Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

I’ve been rather busy lately, so I haven’t written much except in the line of duty.  To keep things going, here’s a version of an essay from two years ago — pre-this blog — that might be interesting to the audience.  I’ll see if recycling works.

Two years ago it was reported that one of outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s final acts in office was not to pardon Billy the Kid. Long story short, a petition was brought by a lawyer alleging that Billy (or whatever his name was – there were several aliases), who famously died at the hand of Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, deserved a pardon. The basis was that the Kid had made a deal with the territorial governor Lew Wallace to inform on other outlaws and kept his part of the bargain, while Wallace and Garrett reneged. The possibility of a pardon sparked outrage among the descendants of Garrett and Wallace, who maintained that such clemency would brand their ancestors as liars and murderers. Ultimately, Richardson decided that there was insufficient evidence of the bargain and whether Billy had fulfilled his part, and declined the posthumous pardon. The current Governor Susana Martinez has shown no inclination to revisit the matter.

Billy the Kid is but one of numerous Wild West figures who has been romanticized by film and literature. His story, or an embellishment of it, was perfect for the early 1970s when director Sam Peckinpah enlisted counterculture balladeers Kris Kristofferson (as Billy) and Bob Dylan (a minor character in the film) to play opposite established tough guy actor James Coburn (as Garrett) in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, released in 1973. Dylan wrote and performed the film’s theme song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” that became a popular hit. The film was predictable in its portrayal of the cattle barons, who had the territorial government in their pocket, against the more righteous settlers – a perennial theme of Western movies. The American libertarian streak often causes us to view nonconformists and contrarians – and on occasion, outlaws – as heroes. Sometimes rightly so; sometimes misplaced.

More interesting, and heroic, than Billy the Kid’s story are the life and endeavors of his nemesis territorial governor Lew Wallace. Wallace is not easy to romanticize, but his accomplishments were exponentially more substantial and lasting. Born in Indiana in 1927, and growing up there as the son of a West Point graduate and governor of that state, he aspired to be a lawyer, and enter public life. Wallace’s study of law was interrupted by the Mexican-American War where he served as an officer in an Indiana company of volunteers with General Zachary Taylor’s army. After the war, he completed his legal studies, was admitted to the bar of Indiana, and practiced law there until the Civil War broke out.

Wallace helped raise troops for the Union as adjutant general of Indiana, was appointed a brigadier general of volunteers in 1861, and later promoted to major general, then the highest U. S. Army rank. He ably served as a combat commander with Ulysses S. Grant’s army. Although there was some controversy about his not following orders on the first day of Shiloh, which supposedly resulted in Shiloh’s then considered horrific casualties. Wallace’s division nevertheless was in the thick of action and held the line on the second day, and the Union forces achieved at least a technical victory.
Wallace’s stand against Confederate General Jubal A. Early in 1864 at the little known Battle of Monocacy near Frederick, Maryland, although a tactical defeat, delayed Early’s thrust toward Washington D.C. long enough to save the capital from capture. Wallace received praise and a commendation from General Grant for Monocacy, although Grant never withdrew his criticism for the alleged error at Shiloh.

After the War ended, Wallace’s legal background became of service on the military tribunal that tried the Lincoln Assassination conspirators. He was subsequently appointed the presiding judge of the court martial of Henry Wirz, the commandant of the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, in which Wirz was convicted and hanged for war crimes.
Wallace also directed the United States’ efforts to help the Mexicans remove the French imposed government of Emperor Maximilian, who had seized control of Mexico in 1864. He served as the appointed governor of New Mexico Territory from 1878 to 1881, and then as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) from 1881 until 1885.

Wallace wrote several fiction and non-fiction works, including several biographies of fellow Hoosier, President Benjamin Harrison, and the historical novel The Prince of India or Why Constantinople Fell (1893). But Lew Wallace’s greatest accomplishment was his authorship of the number one best-selling novel of the 19th Century, and possibly, ever – Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, and regained the top of the list again in the 1960s. By 1900, it had been printed in thirty-six English-language editions and translated into twenty others, including Indonesian and Braille. It was adapted in film at least four times, the most famous of which was the 1959 version with Charlton Heston. That production received eleven Academy Awards. The book reportedly was the first ever blessed by a Pope, Leo XIII, although Wallace never joined a church and lived, and appears to have died, a non-denominational Christian.

Lew Wallace died in 1905, and presumably, knocked on heaven’s door. Whether Billy the Kid had previously knocked – well, I’ll leave that to your conjecture.

Wallace’s statute is one of Indiana’s two in the United States Capitol Statuary Hall.

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