No author in America was more famous in the late 19th Century than Lew Wallace, best known as the author of “Ben Hur.” Wallace forever enshrined James R. Ross as the “Ideal Indiana Soldier” by penning a biography that extolled his military record in the Civil War and after. Ross’ career as a successful liquor dealer in Indianapolis, by contrast, has been kept almost totally secret. It is time to balance the narrative.
James Ross was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in August 1841 of Scotch-Irish parentage. His father, Thomas, was a cabinetmaker; his mother, Hannah, kept house. When he was six years old his family moved to Indiana, settling in Crawfordsville, a modest sized town not far from the Ohio line. There he grew up, was educated, and took a job clerking in a dry goods store. With the outbreak of the Civil War when he was twenty, Ross traveled about 50 miles to Indianapolis and enlisted in the 11th Indiana Volunteer Infantry.
This was a unit organized and commanded by Lew Wallace, shown above. As a youth Wallace, a lawyer, had lived in Crawfordsville for time and his wife was from there. He and Ross probably had known each other there. Having previously served in the Mexican War, Wallace was now a colonel and commander of the 11th. Ross joined him as a private. The 11th initially was sent to what was to become West Virginia, seeing minimal activity before its three-month enlistments ran out and the troops went home.
Undaunted, the flamboyant Wallace reorganized the 11th in Indianapolis as “Zouaves,” modeled after French light infantrymen, trained them in zouave tactics, and designed colorful uniforms consisting of a grey jacket with red trimming, soft gray cap with red braiding, dark blue vest, and sky blue pantaloons. In our day when “camo” is required, those bright colored uniforms seem an invitation to getting shot.
With Ross among them, the fancy-dressed 11th Indiana was sent to join Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s expedition into Tennessee and saw hot combat at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Shiloh. During this period Wallace was raised to brigadier general and Ross promoted to captain of Company C. Ross subsequently transferred to Wallace’s staff which seems to have cemented the bond between the two men. An 1862 magazine illustration of Wallace in battle shows him among aides. One of them likely was Ross.
When Wallace in 1864 was named commander of VIII Corps, headquartered in Baltimore, he called for Ross, who by then was a commissioned aide on the general staff of the army. Those troops saw significant action at Monocacy Junction, Maryland, when Confederate General Jubal Early crossed the Potomac River and made a feint toward Washington, D.C. Wallace’s outmatched forces ultimately were defeated but delayed Rebel troops long enough to stymie any attack on the Nation’s Capitol. When the war ended Ross was mustered out in Baltimore.
James wasted no time in getting married. In 1866, he wed Thesta Alice, born in Indiana. Both were about 24 years old. With a wife to support, Ross found work as a clerk. Without disclosing what Ross was doing in either city, a biographer stated he “engaged in business in Chicago and Cincinnati for a number of years…” My surmise is that James was working in the liquor business. Both cities were noted for a proliferation of saloons and dealers to provide such establishments with strong drink. By 1873 Ross had moved to Indianapolis and was working for John B. Stumph & Co., a liquor wholesaler.
The Stumph firm appears to have gone out of business about 1877, replaced by a company formed by Ross and two partners called James R. Ross & Co., located at 184-188 South Meridian Street, the primary north-south street in the city. This major thoroughfare was a prime central location for doing business and throughout the firm’s 39 year history, while moving from time to time, it maintained a Meridian Street address.
Ross’ liquor business not only was selling whiskey at wholesale but was marketing its own proprietary brands, likely “rectifying” —blending and mixing them for taste and color — in a back room. Among labels were “Coonskin,” “Glendale,” "Marion Club,” "Race King,” “Signet,” and "Special Bottling.” During his lifetime Ross failed to trademark any of these whiskeys, but several were registered after his death.
Like many of his competitors, Ross was providing attractive giveaway items to favored clients, chiefly saloons and restaurants featuring his whiskeys. He gifted an attractive glass carafe advertising Marion Club, Marion being the name of the Indiana county in which Indianapolis is located. He also provided shot glasses, some elaborately etched with his monogram with gold around the rim.
As the years wore on, apparently recognizing that his Victorian style letterhead was beginning to look antique, The company adopted the “art deco” style that was becoming the stylistic rage. This new letterhead had a sleek, streamlined design, signaling a “modern” establishment. Although one of his partners, Henry C. Knode left to start his own liquor store, the other partner, Henry Thomson remained with the firm throughout.
Meanwhile, Ross was extending his military career in a fashion and achieving even higher ranks. Upon returning to Indianapolis he had taken a hand in organizing the Indianapolis Light Infantry in 1877. This was a part of the state militia, the Second Regiment of the Indiana National Guard. Ross was elected second lieutenant, then first lieutenant, and by 1885 was its captain. Eventually he would be promoted to colonel.
At the same time he was active in the Knights of Pythias, the membership certificate shown here. Formed after the Civil War, largely of veterans, this fraternal organization strove to promote male bonding around a martial code that harked back to the Roman era. An element of the organization was known as the “Uniformed Ranks,” a quasi-military unit. There Ross rose to become commanding general of the Indiana U.R. Brigade.
Meanwhile Ross’s business success and considerable wealth was being noted. That he was selling liquor was not mentioned, just that “for honesty and integrity there are none who stand higher in Indianapolis, or who more fully enjoy the confidence and respect of the people….Bro. Ross has reflected credit upon every position he has ever filled; as a soldier, he was brave, as a citizen exemplary.”
Ultimately known widely as Colonel Ross, James died at his home in Indianapolis in October, 1900. He was 59 years old. As his widow, Thesta, and their only child, Frederick, together with other friends and kinfolk mourned by his grave, he was buried in Section 36, Lot 174, of the Indianapolis Crown Hill Cemetery, shown below. Thesta would join him there a year later. In an obituary from far off New Orleans the Times-Picayune hailed Ross: “He had a fine record as a soldier and was widely known in military circles.” Nothing about whiskey.
I surmise that among those attending Ross’s rites was Lew Wallace, whose book Ben-Hur had eclipsed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most popular novel of the 19th Century. At the time he was living in Crawfordsville, where he had first come to know Ross. Wallace’s tribute to his former aide, “An Ideal Indiana Soldier,” may well have been from a memorial address at Ross’ funeral that later was expanded. Published years later, the biography currently is not available on the Internet, making it impossible to quote Wallace’s words about James Ross — or to know if the popular author revealed in any way that his Indiana hero had gotten wealthy by selling booze.