FHF: The Civil War story of Ben Hur

Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.

Union General Lewis Wallace and his bodacious goatee (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 111-B-4095)
Union General Lewis Wallace and his bodacious goatee (Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 111-B-4095)

When you think of Ben Hur, your mind probably goes to Charlton Heston riding a chariot around (and around) an arena in the 1959 classic. But what you should be thinking of is Union General Lewis Wallace’s impressive goatee.

Lew not only fought in the Civil War, but authored the novel that is one of the best selling in American history. His work knocked Uncle Tom’s Cabin from its top spot, and surpassed Gone With the Wind when Charlton Heston brought it to the big screen.

But where did a Civil War general get the idea for a formative novel about ancient Rome and the story of Jesus? We might have Ulysses S. Grant to thank for that.

In the epic, a tile falls off the roof of the main character’s house when the new governor, Gratus, is passing by. The tile startles the governor’s horses and Gratus is nearly trampled. Because of this accident, Ben Hur’s childhood friend and now military officer, Messala, condemns Ben Hur to the galleys while his wife and sister are imprisoned. In short, an innocent accident destroys Ben Hur’s life and he is betrayed by an old friend.

Lew Wallace was a young general at the decisive Battle of Shiloh and served under General Ulysses S. Grant. During the battle, Grant ordered Wallace to support Sherman’s division. Wallace misinterpreted the hastily-written order and arrived circuitously hours behind schedule. Wallace and Grant went on to win the battle the following day, but the Northern public wanted an explanation for why there were so many casualties in the battle. Grant and his superior were quick to blame Wallace.  Wallace was relieved of his command shortly after.

From Grant to Gratus isn’t a far leap. To Wallace, Grant betrayed his trust and destroyed his military career because of a simple mistake. Gratus and Messala did the same to Ben Hur.

It was an embarrassment Wallace never forgot. Even after serving as the Governor of New Mexico, and serving as the US Minister to the Ottoman Empire, and penning the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century–all substantial bragging rights–the sting of Shiloh remained. In 1900, Wallace still wrote “that awful mystery known as the Battle of [Shiloh] comes home more directly than those engaged in it. O, the lies, the lies that were told to make me the scapegoat to bear off the criminal mistakes of others.”

Both Wallace and Ben Hur were redeemed in their own right. Wallace’s novel outsold Uncle Tom’s Cabin in under a decade. And Ben Hur defeated Messala in that great chariot race.

3 thoughts on “FHF: The Civil War story of Ben Hur

  1. This was a good article. It has been a while since I read the book, but wasn’t it Ben Hur’s mother and sister who were imprisoned?

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