John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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her with which to contrast her. But after a large steamer
of the Old Dominion line passed the Know-Nothing on the
way down the harbor, looming 1 high above us, and rocking
us in her wake until our washboards were almost sub
merged, and then passed on towards the Great Eastern,
where, by the side of the latter, she appeared to be no
larger than a tug, I began to realize the size of the mag
nificent newcomer. When the Know-Nothing sailed up
and around the visitor, her topmast not five feet above
the rail of the Great Eastern, the matter grew plainer ;
and when our party boarded the Great Eastern and
traversed the great spaces within, I found it difficult to
realize that she was the work of men, or that the colossal
whole moved and was directed in every motion by the
control of one human mind.

While the ship proved a failure, the ideas first advanced
in her were developed and applied to other ventures, in
such a manner that she produced a revolution in the con
struction of ships for merchant marine service, little less
marked than that in naval warfare resulting from the
conflict in Hampton Roads two years later.

The visit of the Prince of Wales to America occurred
about the same time as the arrival of the Great Eastern.

I was to remain at home during the next school year.
One of our neighbors, with a large family, had secured
the services of a young university graduate as private
tutor, and I was to attend his school, about two miles dis
tant. Consequently, early in September, I went to Gooch-
land to bring back some schoolbooks and other belong
ings. It was on this visit that I happened to be in
Richmond at the time of the visit of the Prince of Wales,


and was in St. Paul s Church upon the Sunday when the
prince attended divine worship there.

During our residence in Richmond, many eminent Eng
lishmen had visited the city from time to time, and a
mere English lord was no very great sight ; but my inter
est was most decided in a British heir-apparent not much
older than myself.

The young fellow was a typical Anglo-Saxon. His
tawny hair, fair complexion, and blue eyes were exactly
what one familiar with the type would have expected to
see. At that time, he was rather slight in build, and did
not display the best of physical development. His shoul
ders were drooping, and his hips rather broad ; his move
ments were awkward, and his manner altogether boyish.
I had no opportunity to converse with him, for, being a
small boy, I secured no introduction ; but I saw him sev
eral times, and wondered at the deference shown to him
by the distinguished-looking old gentlemen who were his
traveling companions, as well as by several of the leading
citizens, friends of my father, by whom the prince was

One who saw him in 1860 would find it difficult to
discover in the stout, bald, elderly, well-fed man of the
world, still known as the Prince of Wales, whom I saw
in London several years ago, any trace of the awkward
boy who visited Richmond in I860.

Never had boy more glorious liberty or greater vari
ety of sport, and never did reckless youth pursue its bent
more indifferent to the graver affairs going on about it.
One day in October, I drove into Norfolk, and, seeing a
great crowd assembled, paused and heard part of a speech
by Stephen A. Douglas. I was greatly impressed by his
tremendous voice, every tone of which reached me more
than a block away, and I loudly applauded his Union sen-


timents. But having obtained the supply of powder and
shot I needed, I soon forgot Douglas. Not long after
wards, I heard, without its making a great impression
upon me, that on one of those gorgeous November days
Douglas had been defeated for President, and Abraham
Lincoln had been elected President of the United States.
More than once I heard, without believing it, that there
was serious and imminent danger of civil war as a re
sult. " Let it come," was my only reflection ; " who s
afraid ? "

Before the close of the year 1860, many men from
Southern States rode out to Rolleston from Norfolk to
visit and confer with father about the course Virginia
would pursue in view of that of South Carolina and
other States. Some of them remained to meals, and
some stayed overnight, and so I heard their conversa
tions. Some of them had new and strange flags pinned
upon their lapels, or little palmetto rosettes, which they
gave me. When I visited the city, I heard new tunes
like " Dixie " and " The Bonnie Blue Flag ; " and men
said that Virginia would secede with other Southern
States. But father still declared that he was opposed to
secession, and believed that, if any fight was necessary,
the South should " fight in the Union." I did not know
what it all meant, and did not believe it could result in
actual war, and in fact had become so engrossed in the
pleasures of life at Rolleston that I gave little attention
to aught else but the pursuit of my boyish diversions.

I was a little over fourteen years of age when the civil
war began. No pair of eyes and ears in all America
were more alert than mine. Every event, as it wound off
the reel of time, excited my most intense interest, and
made its indelible impression.

As State after State passed ordinances of secession, the


disunion sentiment gained ground in Virginia. Father
was hotly opposed to secession, but he always coupled
that declaration with the further one that he was equally
opposed to Northern coercion.

The Virginia legislature called a convention to consider
what course the State should take in the impending crisis.
The election for delegate from our county, Princess Anne,
was exciting, and the result was in great doubt. Father
was a candidate, opposed by Edgar Burroughs, Esq., a
popular and outspoken Union man. Mr. Burroughs was
a native of the county, had a large family connection, and
was supported by a strong following, who wanted neither
secession nor fighting. It required all the prestige of my
father s name, and a careful declaration of his modified
views upon secession, to elect him, and he was returned
by a small majority.

Poor Burroughs, like many another who resisted seces
sion to the last, went into the Confederate service, and
sacrificed his life for his State.

The convention remained in session a long time before
it took decisive action. When it assembled, it was com
posed of a safe majority of Union men, and a minority of
secessionists. My father held unique views, and had a
very small following. Opposing secession, he at the same
time advocated preparations by the State for defense
against what he considered the threatened aggression of
the federal government. In his own book, " Seven De
cades of the Union," he has fully set forth what he meant
when he advocated "righting in the Union." It is suffi
cient to say that, at the time, his views were regarded as
impracticable, and that he failed to impress them upon
the body, or to gain any considerable following.

The issue seemed likely to be decided in favor of the
Union men, until the occurrence of two events which pre-


cipitatecl secession. The first of these was the firing upon
Fort Suiuter. The second was the call issued by Presi
dent Lincoln upon the States, Virginia included, for troops
to suppress the rebellion.

It has been said that the Southern leaders fired upon
Fort Sumter in order to force these issues, well knowing
that Virginia could not be relied upon to withdraw from
the Union in any other way. Whether this be so or not,
this result was accomplished.

The Virginians realized that they had come to the part
ing of the roads. The question presented was no longer,
Shall we fight? War was flagrant. The only question
to be decided was, On which side shall we fight ?

Virginia was reduced to the alternative of furnishing
her quota of troops to the Union, or of refusing to do
so, which was the equivalent of secession. It was a hard
situation, made doubly hard by the fact that, even at the
moment when these things happened, a peace conference,
presided over by her venerable ex-President John Tyler,
was in session at Washington, vainly endeavoring to bring
about a bloodless solution of the trouble.

Now, however, no time was to be lost in further negotia
tions. Indecision in such a crisis would have been little
less than cowardice.

One by one, men who had steadily voted with the Union
men transferred their support to the secessionists. Know
ing that war was inevitable, they decided to fight for and
with their friends. The ordinance of secessionVas passed
three days after Mr. Lincoln s call for troops ; and while
the schedule provided for its indorsement by the people,
the march of events was so rapid that popular indorse
ment was not obtained until long after the State had
taken an unmistakable attitude in the conflict.

While these things were progressing, I visited Norfolk


daily to ascertain, and keep the family informed concern
ing, the progress of public affairs.

From the time Sumter was fired upon, and Mr. Lin
coln s proclamation was made public, business was almost
entirely suspended. The people assembled upon the
streets, discussing the situation, breathlessly awaiting the
decision of the convention at Richmond, and listening
to popular harangues. The local military, anticipating
the result, assembled, and paraded the streets with bands
and Southern flags. When the telegraph flashed the an
nouncement that the secession ordinance had been passed,
it was greeted with great cheering, the firing of guns, and
every demonstration of excited enthusiasm.

It is impossible to describe the feelings with which I
saw the stars and stripes hauled down from the custom
house, and the Virginia state flag run up in their place.
I had become rampant for war, but never until then had
I fully realized that this step involved making the old
flag under which I was born in Brazil, and which, until
now, had typified to me everything of national patriotism
and national glory on land and sea, henceforth the flag of
an enemy.

It was a beautiful spring morning. Across the harbor
at the Gosport Navy Yard, the United States flag still
floated from the garrison flagstaff, and from the ships,
the Pennsylvania, the Cumberland, the Merrimac, the
Germantown, the Raritan, and others whose names were
famous in our naval annals. Father had been chairman
of the Naval Committee of the House of Representatives
for many years, and had become, while minister to Brazil,
personally acquainted with nearly all the prominent naval
officers. Upon those ships, lying there, were many men
who, but a short time before, were welcome visitors at our
home. It was almost incredible that they were now, and


were to be henceforth, enemies, or that they might at any
time open fire upon the town which they had originally
come to protect. A certain Confederate general was ridi
culed for saying, after the war ended, that he had never
seen the old flag, even in the battle-front, without tears
in his eyes. That was doubtless a figure of speech. It
was rather hyperbolical and beyond any feeling I had ;
but I can understand the emotion of every man who, hav
ing loved and honored the stars and stripes, could not
bring himself, even while the war was going on, to hate
them, or shut out from his remembrance what they had
been to him.

The day after the State seceded, General Taliaferro, a
militia general, arrived at Norfolk and assumed command.
Troops from the South began to arrive. Among them I
recall particularly the Third Alabama Regiment, one ol
the finest bodies of military I ever saw. It numbered
full one thousand men, the best representatives of Mont
gomery, Selma, Mobile, and other places in Alabama. It
was uniformed like the New York Seventh Regiment, and
commanded by Colonel Lomax, a superb soldier. Those
wealthy young fellows of the Third Alabama brought with
them not less than one hundred servants, and their impedi
ments were more than was carried by a division in Lee s
army three years later.

All attention was concentrated now upon the navy yards
and ships in possession of the United States. The advan
tage of securing the latter was fully understood. No less
than six or seven vessels were sunk in the channel below
the city, to prevent the ships from passing out. A demand
for the evacuation of the navy yard and the surrender of
the ships was, it was understood, made by General Talia
ferro upon Commodore Paulding. Friday the 19th and
Saturday the 20th were consumed in negotiations. Satur-


day, a party of Union officers landed at the Roanoke dock
with a flag of truce, and proceeded under escort to Gen
eral Taliaferro s headquarters at the Atlantic Hotel. A
long conference ensued, and then they returned to their
ships. The fevered populace could gain no information
concerning the interview or its probable results.

Meanwhile, several companies of local military pro
ceeded to old Fort Norfolk, which was on our side of the
river just below the town, and removed a large quantity
of ammunition stored there, unprotected by the Union
troops. That ammunition was largely used in the first
battle of Manassas, which occurred three months later.

It was nearly dark, Saturday, April 20, when, despair
ing of getting further information, I secured my horse
and vehicle, bought all the thrilling newspaper bulletins I
could lay hands upon, and, tearing myself away from the
excitement of the town, started for home. The erstwhile
silent woods skirting the homeward road were now trans
formed into camps. Places whose deep silence at night,
in time of peace, had been broken only by the uncanny
call of the whippoorwill, or the hooting of owls, were
lighted up with camp-fires, and resounded with the joyous
laughter of the soldiers, the calls of sentinels, the stroke
of the axe, or the singing of the cooks and servants.
Verily, this thing called war was a fascinating sport.
My heart sickened at the thought that it would probably
all be over before I was old enough to be a participant in
its glorious exhilaration.

At home, the family, impatient at my tardy return, de
voured every item of news in the papers, and hung breath
less upon every report of what was going forward in the
city. Thoroughly fagged out by excitement, I went early
to bed, wondering " What next?" Things happened so
fast in those days that, as soon as one thing occurred, we


began to expect something else, and in this case we
were not disappointed. Some time after midnight, the
household was aroused by a series of explosions in the
direction of Norfolk, and on going out, we beheld a dense
canopy of smoke hanging over the city, illuminated by
fires, and flashing almost momentarily with the light of
new explosions. It was easy to conjecture the meaning
of this. The United States forces had abandoned and
blown up the Gosport Navy Yard. I was keen to return
at once to the city, but concluded to remain until day

The next morning was Sunday, and bright and early I
accompanied a party of our workmen in our sloop to the
city. What a sight of devastation greeted us ! The Penn
sylvania and the Merrimac and other ships had been
burned to the water s edge. Some of their guns had
been loaded, and exploded as the heat of the fire reached
them, but fortunately the ships had listed heavily before
the discharge, and the shots had gone into the water or
high over the town. The ship sheds were all destroyed.
A futile effort had been made to blow up the dry dock.
The barracks and officers quarters and the machine shops
had all been fired. Some of these fires had been extin
guished, while others were still burning. The long rows
of guns in the navy yard, fifteen hundred in all, had in
many instances been spiked, or disabled by breaking their
trunions with sledge-hammers. Old sails and clothing
and masses of papers strewed the parade ; and, altogether,
it was marvelous to behold what destruction and disorder
had been wrought within the space of a few hours where
all had been construction and perfect order for many

As for the late occupants, the following were the facts :
About nine o clock Saturday night, the Pawnee had come


up from Fortress Monroe, easily passing the obstructions.
She doubtless brought the orders what to do. After
knocking the navy yard into smithereens, and transferring
all the valuable papers and the sailors to the Pawnee and
Cumberland, and burning the Pennsylvania, Merrirnac,
and other ships, the Pawnee and Cumberland steamed
down the harbor to Fortress Monroe. On their down
ward passage, the sailors manned the yardarms, and
cheered the Union flag, as it was lit up by the blaze of
the burning ships. The ease with which these vessels had
passed the obstructions and escaped was a sore disap
pointment to the Confederates. 1

We spent the greater portion of the day wandering
about through the abandoned navy yard, and inspecting
the first real devastation of war which we had yet beheld.
Little did we realize that it was possible to rebuild the
dry dock, or that in it, out of the charred remains of the
Merrimac, would be constructed a ship which was destined
to revolutionize naval warfare. Still less did we realize
that this scene of destruction was, as contrasted with what
we were yet to witness, as insignificant as the burning
of a country smoke house beside the conflagration of

Immediately after the evacuation of Norfolk by the
Union forces, the fortification of the harbor began. Bat
teries were erected at Craney Island, Lambert s Point,
SewelPs Point, and elsewhere. Obstructions were placed
in the harbor to prevent the return of Union vessels.
Long lines of intrenchments were erected in rear of the
city, extending from the eastern branch of the Elizabeth
River to Tanner s Creek. The military forces were dis
tributed along what was known as the intrenched camp,

1 For full and graphic description of this, see Rebellion Records,
vol. i. Doc. p. 119.


and the fashionable amusement of the time was to visit
the various encampments, and witness the drills and

Our house, but a mile or two beyond the lines, was
constantly filled with visitors, and was gay beyond all

Almost immediately after the passage of the secession
ordinance, father received a commission as brigadier-gen
eral in the Confederate service, with directions to repair to
West Virginia, recruit and organize a brigade, and pro
tect that section of the State against any hostile advance.
His preparations for departure were immediately begun ;
and I was desolate at learning that my brother Richard,
now seventeen, was recalled from William and Mary Col
lege to accompany him as aid-de-camp.

Just before their departure, the family was roused late
one night by a loud knocking upon the door, and the ap
pearance of my brother Henry and two cousins who lived
upon the eastern shore peninsula. My brother was an
Episcopal minister, and had been up to this time in charge
of a church in West Philadelphia. He was exceedingly
popular with his congregation, and no man owed parish
ioners more for love and kindness than he did. Hoping
against hope, he had clung to his charge, thinking that
possibly something might happen to avert hostilities.
Meanwhile, the feeling there had become intense.

One day, having occasion to visit the barber-shop of the
Girard House, the barber by some means discovered who
he was, and, seeking from him some assurances of loyalty
to the Union which he could not conscientiously give, the
barber threw down his razor, and refused to finish shav
ing a rebel. Leaving the place, as a crowd was assem
bling, he hurried homeward, to find that his residence had
been protected from a mob through the prudent exhibi-


tion of a Union flag by a small boy whom he employed :,
and, under advice of friends, he left the city forthwith,
and journeyed homeward via Wilmington, Del., down
the eastern shore peninsula, to the home of two young
cousins in Accomac. They joined him, and the three
crossed the Chesapeake Bay in a small boat from Cape
Charles, and reached our home as described.

My brother brought us the first tidings we had for a
long time from our relatives in Philadelphia, and from
his description they had become as intense partisans of
the Union side as were we of the South. Poor fellow !
he took the situation very much to heart. While loyal
to kith and kin, he, even at that early day, declared that
we did not know the power, the resources, or the numbers
of our adversaries, and that the struggle of the South for
independence was hopeless folly. We were all elated,
and felt no doubts whatever. We were disposed to regard
him as controlled in his feelings by his deep aversion to
parting with a noble and devoted congregation.

A few days later, my eldest sister, wife of Dr. A. Y. P.
Garnett, of Washington, D. C., arrived at our home with
her family of children. They had abandoned their home,
and reached Richmond on one of the last trains which
came through. When they joined us at Rolleston, our
family was a very large one. The teacher of my school
volunteered, and the school closed. My father and
young brother Richard departed for the war in West

My oldest brother Jennings was about this time elected
captain of the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, a volun
teer organization founded in 1793. His company joined
my father s forces, and became A Company, Forty-sixth
Virginia Regiment, of Wise s brigade.

Bravely and gayly they all sallied forth to rendez-


vous at the famous White Sulphur Springs. Thence,
after organizing, they proceeded to Charleston Kanawha.
Every report from our own was watched for with intense
eagerness, of course, but the things occurring near at
hand were of the most exciting character.

After the evacuation of Norfolk by the Union forces,
the sound of cannon was almost hourly in our ears. In a
few days, Craney Island, Sewell s Point, Lambert s Point,
Pig Point, and other places commanding the entrance of
the Elizabeth and Nanseinond rivers, were fully fortified
by the Confederates.

At these points, our own troops were constantly exer
cised in target practice ; and the Union forces at Fortress
Monroe and the Rip-Raps (then called Fort Calhoun,
now Fort Wool), and the Union ships in Hampton Roads
and the Chesapeake Bay, were engaged in similar drills.
At times, the reports, all of which we could hear, were
so loud and so frequent that we believed an engagement
was in progress.

Confederate cavalry patrolled the beach of the Chesa
peake to guard against the landing of the enemy for an
attack upon Norfolk in rear. Major Edgar Burroughs,
my father s competitor for delegate to the Secession Con
vention, was in command of a squadron of this cavalry,
encamped near Lynnhaven Bay, to protect the seine-
haulers there who supplied Norfolk and the troops with

The camp was in a grove of live-oaks, behind the sand
dunes on the beach, but must have been visible with
glasses to those on the ships, and was easily in reach of
the guns of the Union cruisers constantly moving back
and forth along the coast between Fortress Monroe and
Cape Henry. Later in the war, that camp would have
been instantly bombarded ; but at this early stage, the


combatants were not altogether prepared to kill each
other on sight.

The possibility of such an attack was, nevertheless, suf
ficient to make the place very attractive; and many a
day, going down to the shore under pretext of securing
fish from the seines, I remained in the cavalry camp all
day, often watching the passing Union vessels through
field-glasses, which made everything and everybody upon
them plainly visible.

Then came the insignificant affair at Big Bethel. Ex
aggerated accounts of it frenzied us with joy. "The
Happy Land of Canaan " was once more utilized for ver
sification, and every little chap of my acquaintance went
about singing :

" It was on the 10th of June that the Yankees came to Bethel,
They thought they would give us a trainin ,
But we gave em such a beatin
That they never stopped retreatin
Till they landed in the Happy Land of Canaan."

My poor little mare Pocahontas paid heavily for all
this war fervor. Not content with banging away half the

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 12 of 35)