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Gov. Henry Alexander Wise

Male 1806 - 1876  (69 years)

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  • Name Henry Alexander Wise 
    Prefix Gov. 
    Born Dec 03, 1806  Accomack county, Virginia, USA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Gender Male 
    Burial Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, USA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Died Sep 12, 1876 
    Buried Wise Cemetery, Clifton, South Chesconessex, Accomack county, Virginia, USA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    • There is a memorial to him at the Wise Cemetery, he is buried at the Hollywood Cemetery.
    • He was governor of Virginia at the time of John Browns raid, and served as a brigadier general under General Robert E. Lee in the Confederate Army.

          He and general Lee and president Davis were indicted for treason in the summer of 1865 by the Reconstruction U.S. District court in Norfolk.  Though never being tried for the crime, taking the oath of loyalty troubled him greatly. He wrote to General Lee: "Pardon implies, ex vi termini, guilt, crime in this case the high crime of treason .... I was not a traitor to my country and cannot become a traitor to myself..."  He believed to his death he'd done nothing treasonous.
          He worked to promote passage of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  He spent much of his final years carving elaborate canes for gentlemen, salad spoons and forks and jackstraws for the children.
          On the day he died, he told his son John: "Take hold, John, of the biggest knots in life," he told his son on that last day, "and try to untie them try to be worthy of man's highest estate have high, noble, manly honor. There is but one true test of anything, and that is, is it right? If it isn't, turn right away from it."

      On Oct. 17, 1859, Governor Henry Wise of Virginia received the alarming news that Northerners had attacked the armory at Harpers Ferry.  John Brown, leader of the insurgents, was surrounded and soon would be captured; his fate was now in the governor's hands.  Should John Brown hang?  The reform-minded Wise faced the most important political decision of his life. It would have far reaching implications for his career, for Virginia, and for the future of the Union.
          Wise began his political life with a duel. He shot and severely wounded his opponent for Congress. He served from 1833 to 1844, developing a reputation as a hot-headed, fiery orator. (In 1851, he captivated Virginias Constitutional Convention with a five day speech.)  He represented Accomac County, home to his ancestors for almost two centuries.  He was nearly six feet tall, lean and nervous, and favored wearing a white cravat.
          When elected governor in 1856, Wise had one primary goal: to restore the state of Virginia to its former glory. He believed that the plantation system that had once made Virginia great was now responsible for its economic stagnation. He was critical of Virginia planters, whom he accused of being lazy and having a fondness for "brandy, foxhounds and horse racing." ....
          ...  he had ambitions to be president. Wise may have initially thought that the John Brown affair offered an opportunity for favorable exposure on the national stage. After all, Browns raid had not only shocked the South, Northerners were appalled as well. Even abolitionists were distancing themselves from Browns "mad" act.
          Wise arrived in Harpers Ferry on the afternoon of Browns capture, accompanied by an entourage of press and politicians to observe the interrogation. He found the old man lying on a pile of bedding, his clothes caked with dried blood.
          The Governor interrogated the prisoner for three hours and was surprised by what he found. Brown presented himself as composed, articulate, if not eloquent in his thoughts. "He is cool, collected and indomitable," said Wise, "and he inspired me with great trust in his integrity as a man of truth."  He is "the gamest man I ever saw." ...
          Wise now faced the difficult decision of what to do with Brown; each option carried with it great political risk. He could have recommend incarceration for life. While that might have won him favorable support from the North, it was sure to alienate his support in the South; it was not worth the gamble. He could have declared Brown insane, but his conversation with Brown had convinced him otherwise.
          Wise's final decision reflected the popular sentiment in the South: John Brown would hang.  But for secessionists who saw Brown's raid as an invasion by the North and a clear signal that it was time to leave the Union, hanging was not the answer.  If Brown were hanged, they argued, he would become a martyr and unify the North.  A critic of Wise would later write: "The Harpers Ferry affair ought to have been treated and represented either in its best light as the mad folly of a few deluded cranks ... or, more truly, as the vulgar crime and outrage of a squad of reckless desperate Ruffians."
          Despite Wise's desire to remain in the Union, it became increasingly clear over the following months that the situation was hopeless. In April, 1861, Wise conspired to launch his own raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to force his state into secession.
      John Brown's story:
          In the mid-1850's, "Kansas Fever" swept the country.  126,000 square miles of wilderness lying west of Missouri had just been opened for settlement.  Five of John Brown's sons responded to the call, joining thousands of settlers heading west in search of a better future.  But the Brown boys also went to stake a claim for liberty; they went to ensure that the new territories would be kept free of slavery.
          .... but ... Free soil and proslavery forces poured into Kansas, and the territory erupted in violence. On March 30th, 1855, a horde of 5000 heavily armed Missourians -- known as "Border Ruffians" -- rode into the territory. They seized the polling places and voted in their own legislature. Severe penalties were leveled against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding; those who assisted fugitives would be put to death or sentenced to ten years hard labor. ...
          .... Brown's son John Jr. wrote him. "Now we want you to get for us these arms."
          The next day John Brown packed a wagon and headed west, gathering weapons along the way. "I'm going to Kansas," he declared, "to make it a Free state."
          .... Of the five sons, John Jr. was most like his father. A blunt talking abolitionist, he was the captain of the Pottawatomie Rifles, a small group of free-state men living near the creek from which they took their name. ...
          .... On the night of May 24th, 1856, John Brown and his men marched toward Pottawatomie Creek, to the homes of proslavery sympathizers.  Brown banged on the door of James Doyle and ordered the men to come outside.  Brown's men attacked them with broadswords.  They executed three of the Doyles, splitting open heads and cutting off arms.  Brown watched as if in a trance.  When they were done, he put a bullet into the head of James Doyle.  Brown's party visited two more cabins, dragged out and killed two more men -- five in all.
          .... Proslavery forces launched a manhunt, plundering homesteads as they searched the countryside for the Pottawatomie killers. John Brown took to the woods and evaded capture. His sons did not fair as well; John Jr. and Jason -- who had not been involved at Pottawatomie -- were savagely beaten. Frederick was shot through the heart. Brown's Station was burnt to the ground.
          In December, 1858, John Brown led a few men across the Missouri border from Kansas and attacked two proslavery homesteads, confiscating property and liberating slaves ... but a man had been killed in the raid and Brown was cast as both a murderer and a thief.  President Buchanan offered a $250 reward for John Brown's capture.  Brown mockingly responded by offering $2.50 for the arrest of Buchanan.
          By the summer of 1859, Brown had finalized his plans.  His target was the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia -- a town surrounded by mountains, tucked at the bottom of a ravine created by a pair of rivers.  The arsenal was a huge complex of buildings that contained 100,000 muskets and rifles.
          He described his plan to his friend, Frederick Douglass:  they would attack the arsenal at Harpers Ferry and capture the guns, prompting a spontaneous army of slaves to rush to join them.  They would then drive south, and the revolution would snowball....
          .... Brown found 21 men to join him.  In a farmhouse a few miles outside of Harpers Ferry, the small army gathered and waited for the time to strike.  The group included a fugitive slave, a college student, and free blacks.  Three of the men were Brown's sons.
          On the evening of October 16, Brown gathered his men together and set out for Harpers Ferry.  At first the raid went like clockwork.  They cut telegraph wires, then easily captured the federal armory and arsenal, which was being defended by a lone watchman.  They rounded up hostages, including Col. Lewis Washington, great-grand-nephew of George Washington.
          Their problems began when a train approached town.  The baggage master ran to warn the passengers and was killed by Brown's men.  The first victim of John Brown's war against slavery was Hayward Shepherd, a free black man....
          ... Under fire from farmers, militiamen, and shopkeepers, the raiders were pinned down in the armory buildings.  As shots rang off the walls, John Brown quietly ordered breakfast from a hotel for his hostages. .... John Brown's revolution was coming apart.  At noon, a company of militiamen stormed into town.  They charged over the bridge, and the only true escape route was gone.
          Eight raiders were dead or dying; five others were cut off.  Two had escaped across the river.  Brown gathered those who were left in a small brick building, the engine house.
          The next morning, the raiders gazed out on a chilling sight: the armory yard was lined with a company of U.S. Marines, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee.  They were completely surrounded.
          A young lieutenant, J.E.B. Stuart, approached under a white flag.  Stuart handed over a note: if the raiders surrendered, their lives would be spared.  Brown refused. Marines stormed the building; the door was breached.  One Marine tried to run Brown through, but the blade struck the old man's belt buckle.  Brown was then beaten unconscious.
          "If Brown had died on that brick floor in that engine house," says Dennis Frye, "I believe he would've been noted in history, but only with a few sentences.  Maybe even only a footnote.  Brown's real effect came in his failure at Harpers Ferry.  His real meaning is in what happens after his capture."
          John Brown was taken to Charlestown, Virginia along with four other captives.  His statements during his trial reached the nation, inspiring many with his righteous indignation toward slavery.  The hanging would make Brown an abolitionist martyr.
          John Brown's dedication to the abolition of slavery prompted Frederick Douglass to write the following: "Did John Brown fail?  John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic.  His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine.  I could live for the slave, but he could die for him.." Frederick Douglass
    Person ID I7562  mykindred
    Last Modified Dec 02, 2011 

    Father Maj. John Wise,   b. circa 1765, Accomack county, Virginia, USA Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Mar 30, 1812  (Age ~ 47 years) 
    Mother Sarah Corbin Cropper,   b. Mar 21, 1777, Accomack county, Virginia, USA Find all individuals with events at this location,   d. Jan 21, 1813  (Age 35 years) 
    Married circa 1800 
    Family ID F2718  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

     1. Ellen Wise,   b. circa 1825,   d. Y
     2. John Wise,   b. circa 1825,   d. Y
    Family ID F18356  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

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    Gov. Henry Wise (1806-1876)
    Gov. Henry Wise (1806-1876)