confirmatory in nature. In discussing Shiloh, Beemer largely sticks to April 6 and does not address later claims by Wallace critics that the Indiana general's leadership was also dilatory during April 7, when his 3rd Division comprised the far right flank of the Union army. This area of censure has also been convincingly overturned by recent scholarship.

As Beemer shows, the Grant-Wallace controversy didn't really heat up until the 1880s with the publication in the O.R. of documents written by Grant staffers Rowley, Rawlins, and James B. McPherson in support of their chief and decidedly hostile to Wallace. These reports, originally composed in early 1863, were buried by then General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, who had no desire to revisit Shiloh at that critical point in the war. Curiously, the man who carried Grant's original order (which was subsequently lost), Captain Algernon S. Baxter, submitted no report of his own. Given the substance of later Baxter comments that were not in keeping with the evolving Grant view, Beemer takes this to mean that the staff officer chose loyal silence (the antithesis of the Wallace method of doing things) over rocking the boat and perhaps incurring the wrath of his wartime benefactor.

Beemer characterizes the popular post-war acceptance of the Grant view as the product of a cover-up by Grant, Rowley, Rawlins, and Halleck [Beemer excludes McPherson from the group]. "Cover-up" is a loaded term that implies a level of dark orchestration that, depending on the reader's view, may or may not be appropriate in this case but the author's analysis leading him to that conclusion is impressively constructed and presented. Beemer's meticulous dissection of the Rowley and Rawlins reports forcefully highlights the untruths, half-truths, misconceptions, and invented facts that would be collectively used to reinforce the image of Grant as the calm, decisive, and clear thinking commander and portray Wallace as the confused incompetent amateur that nearly lost the battle for the Union cause. Not all of Beemer's arguments are equally convincing and some minor points seem exaggerated in importance but the overall analysis is straightforward, deep, and persuasive. While the whole affair does not reveal Grant's character in the most flattering light, Beemer's assessment of Grant's relative silence during most of the period between Shiloh and the writing of his famous memoirs as mostly stemming from a desire to rid himself of a subordinate he felt he could not work with (even though he might have appreciated Wallace's fighting skills) seems reasonable. The author assigns much more direct malice to the machinations of Halleck, who hated having civilian-generals in positions of great authority and blocked Wallace's ambitions and petitions for redress at every turn. Halleck's placement of Wallace on his infamous list of Union political generals to whom entrusting important commands was "little better than murder" is patently absurd.

In this study, author Charles Beemer very effectively gets to the heart of why Wallace, who forged an enviable early war combat record that seemingly destined him for military fame and glory, was essentially rendered persona non grata in the Union high command. Clearly, Lew Wallace was ill-served by the nation's military apparatus but Beemer assigns secondary status to these outside forces. The primary source of Wallace's misfortune was his own behavior off the battlefield. Great controversies seek out scapegoats and men like Wallace, who could be their own worst enemies, have targets on their backs and are also least equipped to survive the storm. Nakedly ambitious subordinate generals who are disloyal to superiors, ignore the chain of command, and demonstrate a frequent willingness to exceed or disregard orders tend to acquire few friends, and many enemies, in high places. Lew Wallace's struggle with himself was truly his "greatest quarrel with fortune."

More CWBA reviews of KSUP titles:
* Work for Giants: The Campaign and Battle of Tupelo/Harrisburg, Mississippi, June-July 1864
* Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864
* A German Hurrah!: Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry
* Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer
* August Willich's Gallant Dutchmen: Civil War Letters from the 32nd Indiana Infantry
* Caution and Cooperation: The American Civil War in British-American Relations
* Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms


  1. BTW, John F., if you happen to see this, the author recently responded to your earlier Booknotes question about the book:

    1. Drew: Thanks. And thanks to the author for responding. As somebody who immersed himself in a deep investigation of that particular topic, I think that it appears to have been appropriately handled in the book.

  2. Thank you for this lucid analysis of the differing views on Shiloh coming from Grant & Wallace. Well done.


***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.