Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Henry Alexander Wise: It's the sound I want

Brigadier General Henry A. Wise

       One of the more interesting personalities in the Confederate Army was Henry Alexander Wise. He is often portrayed as a political general for that is just what he was, but he had some moments where he appeared to have some potential. I often tell a story about him that is quite comical and will include it at the end of the blog. 
       Henry Wise was born on December 3, 1806 in Drummondtown, Virginia. He graduated from Washington College (not to be confused with present day Washington and Lee College) in Pennsylvania. He became a lawyer and an outspoken supporter of states rights. An excellent public speaker, he soon became a congressman and then governor of Virginia. He was the governor during John Brown's raid and execution. Following the war, he would be taunted by Federal soldiers for allowing Brown to be executed. 

Henry A Wise CDV.jpg

A young Henry Wise

       He did a lot to pull Virginia from the United States and into the Confederacy. He immediately offered to help the Confederate Army despite not having any military experience. His popularity meant Davis had little choice but to make him an officer. Davis appointed him a brigadier general on June 5, 1861. His brigade was sent to the mountains of Western Virginia and placed under Brigadier General John B. Floyd. This would prove to be a mistake because he and Floyd were old political enemies and would never get along. 
       Wise had a temper when he felt he was dishonored. Even the arrival of General Robert E. Lee couldn't force Wise to get along with Floyd. He repeatedly asked Davis for a transfer and received the transfer in September to Richmond without his brigade. He would be assigned to a district command in North Carolina. Soon after arriving, Wise realized that the area was under threat by Federal General Ambrose Burnside. He began feuding with his commander Benjamin Huger. Begging for reinforcements, Wise went to Richmond to appeal directly to Davis for troops without permission to leave his command. He was sent back to North Carolina without troops and on February 8, 1862, Roanoke Island fell to Burnside as he had predicted. Wise was exonerated for the loss.

Another Wartime photograph of Henry Wise. Though he is in his mid-fifties here he appears much older.

       Robert E. Lee would give Wise command of a brigade upon his return to Richmond. His brigade would see little action and people nicknamed his command "the Life Insurance Company." This frustrated Wise and he thirsted for action. His brigade was sent to South Carolina in the fall of 1863, but saw little action there. His brigade would return to Petersburg, Virginia in the spring of 1864. He was part of a failed attack near Port Walthall and became unpopular for criticizing his superiors although he received a good deal of blame for the failure. 
       When Grant's army approached Petersburg in June of 1864, Wise had his best day of the war. His defense was stubborn and helped save the town. In an effort to secure praise in the Richmond newspapers for his brigade's performance, he offended Major General Bushrod Johnson and was soon relieved of command. He would regain command in January of 1865. He cut his way through the trap at Saylor's Creek and was praised for his performance there by Robert E. Lee. Ironically, he would be given command of Bushrod Johnson's division for his performance. 

Another uniformed wartime photograph of Wise

       Wise would surrender the division at Appomattox with the rest of Lee's Army. Following the war, he would practice law in Richmond. He never asked for a pardon. He died of tuberculosis on September 12, 1876 at the age of 69. He rests today in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia, the "Arlington of the Confederacy." The war was especially hard on General Wise. He had nineteen relatives serve in the war. Of these, ten were wounded and two were killed. Among the killed was his son. It was reported that he looked sick during the war, his body thin, eyes sunken, but these losses had brought him closer to God. It was reported that he had extreme faith in Jesus his savior, but he does curse sometimes. 

Jerry and I at the grave of Henry Wise

       Now for the comical story I promised you. Early in the war, Wise had no military experience whatsoever. His brigade was posted in a forest. He ordered up his artillery to fire on the enemy. When the commander of the artillery protested that his cannon's wouldn't have much effect because of the tree's, Wise replied, "Damn the effect, it's the sound I want!"

Henry Wise stands second from right in this photograph with seven other Confederate generals. Lee sits second from left. James Conner stands at far left. Next to Conner stands Martin Gary, next to him is John Magruder, to the right is Robert Lilley, next to him is Pierre Beauregard, between Beauregard and Wise is Alexander Lawton. 


  1. I have always looked at the war with the perspective of the 'common soldier' which is what my ancestors and their friends and relatives were. So when I look at the lack of military qualifications so many leaders had, I marvel we did as well as we did. Maybe some of them grew into their roles, but all in all, I think General Lee had a difficult time of it. Not to take away from the many skills Mr. Wise probably had in civilian life.

  2. The list of political generals goes on and on. There were commanders in the Confederate Army worse than Wise. John B. Floyd his political rival was a lot worse. He is responsible for the surrender of Fort Donelson. One of the exceptions to the rule was General Breckinridge who turned into a fine combat commander. Another was William Barksdale of Mississippi who was killed at Gettysburg.