John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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To this resolution I was indebted for four or five of the
very happiest years of my life. To this day, my fancy
takes me back to that great chamber where father made
me his bedfellow and constant companion ; to that high
tester bedstead where, many a night, tucked away amid
comfortable linen, I watched the great hickory logs flicker
and sputter upon the andirons, and closed my eyes, at
last, lulled by the never-ceasing scratching of father s
goose-quill pen at a great writing-table in the centre of
the room; to the delightful half-consciousness of being
folded in his arms when, late in the night, he joined me,
and hugged me to his heart.

We were early risers, we two chums and companions.
By daybreak, the servant came in and built a roaring fire.
By sunrise, father and I were dressed, and out upon the
farm, or at the stables or the cowpens, followed by Boxer
and Frolic, our Irish terriers. The fashionable folk of
to-day affect the Irish terrier, and imagine that they have
a new breed. Father had a brace of them over forty
years ago, and they were sure death to the rabbits of
Only. Many and many a day we came back to breakfast
with one, two, or three molly-cottontails caught by Boxer
and Frolic in our morning excursions upon the farm.

Then there was hog-killing time, when, long before day,
the whole plantation force was up with knives for killing,
and seething cauldrons for scalding, and great doors for
scraping, and long racks for cooling the slaughtered
swine. Out to the farmyard rallied all the farm hands.
Into the pens dashed the boldest and most active. Har
rowing was the squealing of the victims ; quick was the
stroke that slew them, and quicker the sousing of the
dead hog into the scalding water ; busy the scraping of


his hair away ; strong the arms that bore him to the beams,
and hung him there head downward to cool ; clumsy the
old woman who brought tubs to place under him ; deft
the strong hands that disemboweled him. And so it went.
By the time the sun was risen, how bare and silent were
the pens where hogdom had fed and grunted for so long
a time !

How marvelous to youthful eyes the long rows of clean-
scraped hogs upon the racks ; how cheerful the blazing
fires and boiling pots, and how sweet the smell of the
hickory smoking in the cold air of daybreak ; how merry
and how happy seemed every one upon the place, old and
young, men and women, girls and boys, in the midst of
this carnival of death and grease ! Up with the earliest,
I was one of the busiest men in all the company, now
frying a pig-tail upon the blazing coals beneath the scald
ing-pots ; now claiming a bladder to be blown up for
Christmas ; now watching the wonderful process of cleans
ing, or lard-making, or sausage-grinding. My ! what ten
derloins and spare-ribs were on the breakfast-table ! my !
how, for a fortnight after hog-killing, what sausages and
cracklin, and all sorts of meat, we had ! The skin of
every darkey on the place shone with hog s grease, like
polished ebony ; and even Boxer and Frolic grew so fat
they lost their interest in rabbit-hunting.

Then came the lovely springtime, when the ploughing
began, and I followed him about the farm until my poor
little legs were ready to give way beneath me. And the
great red-breasted robins and purple grackle lit in the
new-ploughed ground, from which such sweet aroma rose.
And the golden plover, sweeping past, fell to father s
unerring gun, I scrambling after them through the crum
bling loam.

Then followed the harvest time, when birds -nests and


young hares were in the stubble, and when the children
rode upon the straw-loads. And the summer days, when
father took me sailing in the Lucy Long, and sea-trout
fishing at the lighthouse, or built and rigged and sailed
for me such boats as no other boy ever had !

After that came the autumn time, when my uncle, a
famous Nimrod, appeared with dog and gun, and taught
me the mysteries of quail-shooting, so that I could tell
how Blanco the setter stood, and how Bembo the pointer
backed, and how Shot retrieved, and talked about these
things like a veteran sportsman.

And there, also, was our annual visit, in charge of
Eliza, the white nurse, to our grandmother in far-off Phil
adelphia. This was the period of good behavior and
restraint, neither of which I always practiced ; and, as I
viewed it, it bore hard upon my other engagements. A
short city residence was not altogether distasteful to me ;
but there were so many horses to ride, and so many boats
to sail, and so many dogs to work, and so many fish to
catch, and so many things to do at Only, that I looked on
the Philadelphia trip as time wasted from more entran
cing employments. I felt that I was growing rapidly,
and that there were a great many things which I might
grow past, if I did not keep going all the while ; and thus
it was that at seven years old I was regarded as what we
call an enterprising youth.

Nor was I too young to detect that there were marked
differences between methods of life and thought at home,
and those which prevailed in Philadelphia.

My mother s family, especially the dear old grand
mother, to whom my mother s death had been a great
blow, were exceedingly kind, and did everything to make
the visits enjoyable ; but there was a something in their
treatment of us little orphans which approached to pat-


ronizing, and, young as I was, my pride rebelled against
the idea that any one could condescend towards us.

One day, when I heard an aunt refer to me as her " lit
tle savage," I grew furiously angry ; and another day,
when the white servant referred to me as a slave-owner, I
let her understand that I did not own a slave who was
not her superior in every quality, good manners and
good looks included. These were only episodes in what
were otherwise, on the whole, very happy visits; but,
young as I was, I early learned that between the people
of my father s and my mother s home there was brewing
a feeling of deep and irreconcilable antagonism, the pre
cise nature of which I could not altogether comprehend.

As early as the autumn of 1852, 1 was made very happy
by being sent to school. As was the case in almost every
section of the South, the village school-teacher at Onan-
cock was a Northern man. My brother Richard, three
years older than myself, was my companion. We were
furnished with red-topped boots, red neckerchiefs, warm
overcoats, warm caps with coverings for the ears, and tin
luncheon-pails, and never were we more elated than on our
first triumphal march to Onancock, a mile away. As we
passed the farmyards and the fields where our old friends
the slaves were at work, many were the cheery words *
spoken to us.

" Dat s right," said saucy Solomon ; " I spec you 11 be
as big a man as Mars Henry hisself when you is done

" You d better not pass through Mr. Tyler s yard.
He s got a pow ful fierce dog," shouted Joshua.

And the last thing said by old George Douglas, who
was something of a tease, was, " Don t you let none of
them Onancock boys lick you, for you comes of fightin


Thus began our education, and a good beginning it
was ; for we were blessed with a conscientious teacher, a
school at a healthy distance, and at once entered the class
with a red-headed girl, clever as she could be, with whom
I fell in love, and who put me to my trumps every day to
keep her from " cutting me down " in the spelling-class.

Thus passed away the happy days of childhood, days
unlike those which come to any boy anywhere nowadays ;
days belonging to a phase of civilization and a manner of
life which are as extinct as if they had never existed.

Yet in those times, but nine years before war and
emancipation came, there was no thought that either was
near at hand. My brother and I, on our return from
school, were put across the creek at Onancock wharf.
One sunny evening, we found father at old Captain Hop-
kins s store at the wharf, the spot where the village post-
office was kept. He had been rowed up to the village in
his yawl, the Constitution, and was waiting to take us
home with him. The mail had just arrived, and an eager
throng was listening to the news of the presidential elec
tion. The old captain read the returns, which told that
Franklin Pierce was to be the next President, and the
crowd cheered vociferously. Father was called upon for
a speech, and briefly expressed his gratification at the re
sult. The thing which most struck my ear was father s
congratulation of his friends that the election of Pierce
set at rest all fears as to slavery and secession, or concern
ing the abolitionists. He told how Pierce, being a North
ern man, must prove acceptable to the North ; and how,
being sound upon the slavery question, his administration
would allay the fears of the slave-owner, and quiet the
threats of secessionists. Everybody agreed that this was
so, and everybody hurrahed for Pierce and King ; and, as
the Constitution rushed homeward on the placid waters,


under the strokes of two sable oarsmen, I puzzled myself
to guess what were the fears of the slaveholder, and what
were the threats of the secessionist, and who were the

Now, I was a young gentleman who, when athirst for
knowledge, held not back. Accordingly, I opened my
inquiries in a series of questions, and received answers
much after the following order :

" What are the fears of the slaveholder ? "

" Why, my son, there is a small number of fanatics in I/
the North who demand that slavery be abolished immedi
ately, and the slaveholders are apprehensive of them."

" What is a fanatic, and what is an abolitionist ? "

" A fanatic is a wild enthusiast, who will listen to no
thing which interferes with his demands ; and an abo
litionist is one who demands that the slaves shall be

" Are there many people of that kind in the North ? "

" Yes ; more than we know about."

" Is Pierce that sort of man ? "

" Oh, no. He is not in favor of freeing the slaves."

" Well, now I know what the slaveholder fears, tell me
next what is the threat of the secessionist."

" Young man, you listen too closely. Secession means
that a State, like our Virginia, being dissatisfied with the
way the Union is managed, would withdraw from the
Union, and establish an independent government of her
own, or form a new one with other States which withdrew
with her. Secessionists are men who threaten to do

I paused a minute, and thought over all this ; then,
looking up, said :

" Well, if we secede, we shall not be the United States
any more, shall we ? "


" No."

" And if we shall not be the United States any more,
we shall not have the stars and stripes for our flag, and
the Old Constitution and the Columbia frigates won t
belong to us any more, will they ? "

" No, not if we secede."

" Well, now, papa, don t let s secede. No, sir ; don t
let s secede. You are not for secession, are you, papa ?
Think of what a horrible thing it would be to give up the
government grandpa and General Washington made, and
the flag, and the ships, and all that, and start another
thing all new, without any history or anything. You are
not a secessionist, I know, because you said you were not.
Are you, papa ? "

"No, no, my boy. Far from it. Nobody loves the
Union better than I do. Nobody has better cause to love
and honor and cherish it. I was reared in the home of a
grandfather who fought for it by the side of Washington ;
I was taught from my earliest infancy to venerate the
flag of the Union. My manhood, at home and abroad,
has been dedicated to its service; and God grant that
the Union may never be rent asunder in my day by the
fanaticism of the North or the passion of the South.
Heaven be praised, the election of Mr. Pierce seems to
put at rest all fears on that score from any direction."

We were nearing the landing. The autumn sun had
sunk into the distant bay. The long shadows of the
grove at Only were thrown towards us across the pooly
waters. Earth, air, and sky were bathed in the glories
of an Italian sunset, as these fervid words fell from
father s lips ; and never in all his life had he spoken
more eloquently or more truly. What he had said
soothed and comforted me, to whom the thought of the
possibility that Virginia could be aught but part of the


American Union, or that we might lose the American
flag, had never come before.

Thus it was that I learned my first lesson in politics,
and was well and firmly assured that that could not
possibly happen which did actually happen within the
next nine years.



DURING the next three years, we had things pretty
much our own way at home, as far as female control was
concerned. The dear old aunt who presided over father s
household, although we loved her very much, was too in
dulgent to be a successful manager of children ; and while
Eliza, the Irish nurse, was firm and strong enough, we
were rapidly growing beyond her control.

Then there was my aunt s son, a most attractive fellow,
just entering upon manhood, a thorough-paced child-
spoiler. It was no uncommon thing for him to take me
to the county seat, or the neighboring villages, where,
while he pursued his amusements, I found companions
and playmates that were improving neither to manners
nor ideals of life. The association was delightful, never
theless. On these excursions, there was no whim of fancy
which that partial young relative was not more than ready
to gratify. Our attachment was lifelong, and in after
years the deep and abiding interest of my old-bachelor
cousin in all that concerned me never abated until he died.
At home, I had a thousand things to make boyhood happy.
With the grown-up slaves I was a great favorite ; and, as
was often the case in plantation life, the little darkeys
near my own age were my playmates and companions, and
accepted me as their natural leader and chief. By the
time I was eight years old, I could shoot, and ride, and
fish, and swim, and sail a boat ; I had a yoke of yearling


oxen broken by myself ; my own punt in which to go fish
ing ; fishing-lines and crab-nets ; a dog and a colt ; and
had become a breeder of most prolific chickens. Nothing
pleased me more than dropping corn in planting-time, or
hauling wood and straw with my own team. For months
at a time I would go barefoot, during the summer season,
dressed in brown linen and a straw hat. All this laid in a
store of health and strength that was of great value in
after years. In truth, I was a most bustling, energetic lad,
with no end of vitality, but lacked the parental govern
ment and care of a mother ; and it was a blessed day for
me when my father married again.

My father s third wife was a refined and cultivated
woman, of suitable age, and possessed a most lovable dis
position. It was not long before she established her
dominion in our household, a dominion of love.

I was taught to observe meal-times; to appear with
hair brushed and face and hands washed ; to attend fam
ily prayers ; to spend less time at the negro quarters ; to
account more precisely for my nomadic wanderings ; to
devote regular hours to studies ; and in many ways
to adopt much more orderly methods than I had been
accustomed to pursue of late. All which came in good
time, for I was soon to become a city boy.

In 1855, a great political contest occurred in Virginia.
A faction known as the Know-Nothing party, or the
American party, had sprung up suddenly, and had tri
umphed in a number of the Northern States. It was a,
secret organization, with oaths and grips and passwords.
Its rallying cry was that Americans should rule America.
Incidental to this watchword was a real or fancied hostil
ity to foreigners, particularly the Irish, and to the Catholic
Church. Until it reached Virginia, it had been success
ful everywhere. Father believed in the teachings of


George Washington that secret political organizations
were dangerous to republican liberty, and in the teachings
of Thomas Jefferson that no man should be proscribed on
account of his religion. He maintained that neither Irish
men nor other foreigners should be oppressed or ostracized
by reason of their religious faith or their nationality.

The result of the approaching conflict seemed exceed
ingly doubtful when he was chosen as the Democratic
candidate for governor of Virginia. The circumstances
of his selection were not altogether flattering or hopeful.
Many of his political associates preferred him as the man
in their opinion best fitted to make the desperate fight,
but there were others who preferred him because they
believed the struggle was hopeless and secretly desired
his defeat. He accepted the nomination ; and although,
at the outset, the Know-Nothing party had an enrolled
majority of ten thousand of the entire voters of the State,
he entered upon one of the most remarkable campaigns
in Virginia politics, and after a brilliant canvass was
elected by ten thousand majority.

It is seldom a boy nine years old is deeply interested
in politics, but this campaign was one that enlisted the
intense enthusiasm of young and old.

In American politics, we have recurring periods of po
litical " crazes." Of late years we have witnessed several
such. The Greenback craze, the Granger craze, the
Silver craze, have each in its turn arisen, and, for the
time being, made whole communities drunk with excite
ment. Friends of many years are estranged by these
ephemeral issues. They are carried into business, into
church, into the household, everywhere, until entire com
monwealths are so wrought up that even women and chil
dren take part until election day, and after that we hear
no more about them. Such commotions are like brush-


fires, which, igniting instantly, burn and crackle and fill
the whole heavens with smoke, as if the world was on fire,
and then die out as suddenly as they sprung up.

The Know-Nothing craze of 1855 was just such an excite-
ment. Our community was divided into factions. Every
body took sides. Men who had never been known to show
an active interest in politics became intense partisans, and
political discussion went on everywhere. One of the first
results experienced by me was a black eye and a bloody
nose, received in a hard fight with the son of the village
blacksmith. Exactly how the row began, neither of us
could clearly explain ; but we were on opposite sides, and
that was sufficient. It was a drawn battle, for the black
smith interfered, having no intention of losing a valuable
trade by reason of political differences. In the little vil
lage of Onancock, the rival organizations found vent for
their enthusiasm by building and flying two immense
kites, with the names of their respective party candidates
emblazoned on them conspicuously. Many an evening,
after school was dismissed, I saw half of the villagers of
the place out on the green flying their Know-Nothing and
Democratic kites, as if the result depended upon which
flew the highest.

In due course came election day. Father being absent,
the young cousin above referred to represented him at
the polling-place, and took me with him. In those days,
voting was done openly, or viva voce, as it was called, and
not by ballot. The election judges, who were magistrates,
sat upon a bench with their clerks before them. Where
practicable, it was customary for the candidate to be pre
sent in person, and to occupy a seat at the side of the
judges. As the voter appeared, his name was called out
in a loud voice. The judges inquired, " John Jones (or
Bill Smith), for whom do you vote ? " for governor, or


for whatever was the office to be filled. lie replied by
proclaiming the name of his favorite. Then the clerks
enrolled the vote, and the judges announced it as enrolled.
The representative of the candidate for whom he voted
arose, bowed, and thanked him aloud ; and his partisans
often applauded.

All day long I sat upon my cousin s knee, or played
about the platform. Nobody smiled more broadly, or
applauded more vigorously, at votes cast for father ; and
nobody was more silent or haughty when votes were cast
against him. At sundown, the polls were closed, and, to
my infinite mortification, the majority at the precinct was
announced as in favor of the Kuow-Nothings. The craze
had simply taken possession of the place and run away
with it. The ignorant and the vain had all been captured
by the signs and grips and secret passwords of Know-
Nothingism. For the first time in his life, father was
defeated at his home. I thought we were done for.
When we were safely bundled in the vehicle, and headed
for home, I felt like crying, and the Know-Nothing cheers
still rung in my ears most depressingly. What mortified
me most of all was the fact that I knew of a bantering
compact between the owners of the rival kites that the vic
torious party should own the kite of the vanquished, with
the privilege of flying it tailless and upside down. The
thought of seeing our beloved kite in such ignominious
plight nearly prostrated me. As a matter of fact, the
result at this precinct had been fully anticipated by the
grown folks, and gave them no serious concern as to
the general result. The Know-Nothing majority was
really less than they had claimed. Seeing how I was
cast down, my cousin, holding me between his legs in the
one-seated buggy, endeavored to explain that there was no
cause for alarm. Long before he finished, he discovered


that, worn out by the fatigue and disappointment of the
day, I was fast asleep, and in that condition he bore me
into the house in his arms, laid me on the broad settee in
the hall, and covered me with the lap-robe.

More cheering news from other places came thick and
fast in the next few days, and it was not long before I
was delightedly watching the Know-Nothing kite sailed
tailless and upside down by father s friends.

Then came the preparations for removal of our resi
dence to Richmond for four years.

No life could have been more in contrast with that at
Only than the one to which I was now introduced. Janu
ary 1, 1856, father took the oath of office as governor,
and we proceeded to establish ourselves in the Govern
ment House, as it was called.

It is a fine old structure, simple in exterior, very capa
cious, surrounded by pleasant grounds, fronting the Capi
tol Square at Richmond. The house at Only seemed like
a wren-box contrasted with this great residence. With
play-grounds, and stables, and conservatory, and out
houses, it was indeed a most attractive place. Young
gentlemen nine years of age are not apt to underestimate
their own importance in such a situation, and I was 110
exception to this rule. The legislature was in session in
the Capitol, and as a large majority of the members were
in political sympathy with father, I received a great deal
more attention and petting from them than was good for
me. My bump of reverence never was over-developed,
and under the influence of this sort of thing, I rapidly
became very pert. But there were other directions in
which I did not find life " all beer and skittles."

A school was selected where, beside a decided lack of
enthusiasm for any school, I found this particular one not
altogether a bed of roses. Being the best school obtain-


able, it was attended by the sons of the most prominent
people of the place. And therein lay the trouble. If
their fathers views had controlled the election of gov
ernor, our residence at Only would have been undisturbed.
The city was the stronghold of Know-Nothingisni in Vir
ginia. In a vote of nearly four thousand, father had not
received exceeding nine hundred votes, and they were for
the most part from the humbler classes. The Richmond
Democrats were so few in numbers .that they were called
the " Spartan Band." The rural votes gave father his
majority, especially in the splendid yeomanry of the
Shenandoah Valley, among whom very few slaves were
owned. They were the men who afterwards, drawn into
the war to fight the slave-owners battles, won with their
valor the immortal fame of Stonewall Jackson.

Father had notions about manhood suffrage, public
schools, the education and the elevation of the masses,

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 4 of 35)