A Room with a View – Camp Robinson and Lew Wallace

Written by on March 5, 2013 in A Room with a View - 12 Comments
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Just up the bike path from the Municipal Gardens, along the White River is a peculiar boulder that can just barely be spotted from Cold Springs Road.

Monument in the woods.

Monument in the woods of Riverside Park, north of Municipal Gardens.

 The boulder is upon a concrete pedestal that, judging from the surrounding broken glass, is a frequent target for airborne beer bottles. Set into the it’s river-facing side is a heavily patinated and slightly incomplete plaque that reads:

Heroes That Found The Crisis To Try Their Edge

Heroes That Found The Crisis To Try Their Edge (Photo by Ryan Hamlett)

On April 12th, 1861,news of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC spread across the country by telegraph and  reached an Indianapolis wholly unprepared for war. With no camps, weapons or supplies, Governor Oliver Morton tapped Crawfordsville native Lew Wallace to organize the rush of state volunteers.

6th Governor David Wallace (left) and his son, Col. Lew Wallace

6th Governor David Wallace (left) and his son, Col. Lew Wallace (right)

Wallace, a state senator, veteran of the Mexican-American war and son of Indiana’s sixth governor, David Wallace, established a base of operations on the state fairgrounds, an area now outlined by Talbott St., 19th St., Central Ave. and 22nd St. Renamed Camp Morton, in honor of the sitting governor, the camp would go on to gain a particular level of infamy when it was converted into a prison camp for Confederate soldiers in 1862 many of whom now rest in the Confederate Mound at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Camp Morton

Camp Morton – Civil War Training Grounds Turned Confederate Prison in 1862.

However, still one year prior, the Union still in full training mode, several other training camps were created in and around Indianapolis to handle President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Largest of which were Camp Sullivan (which predated Camp Morton and is now Military Park), Camp Carrington (near 15th & Fall Creek), Camp McClellan, (now Ellenberger Park in Irvington) and Camp Robinson at what is now Riverside Park.

It was at Camp Robinson that Lew Wallace assembled and trained the Eleventh Indiana Volunteer Regiment, of which he was now the commanding officer. Before embarking upon their relatively short three month enlistment, Wallace marched his men to the Indiana Statehouse, was presented a regimental flag by the “Ladies of Indianapolis” and pledged to “Remember Buena Vista” a pledge to avenge rumors of cowardice on the part of the Fifth Indiana Regiment at the battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War in 1847.

(left)Eleventh Indiana Regiment at the Statehouse pledging to "Remember Buena Vista". (right) The flag of the 11th, presented to the troops by the ladies of Indianapolis

(left)Eleventh Indiana Regiment at the Statehouse pledging to “Remember Buena Vista”. (right) The flag of the 11th, presented to the troops by the ladies of Indianapolis.

The initial enlistment of the Eleventh was a mere three months, which gave them enough time to deploy to western Virginia, take the town of Romney (a town that changed hands no fewer than 10 times throughout the war) and occupied it for a single day, before it was retaken by the South.

After their short enlistment was up, Wallace reorganized the regiment under a three year enlistment, with the aid of George McGinnis, another Mexican-American war veteran who had risen from private to lieutenant colonel within the previous three month tour.

The George McGinnis on the left, not George McGinnis on the right.

The George McGinnis on the left, not George McGinnis on the right.

Wallace, McGinnis and the Indiana Eleventh would participate in the taking of Forts Henry and Donelson, the later of which led to Wallace being promoted to Major General. However, during the Battle of Shiloh, miscommunication with General Ulysses S. Grant led Wallace and his troop to arrive six hours after Grant expected them to support the division led by WIlliam Tecumseh Sherman. Though the North won the battle the very next day, the Army needed an explanation for the horrible casualties during the battle and Wallace took the brunt of the blame. He was removed from his command in June of 1862 and spent his remaining days trying to regain his reputation, going so far as to ask Grant to “set things straight” in his memoir.

In the years that followed, after losing his command, Wallace took part in the defense of both Cincinnati and, later, Washington D.C. At war’s end he was a part of the military trial of the conspirators to assassinate President Lincoln and also the trial of Henry Wirz, commandant of the South’s prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia, the Confederate Camp Morton.

After some time in Mexico and time spent finishing a novel begun in 1840 (The Fair God published in 1873) President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Wallace governor of the New Mexico territory in September of 1878. What was described by some as a reward for his Republican support of Hayes, the appointment placed Wallace squarely in the middle of Navajo land disputes and the famed “Lincoln County War”, fictionalized in the 1970 John Wayne vehicle Chisum and more recently in the 1988 Emilio Estevez film Young Guns.

Young Guns. Better than Young Guns 2, still not a documentary.

Young Guns. Better than Young Guns 2, still not a documentary.

It was while in his New Mexico purgatory that Wallace published his second novel, a little book called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1880. Ben-Hur would go on to become the best selling American novel of the 19th century, out selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin and several decades later, immortalized on the silver screen by MGM and Charlton Heston. It has been suggested that Wallace drew from his own experiences in the battle of Shiloh for Ben-Hur, where the book’s protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, injures a high-ranking officer in battle, for which he and his family suffer, seek revenge and finally redemption.

The newly elected president James Garfield read Wallace’s novel and decided that he was an authority on the Middle East and naturally appointed him to serve as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in 1881, which somehow seems akin to putting George Lucas in charge of NASA, but that’s neither here nor there. After the corpulent Democrat Grover Cleveland was elected to the presidency in 1884, Wallace resigned his ambassadorship and returned to Crawfordsville, IN where he designed and built a writing study near his home, which is now called the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum and is open to the public.

(left) Gen. Lew Wallace at work. (right) his museum in Crawfordsville.

(left) Gen. Lew Wallace at work. (right) his museum in Crawfordsville.

Wallace wrote several other novels and biographies, though nothing as popular as Ben-Hur, and was working on his autobiography when he past away in 1905. His widow Susan, a writer and poet in her own right, finished his biography, still missing 40 years of his life at his passing, with the aid of Wallace’s own letters and articles. Susan followed two years later and the couple are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville.memorial

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About the Author

Ryan Hamlett, a Fine Arts graduate of Indiana University, turned a teenage fascination with exploring "haunted places" into a love of Urban Exploration or sneaking (not breaking) into abandoned buildings, armed with a camera and flashlight. That passion for photographing urban decay has led him to the Historic Preservation Graduate Program at Ball State University which he'll begin this fall.

12 Comments on "A Room with a View – Camp Robinson and Lew Wallace"

  1. Louis Mahern March 5, 2013 at 11:18 am · Reply

    Lew Wallace’s career sounds like The Peter Principle writ large. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle

  2. basil berchekas jr March 5, 2013 at 1:30 pm · Reply

    It’s also interesting to note that while serving as US Ambassador to the “Sublime Porte” (the nickname for the Ottoman Government) Lew Wallace toured the former Byzantine Empire’s Emperor’s Palace, the Blacherne, a red brick multistory palace built at the head of the inlet to the Bosporus known as the Golden Horn (known for its rich fishing waters) (the Ottomans conquered Constantinople from the last Byzantine Emperor in 1453) . He remembered this beautiful palace, and when he arrived “back home again in Indiana” for retirement as a writer, he built the Blacherne Apartments in downtown Indianapolis, incorporating red brick and design features similar to the Blacherne Palace in Constantinople.

  3. Tom Davis March 5, 2013 at 2:46 pm · Reply

    I have to confess, Ryan, that for some reason I had it in my head that the boulder had something to do with WWI veterans placed there by WWI soldier’s mothers. Maybe all those broken bottles distracted me from its real purpose. Thanks for straightening me out.

    I thought those familiar with Crown Hill Cemetery might appreciate knowing that General George McGinnis was the father of the subject of what may be Crown Hill’s best known statue, the likeness of 5 1/2 year old Mary Ella McGinnis. http://www.flickr.com/photos/crownhill/3993001692/in/photostream

  4. Norm Morford March 5, 2013 at 4:05 pm · Reply

    Thanks for the history lesson on Indiana and New Mexico.

  5. kassie ritman March 6, 2013 at 7:50 am · Reply

    Exceptional post! Lots and lots that I never knew about my home state…why did it have to be so boring in 4th grade?

    • Louis Mahern March 6, 2013 at 9:00 am · Reply

      Kassie, For the sake of my grandchildren, I hope that the educational experience has improved. How the nuns managed to take one of the most exciting of all human experiences, learning, and turn it into one of the more boring escapes me. History is a living thing and it changes and extends with every passing day. It is the story of us. Yet all too often it is reduced to dates and lists and names only. Quelle domage!

  6. KurtL March 6, 2013 at 12:12 pm · Reply

    While no Civil War prison camp was a picnic for the prisoners, Camp Morton was by far not among the worst offenders from either side. Indianapolis residents aided the prisoners upon several occasions in an attempt to mitigate the squalid conditions inside the camp. And I would not characterize those buried at Crown Hill as “many of whom” had passed through Camp Morton’s gates.

    I think the mortality rate for the entire existence of the camp to be just under 15 percent while that of the South’s Andersonville camp was nearly 28 percent. 1700 men died here in over two years compared to nearly 13,000 in Andersonville in just 14 months.

    1,616 men remained buried here at Crown Hill. For a list of all those who died while held by Union forces at Camp Morton, travel to Garfield Park along the Southern Avenue side where a monument resides commemorating the Confederate dead.

    • Tom Davis March 18, 2013 at 10:11 pm · Reply

      Their names are also on bronze tablets at the Confederate Mound where they are now buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.

    • Louis Mahern March 19, 2013 at 8:06 am · Reply

      I walk past the Confederate Monument almost every time I walk my dog, Finn McCool. I noticed last fall that the commemorative plaque was missing. It explained that the monument had been moved to Garfield Park due to the efforts of I believe the Southern Women’s Club of Indianapolis. Or some such. At any rate the plaque is now gone. Pried off probably for its scrap value. One wonders if the Parks Department even knows it is missing? The monument originally marked the Confederate graves at Greenlawn Cemetery located just south west of the Mile Square. When the Graves were moved to Crown Hill, the monument was placed in Garfield Park. While other excuses are given for not moving it to Crown Hill, I rather imagine that the Grand Army of the Republic members (The Civil War’s version of the American Legion) objected to a “sesesch” monument being in the vicinity of Union dead.

  7. plumtreelodge.com March 6, 2013 at 8:40 pm · Reply

    “A Room with a View – Camp Robinson and Lew Wallace | Historic Indianapolis | All Things
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  8. Bernie O'Bryan June 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm · Reply

    Your article is generally factual, however there is a mistake on the story plot of Ben-Hur as to the cause of Ben-Hur’s misfortune with your statement: “It has been suggested that Wallace drew from his own experiences in the battle of Shiloh for Ben-Hur, where the book’s protagonist, Judah Ben-Hur, injures a high-ranking officer in battle, for which he and his family suffer, seek revenge and finally redemption.”

    But that is not how the book, or films treat it. (see Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ, Book First, Chapter 6, page 104 in the recent editions). The story tells of a roof tile slipping off Ben-Hur’s house was mistaken as being thrown at the passing new Roman Governor, that was the spark that setup Ben-Hur and his family misfortune. An ambitious former friend, now a Roman officer, though knowing better, used the incident to push Ben-Hur out of his way and take away the family good name and fortune. No battle takes place, but a near riot erupts in the commotion. Ben-Hur injuries no one and takes no side during this event, explaining his and his families innocence to no avail. The story is less of revenge, then it is for restoration and reunion. Wallace had several ups and downs in his life and career, the aftermath of Shiloh being only the most public. Wallace drew on his life experiences and imagination, as all good fiction writers do. In his autobiography, Grant exonerates Wallace’s actions at Shiloh. Wallace was named the “Father of the American Novel” by one of his biographers and his statue represents Indiana in our Nations Capitol building, the only one there for their contributions to the arts.
    Still, thanks for the interesting article on my favorite Indiana son, Lew Wallace.

  9. Elizabeth McGinnis March 15, 2014 at 1:19 pm · Reply

    Ryan: We are currently working on the McGinnis Family history. How may I get a copy of this article? Do I join? The George F. McGinnis Family is buried in Crown Hill. This article would be wonderful to include in our archives. Please advise. Thank you.

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