Henry A. Wise

Last updated
Henry A. Wise
Henry A Wise CDV.jpg
33rd Governor of Virginia
In office
January 1, 1856 January 1, 1860
Lieutenant Elisha W. McComas
William Lowther Jackson
Preceded by Joseph Johnson
Succeeded by John Letcher
6th United States Minister to Brazil
In office
August 10, 1844 August 28, 1847
Appointed by John Tyler
Preceded by George H. Proffit
Succeeded by David Tod
Member of the U.S.HouseofRepresentatives
from Virginia's 7th district
In office
March 4, 1843 – February 12, 1844
Preceded by William L. Goggin
Succeeded by Thomas H. Bayly
Member of the U.S.HouseofRepresentatives
from Virginia's 8th district
In office
March 4, 1833 March 3, 1843
Preceded by Richard Coke, Jr.
Succeeded by Willoughby Newton
Personal details
Henry Alexander Wise

(1806-12-03)December 3, 1806
Drummondtown, Virginia
DiedSeptember 12, 1876(1876-09-12) (aged 69)
Richmond, Virginia
Political party Jacksonian Democrat, Whig, Republican
Alma mater Washington College
Winchester Law School
ProfessionPolitician, Lawyer
Signature Henry A Wise Signature.svg
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the Confederate States of America (1865).svg  Confederate States of America
Branch/serviceBattle flag of the Confederate States of America.svg  Confederate States Army
Years of service1861 1865
Rank Brigadier General
Unit Army of Northern Virginia
Battles/wars American Civil War

Henry Alexander Wise (December 3, 1806 – September 12, 1876) was an American lawyer and politician from Virginia. He was a U.S. Representative and Governor of Virginia, and US Minister to Brazil. During the American Civil War, he was a general in the Confederate States Army. He was the father of Richard Alsop Wise and John Sergeant Wise, who both served as U.S. Representatives.


Early life

Wise was born in Drummondtown in Accomack County, Virginia, to Major John Wise and his second wife Sarah Corbin Cropper; their families had long been settled there. Wise was of English and Scottish descent. [1] He was privately tutored until his twelfth year, when he entered Margaret Academy, near Pungoteague in Accomack County. He graduated from Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) in 1825. [2] He was a member of the Union Literary Society at Washington College. [3]

After attending Henry St. George Tucker's Winchester Law School, Wise was admitted to the bar in 1828. [4] He settled in Nashville, Tennessee, in the same year to start a practice, but returned to Accomack County in 1830.

Marriage and family

Wise was married three times. He was first married in 1828 to Anne Jennings, the daughter of Rev. Obadiah Jennings and Ann Wilson of Washington, Pennsylvania. [5] In 1837, Anne and one of their children died in a fire, leaving Henry with four children: two sons and two daughters.

Wise married a second time in November 1840, to Sarah Sergeant, the daughter of U.S. Representative John Sergeant (Whig-Pennsylvania) and Margaretta Watmough of Philadelphia. Sarah gave birth to at least five children. She died of complications, along with her last child, soon after its birth on October 14, 1850. [6] Sarah's sister Margaretta married George G. Meade, who was a major general for the Union in the American Civil War.

In the nineteen years of marriage to his first two wives, Wise fathered fourteen children; seven survived to adulthood. [7]

Henry married a third time, to Mary Elizabeth Lyons in 1853. [8] After serving as governor, Wise settled with Mary and his younger children in 1860 at Rolleston, an 884-acre (3.58 km2) plantation which he bought from his brother John Cropper Wise, who also continued to live there. [9] It was located on the Eastern Branch Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Virginia. The property was first owned and developed by William and Susannah Moseley, English immigrants who settled there in 1649. Their descendants owned the property into the 19th century. [10]

After Wise entered Confederate service, he and his family abandoned Rolleston in 1862 as Union troops were taking over Norfolk. Wise arranged for his family to reside in Rocky Mount, Franklin County, Virginia. After the Civil War, Henry and Mary Wise lived in Richmond, where he resumed his law career.

Political career

Henry A. Wise served as a U.S. Representative from 1833 to 1844. He was elected Representative in 1832 as a Jackson Democrat. After this election, Wise fought a duel with his defeated opponent. [11] Wise was re-elected in 1834, but then broke with the Jackson administration over the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. He became a Whig, but was sustained by his constituents. Wise was re-elected as a Whig in 1836, 1838, and 1840.

While in Congress, Wise was the "faithful" opponent of John Quincy Adams. Adams described Wise in his diary as "loud, vociferous, declamatory, furibund, he raved about the hell-hound of abolition..." [12]

On February 24, 1838, Wise served as the second to William J. Graves of Kentucky during the latter's duel with Jonathan Cilley of Maine at the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, in which Cilley was mortally wounded. [13] [14] He later wrote an account of the event that was published by his son John in the Saturday Evening Post in 1906. [15]

In 1840 Wise was active in securing the nomination and election of John Tyler as Vice President on the Whig ticket. Tyler succeeded to the presidency and then broke with the Whigs. Wise was one of a small group of Congress members, known derisively as the "Corporal's Guard," who supported Tyler during his struggles with the Whigs, and was re-elected as a Tyler Democrat in 1842. In 1843, Tyler nominated Wise as U.S. Minister to France, but he did not receive Senate confirmation. [16]

In 1844, Tyler appointed Wise as U.S. Minister to Brazil. Wise resigned as Representative to take up this office. He served from 1844 to 1847. [4] Two of his children were born in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, Wise worked on issues related to trade and tariffs, Brazilian concerns about the US annexation of Texas, and establishing diplomatic relations with Paraguay. [4] (Wise supported the annexation of Texas by the United States and Wise County, Texas, was named in his honor.)

Wise returned to the United States in 1847, and resumed the practice of law. He identified with the Democratic Party, and was active in politics. A delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850, Wise opposed any reforms, insisting on the protection of slavery came first. [17] In the statewide election of 1855, Wise was elected Governor of Virginia, defeating Know-Nothing candidate Thomas S. Flournoy. He was the 33rd Governor of Virginia, serving from 1856 to 1860, and the last Eastern Shore Governor until Ralph Northam was elected in 2017. [18] Wise County, Virginia, was named after him when it was established in 1856. One of his last official acts as Governor was to sign the death warrant of John Brown.

During the secession crisis of 1860-61, Wise was a vehement advocate of immediate secession by Virginia. He was a member of the Virginia secession convention of 1861. Frustrated with the convention's inaction through mid-April, Wise helped plan actions by Virginia state militia to seize the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry and the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. These actions were not authorized by incumbent Governor Letcher or the militia's commanders.

These plans were pre-empted by the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12–14 and Lincoln's call for troops to suppress rebellion on April 15. After a further day and half of debate, the convention voted for secession. During the latter stage of the debate on April 17, Wise revealed the plans which would have forced the issue.

Electoral history

Military career

Gen. Wise during the American Civil War. Gen-hawise2.jpg
Gen. Wise during the American Civil War.

After Virginia declared secession, Wise joined the Confederate States Army (CSA). Because of his political prominence and secessionist reputation, he was commissioned as a brigadier general, despite having no formal military training. [20] He was assigned to the western Virginia region, where it was thought his political support would be helpful. Brigadier General John B. Floyd, another former Governor of Virginia, was also sent there. In summer 1861, Wise and Floyd were feuding over who was the superior officer. At the height of the feud General Floyd blamed Wise for the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, stating that Wise refused to come to his aid. [21] The feud was not resolved until Virginia Delegate Mason Mathews, whose son Alexander F. Mathews was Wise's aide-de-camp, spent several days in the camps of both Wise and Floyd. Afterward he wrote to President Jefferson Davis urging that both men be removed. [22] [23] Davis subsequently removed Wise from his command in western Virginia. [21]

In early 1862, Wise was assigned to command the District of Roanoke Island, which was threatened by Union sea-borne forces. He fell ill with pleurisy and was not present for the Battle of Roanoke Island, when the island was stormed by the Union. He was blamed for the loss, but for his part complained bitterly about inadequate forces to defend the island.[ citation needed ]

He commanded a brigade in the division of Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes on the New Market Road during the Seven Days Battles. For the rest of 1862 and 1863, he held various commands in North Carolina and Virginia.

In 1864 Wise commanded a brigade in the Department of North Carolina & Southern Virginia. His brigade defended Petersburg and was credited with saving the city at the First Battle of Petersburg and to an extent at the Second Battle of Petersburg. Wise commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia during the final stages of the Siege of Petersburg. He was with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, where he fought bravely but urged Lee to surrender.

Postbellum activities

Wise (top row, second from right) with Robert E. Lee and Confederate officers, 1869. Robert E Lee with his Generals, 1869.jpg
Wise (top row, second from right) with Robert E. Lee and Confederate officers, 1869.

After the war, Wise resumed his law practice in Richmond, and settled there for the rest of his life. In 1865 he tried to reclaim Rolleston, his plantation outside Norfolk but was unsuccessful. He was told that he had abandoned that residence when he moved his family to another plantation at Rocky Mount, Virginia. The U.S. commander in Norfolk, Maj. Gen. Terry appropriated it and other plantations for the Freedmen's Bureau, to establish schools for the newly emancipated slaves and their children. Two hundred freedmen were said to be taking classes at Rolleston. [24]

Wise became a Republican and strong supporter of President Ulysses S. Grant. He did not emphasize his Confederate service as did many other politicians, nor did he ever seek a pardon. [25]

Along with working at his law career, Wise wrote a book based on his public service, entitled Seven Decades of the Union (1872).

Death and legacy

Wise died in 1876 and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

His son Capt. Obediah Jennings Wise [26] died in 1862 under his father's command at Roanoke Island. [27] Another son, Richard, after service in the Confederate army, studied medicine and taught chemistry. He also became a Virginia legislator and US Representative. A third son, John, served in the Confederate army as a VMI cadet; he also later became an attorney and was elected as a US Representative. Both Richard Wise and John Wise were Republicans like their father. Another son, Henry A. Wise, Jr. (1834-1869) entered the ministry and served as an assistant to family friend Rev. Joshua Peterkin at St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond before resigning in 1859, a decade before his death. [28]

Henry A. Wise's grandson Barton Haxall Wise wrote a biography of the former governor entitled The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia (New York, 1899). [11] Another grandson, the lawyer and soldier Jennings Cropper Wise (1881-1968, son of John Sergeant Wise), wrote The Early History of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and dedicated it to his grandfather. He used Governor Wise's quote: "I have met the Black Knight with his visor down, and his shield and lance are broken." [29]

Counties were named in his honor in Virginia (Wise County, Virginia) and Texas (Wise County, Texas).

See also


  1. Hambleton, James Pinkney (1 February 2018). "A Biographical Sketch of Henry A. Wise : with a History of the Political Campaign in Virginia in 1855: to which is added a review of the position of parties in the Union, and a statement of the political issues: distinguishing them on the eve of the presidential campaign of 1856". Richmond, Va., J. W. Randolph. Retrieved 1 February 2018 via Internet Archive.
  2. "Washington College 1806–1865". U. Grant Miller Library Digital Archives. Washington & Jefferson College. Archived from the original on 2009-07-16. Retrieved 2010-02-22.
  3. McClelland, W.C. (1903). "A History of Literary Societies at Washington & Jefferson College". The Centennial Celebration of the Chartering of Jefferson College in 1802. Philadelphia: George H. Buchanan and Company. pp. 111–132.
  4. 1 2 3 Renee M. Savits, "Blame It On Rio", Out of the Box, Library of Virginia, accessed 4 January 2012
  5. Jennings Cropper Wise, Col. John Wise of England and Virginia (1617-1695): His Ancestors and Descendants, Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1918; Digitized 2007 by University of California, p. 196, accessed 20 Mar 2008
  6. 1850 US Census, St. George's Parish, Accomack Co, VA, accessed 5 Mar 2008; John S. Wise, The End of an Era, New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1899, p. 39; Documents of the South Collection, University of North Carolina Website, accessed 11 Feb 2008
  7. Simpson, p. 23
  8. Simpson, p. 95.
  9. Simpson, p. 222.
  10. Idris Bowen, "Rolleston Hall, Virginia", The Rollestonian, Spring 2002, accessed 2 Feb 2008
  11. 1 2 "Wise, Henry Alexander"  . New International Encyclopedia . 1905.
  12. Tunnell, Ted; Furgurson, Ernest B. (1998). "Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War". The Journal of Southern History. 64 (1): 17. doi:10.2307/2588092. ISSN   0022-4642. JSTOR   2588092.
  13. "A Fatal Duel Between Members in 1838 - US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". history.house.gov. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  14. "A pair of dueling rifles reveal their story". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  15. "Cilley - Exhibit". cilley.net. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  16. "Senate Executive Journal" . Retrieved February 7, 2017.
  17. Shade, William G., Democratizing the Old Dominion: Virginia and the Second Party System, 1824-1861. 1996 ISBN   978-0-8139-1654-5, p. 276-277
  18. Vaughn, Carol; 'Eastern Shore native Ralph Northam will be the next Virginia governor'; Delmarva Now, November 7, 2017
  19. Simpson, p. 57.
  20. McClure, J. M. Henry A. Wise (1806–1876). (2011, April 5). Encyclopedia Virginia.
  21. 1 2 Civil War Daily Gazette Confederate General Henry Wise Relieved of Duty; “Contraband” Allowed in Navy. Archived 2013-12-21 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved November 21, 2012.
  22. Rice, Otis K. (1986) A History of Greenbrier County. Greenbrier Historical Society, p. 264
  23. Cowles, Calvin Duvall (1897). The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Government Print Office: 1897.
  24. The Wise and Terry Letters, 31 Jul 1865, The New York Times, accessed 4 Feb 2008; Idris Bowen, "Rolleston Hall, Virginia", The Rollestonian, Spring 2002, accessed 2 Feb 2008
  25. "Wise, Henry A. (1806–1876)". www.encyclopediavirginia.org. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  26. Jennings, Wise, Obadiah (1 January 1944). "O. Jennings Wise Letters" . Retrieved 1 February 2018.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  27. "Death of O. Jennings Wise: Battle of Roanoke Island: Online Exhibit: New York State Library". www.nysl.nysed.gov. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  28. Minor T. Weisiger, Donald R. Traser, E. Randolph Trice and Margaret T. Peters, Not Hearers Only" (Richmond, 1986), preface
  29. Jennings Cropper Wise, Ye Kingdome of Accawmacke: or the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (Richmond: The Bell, Book and Stationary Co. 1911)

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U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Richard Coke, Jr.
Member of the  U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 8th congressional district

March 4, 1833 – March 4, 1843
Succeeded by
Willoughby Newton
Preceded by
William L. Goggin
Member of the  U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 7th congressional district

March 4, 1843 – February 12, 1844
Succeeded by
Thomas H. Bayly
Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Johnson
Governor of Virginia
Succeeded by
John Letcher
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
George H. Proffit
United States Minister to Brazil
August 10, 1844 – August 28, 1847
Succeeded by
David Tod