Cumberland Times-News

March 29, 2014

Lew who? He’s a man we should remember

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— If I could travel back in time (physically, anyway), there are places I’d love to visit.

Regardless of what I’ve told you about the adventures of Capt. Gary and First Sgt. Goldy, Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg is not one of them. I’ve been shot at twice and, except for the fact that I was missed both times, there was nothing good to be said for it.

Grandmother and Grandfather Goldsworthy went to the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., to hear John Philip Sousa and his band. To have been there with them? Wow. Reality dictates that I have to settle for the program they brought home, a few store-bought recordings and my imagination.

Something else I first heard about years ago when I started at the newspaper continues to intrigue me. You may have seen the 1959 movie, “Ben Hur,” but did you ever watch it as a stage play?

One of our reporters heard about that from an elderly gentleman who saw it performed live — with a chariot race — at either the Cumberland Music Academy that was destroyed by fire in 1910 or the Maryland Theatre. It was done in both places.

I recently mentioned this to a former Miss Cumberland who is a friend of long standing, a gracious, wise and beautiful woman who remembered this fellow.

She said he told her the horses and chariots were mounted on a turntable.

Ben-Hur was first seen as a stage play in 1899 and was performed live just a few years ago in London — complete with gladiators, a chariot race and a sea battle.

The late J. Suter Kegg wrote about the Ben-Hur movie in his “Tapping the Sports Keg” column when it opened here in 1960:

“The reaction of the crowd, the death-defying race itself, the imposing pylon around which the horses thundered and the magnificent colors combined to make it an unforgettable scene. Nothing was left to the imagination of the movie-goer. The chariot races are just one phase of a film filled with drama and vibrating scenes.

“The crucifixion has been depicted thousands of times in passion plays and other stage and screen productions throughout the world, but it is doubtful if any comes closer to a more realistic version, with the possible exception of the Oberammergau real-life creation in Germany, than the one seen in Ben-Hur.

“The extravaganza, by the way, recalls for older residents the stage productions of Ben-Hur which were seen here prior to World War I.

“Frank Florentine, manager of the Strand Theatre, recalls the show well as he worked behind the scenes when it was presented on the Maryland Theatre stage.

“Three chariots, Frank said, appeared on the stage, each pulled by three horses. The chariots were on treadmills, operated behind stage by blocks and tackles.

“In other words, when Ben-Hur was scheduled to take the lead in the race, workmen manipulated the other two treadmills from backstage, pulling them back while the Ben-Hur treadmill remained stationary.”

(Suter was referring to the Oberammergau, Bavaria, Passion Play, which has been performed since 1634 and still is world-renowned.)

The novel “Ben-Hur” was written by Lew Wallace who, as another old friend reminded me in a recent letter, was far more than just an author. He also was a Civil War general in the Union Army and a man of many accomplishments, including matters of diplomacy.

My friend said there should be a memorial to Wallace in Cumberland, considering his involvement here.

Wallace’s troops camped on the current Allegany High School site, which is referred to as “Campobello” because — legend holds — Wallace and his men called it that. “Campbello” is Latin for “camp of war.”

Wallace was commander of the Union detachment at New Creek Station (which later became Keyser) on June 19, 1861, 16 days after the war’s first land battle in Philippi.

In “The Civil War in Maryland,” historian Daniel Carroll Toomey wrote that the town went into a panic when the Confederates came out of nowhere to run off 28 militiamen and burn the railroad bridge that crossed the Potomac River a mile or so downstream.

Toomey said Wallace sent for help, withdrew his troops and dispatched his belongings to Bedford, Pa., for safekeeping. Reinforcements arrived without the Rebels coming into town and life went back to normal ... for a while.

New Creek Station is said to have changed hands 14 times between the Union and Confederacy. It saw plenty of fighting, but what constitutes “changing hands,” I am not sure.

It saw plenty of fighting, but what constitutes “changing hands,” I am not sure. For most of the war, close to a thousand Union soldiers were stationed there at any given time, and it was home to one big fort (which the Rebels captured briefly) and three small outposts with cannon that were called forts, and an abundance of other Yankee infantry, artillery and cavalry nearby.

What precipitated the New Creek action was Wallace’s raid on nearby Romney (which unlike New Creek sympathized with the South) that drove several hundred Confederates away from the place six days earlier.

Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston immediately recognized the importance of Romney and New Creek Station and sent Col. A.P. Hill with two regiments to reclaim Romney (which tradition says changed hands 56 times). Hill then sent four companies to attack New Creek.

Wallace had good reason to expect a force of 3,000 Confederates, and would have been outnumbered, so it’s no wonder he was unnerved enough to pack his bags and holler for help.

(New Creek Station, Romney and Philippi were all part of Virginia in 1861, but became part of West Virginia when it was admitted to the Union as the 35th state on June 20, 1863.)

Three years later, on his own initiative, Wallace intercepted Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederates when they were on the way to attack Washington, which was lightly defended. His force was outnumbered almost three-to-one, but held out long enough for the city’s defenses to be reorganized and reinforcements to arrive.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant initially relieved Wallace of his command because he had lost the battle, but quickly reinstated him for having at great cost prevented the Rebels from entering Washington.

It is said that the Union Army saved the Republic at Gettysburg in July 1863. Wallace did the same thing almost exactly a year later, just outside Frederick (Md.) at Monocacy Junction, but gets little credit for it today.

I agree with my old friend. Lew Wallace is one of our local heroes, and we should do something to recognize that fact.