John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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day with the rifles at targets erected on land and water, I
was ambitious also to become a cavalryman and a lancer.
We had tournament every day ; that is, riding at a run,
trying to carry off suspended rings with a long pole.
Then we would caparison ourselves with sabres and dash
at dummy heads. In these exercises the riders changed ;
but the horse was the same, and no doubt Pocahontas felt
deep regret at the condition of affairs which gave her such
constant and violent exercise.

Then came the battle of Manassas. Until then, I had
never conceived the intensity of feeling, the exaltation of
exultation, to which men are aroused by the first deep
draught of blood and victory. Fierceness, as we know it


in peace times, is, contrasted with human war-passion, as
the sweet south wind beside the desert simoom. Around
the telegraph offices in Norfolk, great throngs of citizens
and soldiers stood, roused to the highest pitch of excite
ment, as bulletin after bulletin was read aloud announ
cing a great Confederate triumph.

Men whose names had never been heard before leaped
at one bound into the front rank of the world s heroes,
in the minds of that delirious audience. Beauregard, Joe
Johnston, Stonewall Jackson, Bee, and Bartow were the
names on every tongue. The magnitude of the engage
ment was represented as equal to the greatest of ancient
or modern battles. The throngs gloated in the stories of
unprecedented carnage. One telegram announced a field
so covered with the dead bodies of gayly dressed Union
Zouaves that it resembled a French poppy farm. The
conduct of the Southern troops was represented as sur
passingly brave and chivalric, while that of " the Yan
kees " was referred to as correspondingly base and cow
ardly. The boast that one Southerner could whip ten
Yankees seemed fully verified. The prediction followed
that within a month the Southern army would be encamped
about New York, and that it would dictate terms of peace
within sixty days.

It was many a year before I learned the historical fact
that the little battle of Manassas was one of the oddest
episodes in military history, in that it was fought at right
angles to the line of battle selected by both commanders,
and was virtually won by the Union forces when they be-
became panic-stricken and fled. It is almost incredible
now, remembering how it was represented at the time,
that only 750 men were killed in both armies, and less
than 2500 were wounded. 1

1 Official war records : Union, killed, 481 ; wounded, 1011 ; captured,
1400. Confederate, killed, 269 ; wounded, 1483 ; captured, none.


The war had begun successfully enough to the Confed
erates to fan and inflame into the most exaggerated pro
portions the vanity of a boy concerning Southern valor.

As the summer advanced, no other startling battles

Even at that early day, General Lee was the man to
whom the Virginians looked with more confidence and
more hope than towards any other Southern leader. His
preeminence had been somewhat eclipsed by the brilliant
success of Beauregard and Johnston at Manassas ; but
great things were expected of him in his campaign in
West Virginia against McClellan. Lee s western cam
paign proved, as we all know, a failure. The mountain
ous character of the country was such as to preclude suc
cessful military operations.

My father, commanding to the south of General Lee,
was forced, by the situation of the armies to the north of
him, to retire from the Kanawha valley. Before doing so,
he had made a successful foray upon the enemy at Ripley.
The Blues, and some other troops under command of my
brother, had surprised the enemy and captured a few men.
It was a very insignificant affair, but we exaggerated it
into a deed of great valor and importance. The Confed
erate forces retreated to the lines of the Gauley, Floyd
won a handsome victory over the enemy at Carinfax
Ferry, and my father s command took a strong position
on Sewell s Mountain, awaiting attack and confident of

Shortly after this, Floyd retreated with his command to
a place called Meadow Bluff. He ranked my father, and
ordered him to withdraw his forces to that place. This
my father flatly refused to do, and his insubordination
led to an angry controversy, necessitating the presence of
General Lee. Upon General Lee s arrival, he fully sus-


tained the military views of General Wise ; but it was
evident that two civilians like Wise and Floyd could
not cooperate in harmony, and both were ordered else

The exposures and excitements of the Virginia cam
paign resulted in a protracted illness of my father, and for
weeks he lay at the point of death in Richmond. While
he was thus prostrated, campaigning in West Virginia
petered out, and both sides, Union and Confederate, real
ized that the fighting must be done elsewhere, and the
troops were withdrawn. McClellan became commander
of the Army of the Potomac.

General Lee was ordered to Charleston to superin
tend the fortifications there, followed by the sneer of the
cynical but brilliant editor of the " Examiner," John
M. Daniel, that it was hoped that he would do better
with the spade than he had done with the sword. Floyd
dropped out of public view and died soon afterwards, and
my father s brigade was ordered to Richmond to reorgan
ize and await a new assignment.

I shall never forget the impressions made by that bri
gade when it returned from the West Virginia campaign
in December of 1861. They were the first troops I had
seen return from active campaigning. During the very
rainy season in the mountains, all the gilt and newness
of their uniforms had disappeared. The hair and beards
of the men had grown long, and added to their dirty ap
pearance. A famous charger, named " Legion," had been
presented to my father at Staunton as he went out in the
spring, and my brother had taken with him an exquisite
chestnut thoroughbred filly. Exposure in bad weather
and bad feed had baked their coats and filled them with
mange, and had made these two, and all their compan
ions, look like so many bags of bones. When 5 spiritless,


dejected, and half starved, they were led from the box-cars
in which they arrived, I could not believe they were the
same horses I had known.

Altogether, a decided reaction had taken place since
the wonderful battle of Manassas. It had not been fol
lowed up by the extermination of "the Yankees," as I
expected it would be.

Although but two hundred and sixty-nine Confeder
ate soldiers had been killed at Manassas, many of them
were our friends. But the deaths in battle were as no
thing compared with other deaths. We were beginning
to dread measles and mumps and typhoid fever and dys
entery in the camps. We were learning the ghastly truth
that, for every man who dies in actual battle, a dozen pass
away ingloriously by disease.

The skeleton had not yet clutched any of our family ;
but, my ! how many of our friends were already in mourn
ing ! And the war seemed no nearer to its end than
when it began.

Six months before that, the town would have turned out
to see the brigade pass through. To-day, under the com
mand of the senior colonel, it marched through the city
quietly enough, and went into camp on the outskirts, with
out attracting great attention.

When father s health was partially restored, he returned
to our home near Norfolk to complete his recuperation.
One day we visited the Gosport Navy Yard, and saw
them building a great iron monster upon the original
framework of the Merrimac. My father felt great pride
and interest in this, for he it was who, before he had
departed for West Virginia, sent General Lee a descrip
tion and model of a marine catapult, designed years before
by Captain Williamson ; and he always insisted that


this was the first suggestion for the construction of the

It was a very happy period, that time in the autumn
of 1861, when my father and brother were at home with
us. I was no longer anxious to see them in the field. I
had heard too much of the exposures and dangers and
deprivations of camp life. But in time the orders came.
My father was assigned to the command of Roanoke
Island. The brigade came down from Richmond. It
was mightily spruced up and benefited by its sojourn in
Richmond, and its soldierly appearance made a good im
pression as it passed through Norfolk.

At the head of his command in the 46th, my darling
brother Jennings marched. When he saw me, he came
out and patted and kissed me, and asked about every
thing at home. Before we parted, be sure he pressed into
my hand a crisp new Confederate bill, for he and I were
" partners."

The brigade was embarked on barges to pass down
through the Albemarle Canal to Roanoke Island ; and
the last I saw of them was as they floated away, towed by
the tugs, singing " The Bonnie Blue Flag."

The thing which made me feel very proud was the
news told me by quite a number of the officers that,
in the reorganization near at hand, my brother was to
be the colonel of the 46th. I asked him about it. He
laughed and said it was all nonsense, and refused to
discuss the subject. But I knew it was true, for every
body in the regiment turned towards him lovingly as the
best and bravest and simplest and purest man among

I was lonesome enough January 3, 1862, when father
and his staff rode off from Rolleston to join the brigade


at its new station. They journeyed by land along the
coast to Nag s Head, on the outer coast of North Caro
lina, whence they were to cross by ferry to Roanoke

I felt a deep foreboding that trouble was in store for
us from this new venture.



THERE are certain names whose mere mention produces
feelings of horror, or pain, or sadness from association.
To me, that of Roanoke Island is one of these.

The island commanded the passage by water through
Hatteras Inlet and Pimlico Sound to Albemarle and
Currituck sounds. It was a most important strategic point,
for a force of Union troops passing it had at their mercy
several towns upon the North Carolina coast, could cut
off the supplies and railroad and canal communications
of Norfolk, and were in position to attack that city in
rear. About January 1, 1862, my father was assigned to
the command and defense of Roanoke Island. Major-
General Huger was the commander of the department
embracing that position.

General Huger was one of those old West Point incompe
tents with whom the Confederacy was burdened. He was
both by birth and personally a gentleman, and no doubt
a brave man ; but the only reason on earth for his being
a major-general in command of an important department
was that he was a graduate of West Point. The Con
federacy felt this influence much more than the United
States. Mr. Davis, our President, was a West Point
graduate, as was everybody else connected with our mili
tary organization. General Bragg, his favorite military
counselor, was the martinet of the old army ; and Generals
Hardee and Cooper, the leading advisers at headquarters,


and Generals Lee and Johnston, the commanders in the
field, were all West Point graduates.

I am not belittling the great advantages secured to the
Confederacy by service of a number of very superior West
Point officers, who joined their fortunes with hers ; but
with them came also a very inefficient and inferior lot,
unfit for the high commands to which they were assigned,
men who stood in the way of better officers, and who
were appointed and retained merely through favoritism.
To this latter class belonged Major-General Benjamin
Huger, the officer in command of Norfolk.

The Secretary of War at the time was Judah P. Ben
jamin, in many respects the most remarkable person in
the Confederate States. The Confederate leaders were,
as a rule, men of deep feelings and convictions, or men
of intense or passionate natures. Not so with Benjamin :
he had more brains and less heart than any other civic
leader in the South. He was an English Jew, and a
lawyer of the first rank. He entered upon employment as
attorney for a client. For that client he worked with
surprising acumen, with great learning, with boundless
capacity for endurance, with unquestioned loyalty, and
absolute fidelity. If his client was in any case hanged, it
was only after Benjamin had done all in his power for him ;
but after Benjamin had exhausted the resources of defense,
and come to the end of the business for which he was re
tained, he possessed the power of completely dismissing his
client s affairs from his mind. Likely as not, he would
be having a bottle of Madeira and a cigar at his club
at the moment the hanging was taking place. His nature
was such that he had no sentimental attachments, and
seldom troubled himself about the troubles of others. His
convictions were clear, vigorous, and strongly urged ; but
they were never passionate, or clouded by affection or


hate ; he was never harassed by reminiscences. When
a case was lost, he did not bemoan it ; he found another.
lie played his part in the Confederacy as if he held a
hand in a game of whist ; a skilled professional, he lost
no trick that could be saved, and did everything possible
to win for himself and his partner. When he lost, he
indulged in no repinings ; he tore up the old pack, lighted
a fresh cigar, moved to another table, called for a fresh
pack, took a new partner, and played another game. His
last game proved to be much more successful than his
Confederate venture, for he moved to England, and
became justly eminent at the English bar. The Confed
eracy and its collapse were no more to Judah P. Benja
min than a last year s bird s-nest.

When my father was assigned to the command of
Roanoke Island, it was well known at the war depart
ment that General McClellan was fitting out an expedi
tion to attack and capture the position.

The disastrous termination of the operations of 1861
in the mountains of West Virginia had not enhanced my
father s military reputation, or that of any other general
who was in the mountains. On the Union side, Mc
Clellan had suffered, and even the prestige of Lee had
been damaged, in those impossible campaigns, so that he
had been assigned to the fortifications of Charleston,
followed by the jeering taunts of John M. Daniel, the
satirical editor of the " Richmond Examiner."

But while my father lacked the advantages of a military
education, he had a remarkably correct apprehension of
topography, and was quick to see the strategic value of
positions. As soon as he visited Roaiioke Island, he
grasped its importance, and saw that it was not only
practically defenseless, but unsupplied with any adequate
means of erecting fortifications. He hurried back to the


headquarters of General Huger at Norfolk, and doubtless
harassed that easy-going and high-living soldier with his
importunities. Failing to obtain any assistance from
General Huger, he repaired to Richmond, and endeavored
to impress upon the Secretary of War the necessity for
prompt action. Mr. Benjamin was an attorney, and not
a soldier. He looked for instruction to his client, who
in this case was General Huger. He doubtless thought
that the West Pointer knew much more of such matters
than the civilian, and regarded it as little less than insub
ordination for a brigadier-general to seek the depart
ment direct. Then, too, Mr. Benjamin was an easy-
spoken, cool, suave Jew, quiet and diplomatic in speech,
never excited. It disturbed his nerves to have General
Wise in his department, ardent, urgent, pressing, declar
ing that past neglect had been criminal and present delay
was suicidal, and even guilty occasionally of some indignant
swearing at the galling indifference shown to the urgent
peril of the situation. The upshot of all this was a per
emptory order from the war department to General Wise
to return forthwith to Roanoke Island, and to do the best
he could with what he had in hand.

After the inevitable disaster, the Confederate Congress
declared that General Wise had done everything in his
power, and that the blame for defeat lay entirely at the
door of General Huger and the Secretary of War ; but
that never repaired the wreck, or gave us back our dead. l

1 The report of the investigating committee, Confederate House of
Representatives (Series I. vol. i. p. 190) :

" The correspondence on file of General Wise with the Secretary of
War, General Hug-er, his superior officer, the governor of North Caro
lina, and others, proves that he was fully alive to the importance of
Roanoke Island, and has devoted his whole time and energies and means
to the defense of that position, and that he is in no way responsible for
the unfortunate disaster which befell our forces upon the island on Febru
ary 7 and 8.


Our home was on the route between Norfolk and
Roanoke Island. My father s haggard, perplexed appear
ance, as he passed back and forth on these fruitless trips,
revealed only too plainly his knowledge that he had
been placed in a death-trap. Indeed, we all knew, as
well before as afterwards, what would be the result.

It was on the 8th of February, 1862 ; a cold, bluster
ing northeast storm had prevailed for several days ; the
leaden skies hung low ; the rain, blown in sheets by the
gusts, swept against the windows ; all farm work had
been suspended ; the tides were driven in high upon the
marshes ; and the only time I left the house during the
day was in an oiled sou wester and gum boots, to look
after the feeding of the cattle and the sheep, huddled in
their sheds of myrtle-boughs, and to see that the stock
was cared for in the evening. I was now the head of the
plantation. A gloomy dusk was closing in ; the cold

" But the committee cannot say the same in reference to the efforts of
the Secretary of War and the commanding- officer at Norfolk, General
Huger. It is apparent that the island of Roanoke is important for the
defense of Norfolk, and that General Huger had under his command at
that point upward of 15,000 men, a large supply of armament and ammu
nition, and could have thrown in a few hours a large reinforcement upon
Roanoke Island, and that himself and the Secretary of War had timely
notice of the entire inadequacy of the defenses, the want of men and
munitions of war, and the threatening attitude of the enemy ; but General
Huger and the Secretary of War paid no practical attention to these
urgent appeals of General Wise, sent forward none of his important
requisitions, and permitted General Wise and his inconsiderable force to
remain to meet at least 15,000 men, well armed and equipped. If the
Secretary of War and the commanding general at Norfolk had not the
means to reinforce General Wise, why was he not ordered to abandon his
position and save his command ?

"But, on the contrary, he was required to remain and sacrifice his
command, with no means, in his insulated position, to make his escape in
case of defeat. . . . Whatever of blame and responsibility is justly
attributable to any one for the defeat should attach to Major-General B.
Huger and the late Secretary of War, J. P. Benjamin."


winds swept so keenly that they fretted the shallow pud
dles collected in the yard.

With emptied feed-basket on my arm, I was returning
to the house, when I saw a horseman slowly approaching
by the farm road. He was so muffled as to be unrecog
nizable, and even when he reached the yard gate, I did
not recognize the jaded beast that bore him as our pretty
little sorrel filly. It was my brother Richard, my father s
aid-de-camp, who for forty-eight hours had been riding
alone along the cheerless beach of the Atlantic to bring
the announcement to General Huger that the armada of
Burnside, consisting of about sixty vessels, had entered
Hatteras Inlet, passed up Pimlico Sound, and was in
sight of Roanoke Island when he left with his dispatches.
These he had delivered to the general at Norfolk, who,
as he reported, seemed almost indifferent to the announce
ment. Having performed his task, he had ridden back
to our home, seven miles upon the return journey, and now
reached it, himself and his steed half dead from exhaus
tion. There was little to lighten the gloom in the poor
fellow s appearance or conversation, for he reported our
father prostrated at Nag s Head from exposure in the
effort to prepare the island for the approaching assault.

A roaring wood-fire and a hearty supper somewhat
revived his spirits, and for a time we almost forgot war
troubles while he gave marvelous accounts of the great
flocks of sea-fowl through which he had ridden in the
storm. The strong winds and high tides had forced him
to ride, sometimes for miles, in water up to the knees
of his horse ; and the storm was so fierce that the geese
and brant and ducks, driven in-shore, were reluctant to
fly, and oftentimes barely moved out of the way of his

As we sat there, seeking such comfort as our home


and security from the storm outside gave us, and won
dering what had happened below, we little realized that
upon the day before, and on that very day, the battle of
Roanoke Island had been fought and lost, and that our
gallant brother, wounded to death, lay dying in the camp
of his captors.

The battle of Roanoke Island, fought February 7 and
8, was the first of a series of disasters which befell the
Confederates in the early part of 1862.

Roanoke Island is shaped something like an hourglass.
Its northernmost half is higher ground than its southern
most, and the waters and wet marshes almost intersect
it at its middle part. The engineers who planned its
defenses placed all its fortifications upon the upper half,
bearing upon the channel of Croatan Sound to westward.
Not a work was erected to prevent a debarkation upon its
lower portion. An attacking force landing there was
absolutely safe from the water batteries, both while land
ing and afterwards. At the narrow neck of land which
connected the upper and lower half of the island was
a fortification, not one hundred feet in length and only
four and a half feet high, mounting three field-pieces.
This captured, every other artillery defense of the island
was at the mercy of the enemy, who by that manoeuvre
were in their rear, so emphatically in their rear that the
vessels attacking the water batteries could not fire after
the Union troops assaulted the redoubt, for their shot
would have fallen into the ranks of their own troops.

The sea beach eastward of Roanoke Island, separated
from it by shallow water, is known as Nag s Head. My
father s headquarters were established at a seaside hotel
on the outer beach. The announcement of the presence
of Burnside s expedition found him prostrated with pneu
monia, and the command of the troops devolved upon


Colonel Shaw, of North Carolina, although my father con
tinued to give general directions from his sick-bed.

The entire available force of Colonel Shaw consisted
of two regiments of North Carolina troops, numbering
1024 men, and a detachment of my father s brigade,
numbering 410 men, under Lieutenant-Colonel Anderson,
total, 1434 men.

Upon the morning of February 7, the ships of Gen
eral Burnside attacked what was known as the Pork
Point battery, and a ridiculous little so-called fleet of
Commander Lynch, consisting of seven tugs and river
steamers. It was dubbed a " mosquito fleet," and such
in truth it was. Although gallantly manoeuvred, it was
no more regarded by Commodore Goldsbrough than if
the vessels had been so many tin pans armed with potato
guns. Pork Point battery was bravely defended all day,
but its guns could only be brought to bear upon objects
within a limited segment.

The bombardment was kept up until night to cover
the landing of the troops at a point known as Ashby s,
just below the narrow part of the island. No serious
damage was done to the battery, and but few men were

Late in the afternoon, three Federal brigades were
debarked. The first consisted of five full regiments
under General Foster ; the second, of four regiments
under General Keno ; the third, of four regiments under
General Parke, thirteen full regiments in all, not to
mention a detachment of New York Marine Artillery,

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 13 of 35)