Chris Mortenson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Ouachita Baptist University. This interview is based on his new book, Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?
CM: Lew Wallace is famous for the popular and enduring novel, Ben-Hur, as well as his negotiations with Billy “the Kid” during the Lincoln County Wars of 1878-81 in New Mexico Territory. However, he was also a controversial Civil War general. I wanted to write a Civil War biography, and it is often easier to complete the work when the subject is interesting to the author. Wallace was a complicated fellow; he could be very effective as an officer, in certain circumstances, but then botch the next assignment. He desired acknowledgement as a professional soldier, but also disdained the culture of West Pointers with whom he worked. In fact, his conception of manhood differed in ways from that of West Point graduates and other professionals, causing him to not get along with superiors.
Along with all of the above, Wallace served at the Battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and Monocacy (sometimes performing well, and sometimes not). On the other hand, his administrative and recruiting assignments may have offered a greater contribution to the Union, making for an interesting Civil War career.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?
CM: Despite creating problems for himself, such as a number of mistakes and his recurrent unwillingness to give speeches and recruit soldiers for the Union, Wallace concluded his Civil War service having contributed both politically and militarily to the war effort. His service as a volunteer general demonstrated how a politician in uniform should be evaluated differently than most professionally trained officers.
JF: Why do we need to read Politician in Uniform: General Lew Wallace and the Civil War?
CM: Anyone interested in the Civil War, US Army politics, or generalship would hopefully enjoy the book. While the work focuses on questions asked by professional military historians about the qualities of good officers and the relationships between professional and political generals, the lay public will also enjoy a story about an interesting man whose temperamental nature often led to troubles that hurt his career–only to become very famous for other accomplishments later in life.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CM: I benefited from three excellent academic advisers: M. Philip Lucas of Cornell College (Iowa), Vernon L. Volpe of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Joseph G. Dawson III of Texas A&M University. Lucas’ undergraduate course on the Civil War hooked me, and I never turned back, as Volpe and Dawson continued to encourage progress. While battles and leaders initially drew me to history, I increasingly find myself interested in the lives of soldiers.
JF: What is your next project?
CM: A colleague and I are currently finishing a project; it is titled Daily Life of U.S. Soldiers: From the American Revolution to the Iraq War, and should be released in June or July. This project is a 3-volume reference work which will explore the lives of average soldiers from the American Revolution through the 21st-century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Each chapter (on an American war) with address topics such as recruitment, training, uniforms, weaponry, compensation, combat, the homefront, and the myriad issues that veterans have dealt with over the years. This work will also examine the role of minorities and women in each conflict, which will shed light on their long and difficult path in the U.S. military. Paul J. Springer (Air Command and Staff College) and I edited the volumes, and also wrote a couple of the chapters.
JF: Thanks, Chris!