My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune

My Biggest Quarrel with Fortune. By Kevin Getchell, McFarland, 2013 ISBN-10: 078647209X; ISBN-13: 978-0786472093

One hundred fifty years after being denied justice, Lew Wallace is finally receiving a portion of his just due from several historians of the Civil War. And Charles G. Beemer’s new book, My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune”: Major General Lew Wallace in the West, 1861–1862, is helping him to obtain it. After briefly describing Wallace’s life before the war, the author delves right into his subject’s aptitude for military affairs. Wallace studied his trade and competently trained his new regiment (the 11th Indiana Volunteers). His work quickly resulted in victory at a minor engagement at Romney, in what is now West Virginia. The arc of Wallace’s Civil War career, however, soon reached its apogee after his assignment to a command under General Ulysses S. Grant and then just as quickly plummeted.

Mr. Beemer correctly indicates how the plan for the campaign up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers “had many authors.” Wallace’s brigade took part in occupying Fort Heiman, opposite Fort Henry. Grant left Wallace behind in the ensuing advance on Fort Donelson, but then instructed him to come and take charge of the newly organizing Third Division. During the attempted Confederate breakout from the fort, on February 15, 1862, Lew Wallace acted without—and even against—orders, in Grant’s absence. He dispatched one brigade to assist John McClernand’s beleaguered division and then personally followed it up with another brigade, which finally stemmed the Confederate tide. The author concluded that “Wallace had undoubtedly been as responsible as Grant” for the consequent surrender of Donelson and that Grant “would never be prepared to acknowledge his contributions.”

Wallace’s downfall happened at the very next battle. Grant was again away from the field when the Confederates launched a surprise attack against the unprepared troops around Shiloh Church. As the book shows, Grant at first did not order Wallace’s division to come up in support from its camps four to five miles away. Unlike almost every other historian of the battle, Mr. Beemer rightly criticizes Grant’s failure to immediately send a boat downriver to notify Wallace once he learned that it was a general engagement. Later, the army commander belatedly directed Wallace to come up and join the right flank of the defenders’ line. While the Third Division was in the process of doing so, one of Grant’s aides rode up and informed Wallace that the army had been driven back and that his route would take the division into the enemy’s rear. It therefore had to backtrack and only reached the battleground after the first day’s fighting had finished. On the second day, Lew’s division bore the brunt of combat for Grant’s army, while Don Carlos Buell’s separate army, which had also just appeared, did most of the day’s work. With the battle won, no immediate condemnation of Wallace’s activities appeared. Only when word of the army’s lack of preparations and the unnecessary surprise got around was a scapegoat needed, and Lew Wallace served admirably.

Although Mr. Beemer lays much of the blame for Wallace’s predicaments on Lew’s personality, he relates the involvement of Grant and his staff in denigrating Wallace’s reputation—including a false charge that Wallace was marching away from the battle. The fallout from this, abetted by Henry Halleck, who despised the volunteer officer corps, was the shelving of Wallace in various backwater duties.

Wallace had one more moment of military glory in July 1864, when he saved the nation’s capital (from his rear area assignment), according to Grant himself, by delaying Jubal Early’s invasion at the Monocacy River, in Maryland. Ironically, the Union high command again removed the troops reporting to Wallace as punishment for his good work. Despite Wallace’s habit of rubbing his superiors the wrong way, in Mr. Beemer’s eyes, the book demonstrates that he deserves far more praise than he obtains from the typical Civil War histories.

There are some issues in the book with grammar and repetitiveness—as in noting Halleck’s caveat that “a general engagement is to be avoided” before the Battle of Shiloh took place—and a few errors (which occur in any detailed Civil War history, given the multiplicity and contradictory nature of the primary source materials), but they don’t affect the narrative. My Greatest Quarrel with Fortune is nicely printed, complete with illustrations, maps, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. This volume is highly recommended.

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