Lew Wallace always embraced a good adventure. He lived for adventure, thrived upon it. For Lew, adventure meant “going” and “going was life.” In no small measure, Wallace developed a lifetime commitment to adventure as a result of his early associations with water, the mighty, the unfettered, the majestic River—specifically the Wabash River; often his beloved Sugar Creek.
As a youngster from 1832 to 1837, Lew roamed the hills, woodlands, and streams around Covington, Indiana, through which the Wabash River flowed. Tragically, his mother had died prematurely in 1832. Perhaps equally tragic, his father always seemed to be off somewhere politicking for State office. Lew never experienced any significant degree of parental structure or guidance at home. He was often left solely to his own devices. To fill this void and to experience adventure on his terms, Lew befriended the River.
In his Autobiography, Wallace described his first of many encounters with the Wabash River. “It looked so wide, so deep,” he wrote, “so like the passing of a flood going down in its majestic way to what would be a deluge when it was at last arrived.” For Lew, nothing save the force of Nature could contain the mighty River or redirect its course. “Yet,” he continued, “it had a coaxing power. My fears were soothed, and I went, and, as it were, laid my hand on its mane; and thence we were friends.” On another occasion, he wrote that “The River was a siren with a song everlasting in my ears. I could hear it the day long. It seemed specially addressed to me. . .” Throughout his life, Wallace molded his independent and self-reliant persona to the inexorable, unrestrained flow of the River.
Lest we give all the credit to the Wabash, Sugar Creek likewise played a definitive role in Lew’s journey through adolescence. As a nine year old, Wallace simply decided one day to join his older brother William at Wabash College. On his own, he journeyed from Covington to Crawfordsville and somehow finagled admission in a preparatory setting. His experiment in formal, institutional education lasted six weeks. He quickly succumbed to the natural beauty of Montgomery County, allocating much more of his time and talents to exploring the woods north of the college than to book-learning. “Under a hill,” he found “a stream, half river, half creek.” Like a siren, “the woods and the little river invited me, and I accepted and took to them.” The tug of water, mighty like the Wabash, more serene like Sugar Creek, worked their magic. One day he would demonstrate his love for Sugar Creek by building a tranquil summer cottage upon its banks at the present day site of the Crawfordsville Country Club, fittingly known as “Water Babble.”
In early 1862, the Tennessee River carried General Lew Wallace to Fort Henry and his first major military experience. Weeks later on the banks of the Cumberland River, he performed independently and brilliantly, contributing decisively to Union victory at the battle of Fort Donelson. In late March, Lew waited not-so-patiently as Union steamboats prepared to carry him upriver to his personal destiny at Shiloh. In his Autobiography, Wallace waxed lyrical about that day on the Tennessee. Having detailed the pomp and fervid elegance that cast its glow upon the river that day, Lew concluded with perhaps one of the more poignant expressions ever to flow from his pen. “And in thought of it all I would grow young again,” he would write years later, “but for the other thought always waylaying the first – I cannot hope ever to see the like again, much less to be a part of it.”
With profound retrospection, Lew recognized that one day his adventures would end. His soul was undoubtedly quieted with the knowledge that both the Mighty River and the oft placid “half river, half creek,” both lifelong sources of personal character, inspiration, and love, would flow on forever.
Chuck Beemer is a native of Crawfordsville, CHS-Class of 1958. He is a retired attorney and author.