Lewis “Lew” Wallace served as Territorial Governor from 1878 to 1881. After a long career in the United States Army, he had been appointed as Governor in the fall of 1878 by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Wallace had previously earned a reputation as being an effective leader in both civil and military situations. He succeeded Samuel Beach Axtell who had been “suspended” over allegations of improper conduct, though Axtell was never tried for any illegal activities and was soon appointed Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. The Lincoln County War was also ongoing in the south of of the territory, so Wallace was stepping into several situations that needed attention.
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Wallace had served in the Union Army during the Civil War, on a court-martial pertaining to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and had been chair of an inquiry into the alleged criminal and inhumane activities of leaders of the Andersonville, Georgia Confederate prison camp. One individual, Swiss-American former Confederate officer Heinrich Hartmann “Henry” Wirz, was executed for war crimes as a result of the inquiry.
After arriving in New Mexico, Wallace quickly focused on the Lincoln County situation. He requested to be allowed to invoke martial law in Lincoln to restore order to the area, but his request was denied by President Hayes. Wallace then asked the military to be ready to take action, but upon a recommendation from a cabinet member of Hayes, Wallace granted a general immunity to those involved. Peace was briefly enjoyed in the winter of 1878, but trouble resumed with the murder of Alexander McSween. Wallace held Nathan Dudley, the commander of Fort Stanton, responsible and asked the Army to remove Dudley, but his request was denied. Dudley was later tried but acquitted of charges pertaining to the death of McSween. The conflict continued with the assassination of attorney, H. J. Chapman, who had represented the widow of McSween. Wallace again requested Dudley’s removal and this time it was granted by General Edward Hatch. Ultimately the conflict wound down, but due to Wallace’s general amnesty proclamation, only William McCarty, alias William Bonney, and locally known as Billy the Kid, was ever tried for any of the murders.
The Wallace years also included the activities of the Apache chief Victorio and Wallace set about to achieve the capture of the chief. Victorio was believed to have been killed in a battle in Mexico in the fall of 1880, though the Apache raids and conflict continued under the leadership of Geronimo and others until the middle 1880s.
President Hayes visited New Mexico in late 1880, traveling by the Southern Pacific railroad to Grant County in the southwest and then on by wagon to Santa Fe. While in New Mexico, Hayes gave a public speech and toured some of the mining sites in the state.
Around this time, Billy the Kid petitioned Wallace for amnesty, reminding the Governor that he had promised the outlaw the same relief as had been granted to others, but Wallace denied the request, possibly believing that McCarty’s/Bonney’s later actions had voided his promise. Bonney was tried and convicted for murder, but he escaped and was finally thought to have been killed in the summer of 1881 by Pat Garrett.
Wallace tendered his resignation in 1881 to President James A. Garfield and he was succeeded by Lionel A. Sheldon. Wallace left New Mexico to serve as minister to the Ottoman Empire for about four years, before returning to Indiana. Wallace had enjoyed writing during his military career and while he was Governor, he completed his first novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” published in 1880. He wrote other published works after “Ben-Hur.” Although Wallace was not known to have been widely active in organized religion, several of his works reveal a strong spiritual inclination. He died in Indiana at the age of 77 in 1905.
Well over 100 years later, outgoing Governor Bill Richardson considered the posthumous pardon of Billy the Kid, but decided against it.
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