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Henry A. Wise

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Title: Henry A. Wise  
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Subject: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition, Wise County, Virginia, Thomas H. Bayly, William L. Goggin, James L. Kemper
Collection: 1806 Births, 1876 Deaths, 19Th-Century American Diplomats, American Diplomats, American Historians, American People of English Descent, American People of Scottish Descent, Burials at Hollywood Cemetery (Richmond, Virginia), Confederate States Army Generals, Democratic Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party State Governors of the United States, Governors of Virginia, Jacksonian Members of the United States House of Representatives, Members of the United States House of Representatives from Virginia, People from Accomack County, Virginia, People of Virginia in the American Civil War, Virginia Democrats, Virginia Jacksonians, Virginia Lawyers, Virginia Secession Delegates of 1861, Virginia Whigs, Washington & Jefferson College Alumni, Whig Party Members of the United States House of Representatives
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Henry A. Wise

Henry Alexander Wise
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. House of Representatives
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. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 8th district
In office
March 4, 1833 – March 3, 1843
Preceded by Richard Coke, Jr.
Succeeded by Willoughby Newton
Personal details
Born (1806-12-03)December 3, 1806
Drummondtown, Virginia
Died September 12, 1876(1876-09-12) (aged 69)
Richmond, Virginia
Political party Jacksonian Democrat, Whig
Alma mater Washington College
Winchester Law School
Profession Politician, Lawyer
Military service
Allegiance  Confederate States of America
Service/branch  Confederate States Army
Years of service 1861 – 1865
Rank Major General
Unit Army of Northern Virginia

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 U.S. Representatives Richard Alsop Wise and John Sergeant Wise.


  • Early life 1
  • Marriage and family 2
  • Political career 3
    • Electoral history 3.1
  • Military career 4
  • Postbellum activities 5
  • Death and legacy 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Wise was born in Drummondtown, Accomack County, Virginia, to Major John Wise and his second wife Sarah Corbin Cropper, whose 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 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 George G. Meade.

In 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. It had first been developed by William and Susannah Moseley, English immigrants who settled there in 1649.[10]

After Wise entered Confederate service, he and his family abandoned Rolleston in 1862 as Union troops were taking over Norfolk. Wise arranged for residence for his family 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 US 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 1835, 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 1837, 1839, and 1841.

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 supported Tyler, and was re-elected as a Tyler Democrat in 1843.

In 1844, Tyler appointed Wise as US 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. 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. 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

  • 1843: Wise was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives with 57.24% of the vote, defeating Whig Hill [12]
  • 1855: Wise was elected governor of Virginia with 53.25% of the vote, defeating Thomas Stanhope Flournoy.

Military career

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.[13] 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 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.[14] 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.[15][16] Davis subsequently removed Wise from his command in western Virginia.[14]

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.

He commanded a brigade in the division of Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes 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 promoted to the rank of major general after the Battle of Sayler's Creek. 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.

After the war, Wise resumed his law practice in Richmond, and settled there for the rest of his life. In 1865 he was unable to reclaim Rolleston, his plantation outside Norfolk. 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.[17]

Nonetheless, 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.[18]

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.[19]

His son Capt. Obediah Jennings Wise[20] died in 1862 under his father's command at Roanoke Island.[21] Another son, Richard, after service in the Confederate army, studied medicine and taught chemistry, and became a Virginia legislator and US Representative, as did his younger brother, John, who served in the Confederate army as a VMI cadet, also later became 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 before resigning in 1859, a decade before his death.[22]

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).[23]

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


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ "Washington College 1806–1865". U. Grant Miller Library Digital Archives. Washington & Jefferson College. Archived from the original on 2009-05-01. 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. ^ a b c Renee M. Savits, "Blame It On Rio", Out of the Box, Library of Virginia, accessed 4 January 2012
  5. ^ , Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1918; Digitized 2007 by University of California, p. 196Col. John Wise of England and Virginia (1617-1695): His Ancestors and DescendantsJennings Cropper Wise, , accessed 20 Mar 2008
  6. ^ 1850 US Census, St. George's Parish, Accomack Co, VA, accessed 5 Mar 2008; , New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1899, p. 39; Documents of the South Collection, University of North Carolina WebsiteThe End of an EraJohn S. Wise, , 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. ^ "Henry A. Wise", New International Encyclopedia,
  12. ^ Simpson, p. 57.
  13. ^ McClure, J. M. Henry A. Wise (1806–1876). (2011, April 5). Encyclopedia Virginia.
  14. ^ a b Civil War Daily Gazette Confederate General Henry Wise Relieved of Duty; “Contraband” Allowed in Navy. Retrieved November 21, 2012.
  15. ^ Rice, Otis K. (1986) A History of Greenbrier County. Greenbrier Historical Society, p. 264
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ The New York TimesThe Wise and Terry Letters, 31 Jul 1865, , accessed 4 Feb 2008; , Spring 2002The RollestonianIdris Bowen, "Rolleston Hall, Virginia", , accessed 2 Feb 2008
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Minor T. Weisiger, Donald R. Traser, E. Randolph Trice and Margaret T. Peters, Not Hearers Only" (Richmond, 1986), preface
  23. ^ "Henry A. Wise," New International Encyclopedia


  • Simpson, Craig M., A Good Southerner: A Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 1985
  • Wise, Barton Haxall. The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899. googlebooks Accessed January 29, 2008

External links

  • Encyclopedia VirginiaHenry A. Wise in
  • Henry A. Wise at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Retrieved on 2008-02-13
  • "Governor Henry Wise, Ghotes of Virginia
  • "A Guide to the Executive Papers of Governor Henry A. Wise, 1856-1859", Library of Virginia
  • The End of an EraJohn Sergeant Wise, , 1899, Documenting the South, University of North Carolina, online text of memoir
United States 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
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