by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
Governor Lew Wallace & Billy the Kid
Lew Wallace1 spent a relatively short period of time in New Mexico, and while he left his mark on the territory, it should probably be a question mark. His tenure as territorial governor—September 1878 to May 1881—received mixed reviews from observers of the day and continues to be debated by modern historians.
Wallace was born at Brookville, Indiana in 1827. Early in life he worked as a newspaperman and he studied law. He served in the army during the Mexican war, but many chronicles of that event fail to mention him. He returned to Indiana and during the 1850s, practiced law and got himself elected to the state senate. Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, Wallace was named adjutant general for Indiana and as such raised 130 companies of volunteers. He was appointed colonel of the 11th Indiana Infantry and was soon promoted to General.2
His Civil War service was so-so at best. Wallace took a little longer to move his troops into position at the battle of Shiloh (April 6-7, 1862) than General U. S. Grant thought necessary and thus earned Grant’s disapproval. It was a blemish on his record he carried with him for the rest of his life. By the close of the war, though, Grant commended Wallace for averting a Confederate threat to Washington, D. C. Historian Leon Metz simply refered to Wallace as a “mediocre Civil War general.”
Metz continued, “[Wallace] never quite understood or really cared about the drama going on practically beneath his ornate Spanish windows [in the governor’s palace in Santa Fe].”
That drama was New Mexico’s Lincoln County War.
When Wallace arrived in Santa Fe on September 30, 1878, the major battle of the war was over. The Five-Day Battle in Lincoln had ended on July 19. Some writers believe that the battle itself was the proximate reason that Wallace’s predecessor, Samuel Axtell, was dismissed. Historian Robert Utley, though, detailed a series of political maneuvers that resulted in Axtell being made scapegoat for a plethora of ills over which he had little control. And, standing in the wings waiting for a presidential appointment was Lew Wallace, a loyalist who expected to be rewarded by the new Rutherford B. Hayes administration. Wallace had earlier been offered a diplomatic position in Bolivia, which he declined. The New Mexico position wasn’t much better, but it was a ticket out of a dreary law practice in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Besides, service in a remote place like New Mexico would give Wallace time to finish his latest novel, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ.3
In New Mexico, Wallace was obliged to contend with a state of lawlessness in Lincoln County. William Bonney—Billy the Kid—and his friends pillaged at will, as did several other outlaw gangs. Sheriff George “Dad” Peppin seemed completely unable to take action, and in fact spent most of his time inside the confines of Fort Stanton, fearful for his own safety.
As a military man, it seemed to Wallace that the best course of action would be a declaration of martial law that would enable the army to pursue, arrest, and try the county’s assorted outlaws. President Hayes was not prepared to go quite that far, although he did declare Lincoln County to be in a state of insurrection and authorized the use of troops to make arrests if the miscreants refused to give up their lawless ways. That plan didn’t work out very well.
The governor took a new tack. He offered a “general pardon” to all of those outlaws who had not been indicted. The result was that criminals who had fled the county to avoid arrest were then free to return and enjoy the amnesty, and, according to a newspaper of the day, “still apply their nefarious vocations.”
At last, after the murder of attorney Houston Chapman on the street in Lincoln, Wallace decided to personally visit Lincoln County and take matters in hand. He had received a letter which read in part, “I was present when Mr. Chapman was murdered and know who did it. I am called Kid Antrim.” History would know Kid Antrim better as Billy the Kid.
A meeting between the governor and the outlaw was arranged, and an agreement struck. Bonney would identify Chapman’s killers and in return Wallace would pardon Bonney in the April 1878 killings of Buckshot Roberts and Sheriff William Brady. Whether the governor intended from the beginning to renege on his promise is not known, but the fact is that he did. Bonney was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of Brady. In spite of the Kid’s many pleadings, the governor on April 30, 1881, “was obliged to write out with his own hand and sign his name to a paper which authorized the outlaw’s death by hanging.”
By then the Kid had already killed two deputies—Bob Olinger and J. W. Bell— and escaped custody in Lincoln (April 28), but that was of no great concern to Wallace. The new U. S. President, James A. Garfield, had appointed him Minister to Turkey. Wallace left New Mexico for good on May 30, while the Kid was still at large. Historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell wrote this: “If the fame of Governor Wallace rested upon any of his official acts in New Mexico it would be far from secure.”
For his part, Wallace wrote in a letter to his wife, “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere, fails in New Mexico.”
No matter. Ben Hur was a commercial success and made Wallace famous and wealthy. He died at Crawfordsville, Indiana in February 1905.
1 Wallace was baptized as “Lewis,” but he seems to have not used his full name. His signature was Lew.