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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 473

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This is the grave of Henry Wise.

Born in Accomack County, Virginia in 1806 to parents from the Virginia slaveholding plantation elite, Henry Wise grew up in luxury. He graduated from what is today Washington and Jefferson College in 1825, studied with the Virginia legal expert Henry St. George Tucker, and was admitted to the bar in 1828. He initially chose to practice in Nashville, but preferred his home state and moved back after a year.

Wise was a full-blooded member of the states rights Virginia elite with all the slavery and violence and toxic masculinity that meant. Of course, he was politically ambitious and ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1832. He won and then fought a duel against his defeated opponent. He was reelected in 1834, but broke with the Democrats over the issue of the Bank of the United States, which he supported. So he became a Whig, but this demonstrated that the only thing tying the Whigs together was a hatred of Democrats, as it’s not as if Wise and Daniel Webster shared a lot of political principles, outside of banking. He very much hated his fellow Whig, the former president John Quincy Adams. While Adams used his position and influence to promote abolitionism in Congress, for a slaver such as Wise, Adams was the devil incarnate. Adams described Wise once in his diary, noting he was “loud, vociferous, declamatory, furibund, he raved about the hell-hound of abolition..” And these guys were in the same party!

Wise continued dueling as well. In 1838, he was a second to two congressmen dueling, in which Kentucky’s William Graves, who Wise was for, murdered Maine’s Jonathan Cilley. By this time as well, Wise was moving into the hard-core reactionary states rights wing of the party and thus supported placing John Tyler on the 1840 Whig ticket. When Tyler took over after Harrison’s death and set the country on the path to extremist pro-slavery aggression, Wise was one of the only Whigs who left the party with him and his last two elections he ran as a Tyler Democrat. Tyler repaid him for this too, naming him Minister to Brazil in 1844. He served there until 1847, where he pushed Brazil to accept the U.S. annexation of Texas and the Mexican War.

In 1847, Wise returned to Virginia and restarted his law practice. He became a passionate defender of the glories of slavery and the evils of abolitionism. In 1855, he ran for governor of Virginia on this platform and won, defeating a Know-Nothing candidate in part by lambasting against the anti-immigrant stance of that party, claiming that was actually anti-American. Wise was a strong Virginia nationalist and not altogether a fan of the state’s plantation elite, who he claimed were more interested in “brandy, foxhounds and horse racing” than governance. They didn’t necessarily like him back. He was as pro-slavery as anyone, but was probably a little smarter than most of his opponents. At the very least, he thought the fight over Kansas was poorly conceived (true) and felt that his state desperately needed industrial development if it was to achieve once again the power it had in the nation’s early decades. So some of the Virginia elite held him in contempt and with Wise’s white hot temper, there were a lot of incidents and conflict.

But this meant he was governor when John Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry. For Wise, this was all opportunity. See, Wise wanted to be president as an aggressive protector of slavery. Now, understand that Harpers Ferry was a federal arsenal, not a state one. But Wise refused to hand Brown over to the federal government. He wanted to try him for an attack on Virginia. Everyone realized Brown would be tried, convicted, and executed, no matter who tried him. But it was Wise who began to elicit sympathy toward Brown in the North, after the latter was widely condemned after the raid. For Wise would not grant Brown basic rights and quality treatment. Wise wouldn’t turn him over. Wise wanted to hang Brown himself and effectively did, signing the death warrant. This all made Wise something of a hero among southern extremists, but truly outraged northerners, even many northern Democrats. Now, don’t get me wrong, Wise actually liked Brown as a person. For men such as Wise, the North’s weakness was that it was filled with effete reformers who had a disdain for martial values. Brown was definitely not that guy. He personified the violence that the South revered. At the same time, Brown knew what he was getting into. In fact, he probably knew this would lead to his martyrdom when he started. So there was a lot of grudging respect toward Brown, not just from Wise, but from people such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

So it’s not surprising that as the secession crisis grew after Lincoln’s election, Wise was aggressive even for Virginia. He demanded immediate secession and even drew up his own plans to lead troops to take the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, even before Fort Sumter. He was a member of the secession convention and gladly committed treason in defense of slavery. Unlike many southern leaders, Wise had no military training. But he was an elite, so he was automatically named as a brigadier general in the Treason Army. He spent the early months of the war in a feud with John Floyd, another former governor also sent to western Virginia, over who was the superior office. Finally, Floyd issued an official compliant that Confederate troops lost the Battle of Carnifex Ferry because Wise refused to come to his aid. This led to an investigation and Wise was relieved of his command in 1862. He was then given command of the District of Roanoke Island, but proceeded to lose that to Union troops. Still, he remained a brigade commander through the war, played a pretty big role at Petersburg and was at Appomattox with Lee.

After the war, Wise tried to reclaim his abandoned plantation outside of Norfolk, but he was told that he lost title to it when he moved his family out. It was being used to teach freed people by the Freedmen’s Bureau at that time. So Wise moved to Richmond and started his law practice again. He mostly stayed out of the limelight at this point, except for serving on a commission to fix the boundary line between Virginia and Maryland. He did not get involved in early Confederate nostalgia efforts, became a Republican, and supported Grant’s presidency. I guess he saw the future and figured a pro-business position would be the most profitable for himself and his state. He wrote a memoir in 1872 titled Seven Decades of the Union. He died in 1876.

Henry Wise is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

Of course Ralph Northam is displaying a painting of Wise in the governor’s office. Have to remember our history after all, and of course the blackface wearing governor would find value in Wise.

This grave visit was funded by LGM readers. I am putting together grave trips to both North Carolina and Virginia over the next month or so and the only way this series can continue like it is is with a little help from my graving friends. If you would like this series to visit other people who committed treason in defense of slavery, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Floyd is in Abingdon, Virginia and Stonewall Jackson is in Lexington, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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