The Final Years
One omission from my book which I regretted concerned the post-war life of Henry Wise, the man who had been governor of Virginia at the time of John Brownís raid, and served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. The general impression my book gives of Wise is somewhat erroneous because of this missing material. Wise was not entirely a broken man going around apologizing to every Union officer and government official he met for executing John Brown. He still had a lot of dignity left, and he managed to regain much of his former prestige before his death in 1876. So here is the out-take from the chapter on Reconstruction:
Henry Wise survived the rigors of Reconstruction very well, despite the fact that the United States District Court in Norfolk, meeting in the summer of 1865, had indicted him as well as general Lee and President Davis for treason. He and his fellow Confederates were never tried, but taking the oath of loyalty troubled Wise greatly. He sent his son, John Sergeant Wise, to Smithfield in May of 1865 to take the oath and "keep it sacredly," but he refused to do the same himself, saying at first that he could not take it "until I know my full status before and after taking itÖ." By late summer, he still could not bring himself to do so. "Pardon implies, ex vi termini, guilt, crimeóin this case the high crime of treason," he wrote in a letter to Robert E. Lee. "I was not a traitor to my country and cannot become a traitor to myself. By this I donít mean to censure comrades who have petitioned for pardon; in such extreme cases as ours each must judge for himself alone." Lee wrote back that he had applied for a pardon on June 13, but had received no reply. His subsequent indictment for treason caused him to withdraw the application. Ellen Wise wrote her father in September urging him to take some action in the matter. But nothing could persuade Wise to do so. Like the unforgiving and unforgiven "Good Old Rebel" of the song who "wonít be reconstructed / And I donít care a dam," he clung to the conviction that he had done the right thing to his dying day.
Fortunately, the restoration of his plantation, Rolleston in Princess Anne County, and its furniture taken to Fort Monroe was more easily achieved. On June 28, 1865, Wise arrived in Norfolk and applied to General Oliver Howard for the return of his property. The following year, he got an order from General Schofield for the recovery of his furniture at the fort which brought him some relief. but various bric-a-brac kept showing up in the oddest places years later. Once, during the course of a lawsuit in which General Benjamin Butler and John S. Wise were involved, Butler said, "Wise, itís very curious, but I have a cup at my home made from the timber of the old Constitution, and which has your fatherís name engrave upon it; it was presented to him by Captain Percival. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine how I came by it."
"It is not curious at all," John replied unabashed. "You stole it when you were down at Norfolk during the war. Send it back, and purge your conscience to that extent, at least, General."
The two laughed over the incident, and Butler generously restored the cup to its owner.
It took much longer for Henry Wise to get Rolleston back. The issue of ownership was complicated by the fact that he and his brother, John Cropper Wise, jointly owned the property. John had gladly taken the oath and started shoveling mountains of paper into the War Department and Freedmenís Bureau to make his claim. He died in 1866 of articular rheumatism, and brother Henry quickly put his claim forward. The Bureau stalled his effort for another two years and then gave up. An outbreak of small pox on the farm helped convince the federal authorities that the plantation wasnít worth keeping. Henry reclaimed the property on December 15, 1868, and promptly sold it to a New Yorker who had married on of his brotherís daughters. The price was $26,000. He gave $7,000 of this money to his brotherís widow as final settlement of ownership.
By this time, Henry Wise had entered into a law partnership with his son John. The partnership would continue until his death. The former governor of Virginia also took the initiative to promote passage of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The former freed all the slaves, and the latter gave male freedmen of 21 years and older the right to vote. "I was ever and am now a friend of the colored race," he wrote in 1872. "They were too peaceable and orderly and respectful of the laws of God and humanity for me now not to be grateful to them for their conduct during the war. I would not enslave them or their children again, if I could; and I could not if I would." But he was reluctant to support the Fourteenth Amendment, providing full citizenship for former slaves, which he felt "denies the sovereign right of State self-government." He was unable to explain any further, but the rigorous provisions made in the Amendment to prevent former high ranking Confederates such as himself from regaining even the smallest measure of political power would have been reason enough for him to condemn it.
He spent his final years in Richmond at the Freeland homestead on the corner of Fifth and Cary Streets. There he found his greatest leisure in carving elaborate canes for gentlemen. He decorated the tops of the canes with alligators or Turkís heads or Punches and Judies. For the children, he made jackstraws. In more utilitarian moods, he carved salad spoons and forks. Even on his death bed, he practiced his woodworking skill by creating a model of a two-masted schooner.
Henry Wise died on September 12, 1876. "Take hold, John, of the biggest knots in life," he told his son on that last day, "and try to untie themótry to be worthy of manís highest estateóhave high, noble, manly honor. There is but one true test of anything, and that is, is it right? If it isnít, turn right away from it."
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