John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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and the gradual emancipation of the slaves, that did not
suit the uncompromising views of people in places like
Richmond. It was the abode of that class who proclaimed
that they were Whigs, and that " Whigs knew each other
by the instincts of gentlemen." The slave market was a
flourishing institution in Richmond, fully countenanced if
not approved and defended. The majority of Richmond
people hated the name of Democracy, and, almost always
defeated by it, were willing to unite with the Know-No
things or any other party to defeat their enemy the

At school, I very soon discovered that the Richmond
city boys were disposed to turn up their noses at me, not
only as a country boy, but because I was my father s son.
I had several fistic encounters with them, and after that,
things went on more smoothly, but not very pleasantly.
There never was such a place as Richmond for fio-htino-


among small boys. The city is built over a number of
hills and valleys, and in those days the boys of particular
localities associated in fighting bands, and called them
selves Cats. Thus there were the Shockoe Hill Cats, the
Church Hill Cats, the Basin Cats, the Oregon Hill Cats,
the Navy Hill Cats, etc.

About this time we were seized with the military fever.
In those days, the State of Virginia had a large armory
at Richmond, and a standing army of a hundred men !
The command was known as the " Public Guard," but
the Richmond boys called them the " Blind Pigs." The
syllogism by which this name was reached was unanswer
able. They wore on their hats the letters P. G., which
certainly is P I G without the I. And a pig without an
eye is a blind pig. Q E D.

The public guard was as well drilled and cared for
as any body of regulars in the United States army. It
guarded the penitentiary and public grounds, and was a
most valuable organization in many ways.

Captain Dimmock, commanding officer, was a West
Pointer, I think, and the beau ideal of a soldier. His son
Marion and my brother, three years my senior, conceived
the idea of forming a boy s soldier company. Father en
couraged the idea, and caused a hundred old muskets in
the armory to be cut down to the proper size for boys.
Captain Dimmock entered heartily into the scheme. The
boys were drilled assiduously. Their uniform was neat
cadet gray ; and for several years the " Guard of the
Metropolis " was one of the most striking institutions of
Richmond. It always paraded with the Public Guard,
and the precision of its drill astonished and delighted all
beholders. Seven years later, William Johnson Pegram,
the first lieutenant of that company, attained the rank of
brigadier-general in Lee s army before he was twenty-one


years old, and although killed in battle, is still remem
bered as one of the bravest and most brilliant artillery
commanders of the civil war. Many other members were
utilized as drill-masters at the outbreak of the war, and
subsequently became excellent officers.

Too young to carry a musket, I was made marker of
this famous company, and was as proud of my uniform
and little marker s flag as a Frenchman of the Cross of
the Legion of Honor.



THE present generation finds it difficult to realize the
position in the Union occupied by Virginia, even as late
as 1856-60, to which period our narrative now brings us.
People recall, in a general way, that Virginia was once
the theatre of many historic events ; that she gave birth
to many great men in the early days of the Republic ; and
that she was the chief battle-ground in the civil war.

A romantic interest attaches to her in consequence, and
there is a certain tenderness for Virginia felt towards
no other State, even in sections which were once arrayed
against her.

But from many causes, a decline in her social and polit
ical importance has occurred within the last forty years,
which, in its rapidity and in its extent, presents one of the
most remarkable instances in history. Let us not stamp
it as degeneracy. The day when she produced men of the
type of Lee and Jackson is too recent to justify despair.

It is made doubly difficult to judge her by the charac
ter of the writings concerning her. On the one hand, we
have extravagant eulogiums and fond laments of those
who laud her old-time history and people, and admit no
defects in them ; on the other, the always unfair and
often ignorant denunciations of the anti-slavery folk, who
are unwilling to admit, even at this late day, that any
good coidd come out of the Nazareth of slavery. Both
are wide of the mark. The social and economic condi-


tions of Virginia were neither Utopian, as the one loves to
depict, nor bad and vicious, as the other would represent

It is undeniably true that, between the two extremes of
society, as it existed there prior to 1865, was an awful
gulf, upon one side of which were green pastures and
still waters, and on the other noisome bogs filled with
creeping reptiles. It was a condition incompatible with
every theory of republican equality among men, and be
yond question repugnant to the ideas and sensibilities of
free communities.

Whether what has followed will ultimately result in a
better civilization is as yet far from settled ; but whether
for better or for worse, it is certain that a social, eco
nomic, and political earthquake, never surpassed in sud
denness and destructive force, burst upon that people,
working changes that have left little trace of what was
there before.

If the Virginian who died forty years ago could revisit
his native commonwealth, he would find it difficult to
recognize the place where he lived. If he located it by
the streams which still flow to the sea, and the moun
tains still standing as sentinels through the centuries, he
would soon learn, even concerning these, that many are
no longer landmarks of Virginia, but, snatched from her
in the hour of her weakness against her will, are now
possessions of an alien State. For the less enduring
things, for men such as he knew, for their very habi
tations, their mode of life, the fashion of thought of his
day, for its wealth, its refinement, its culture, for its lofty
incorruptibility and high-mindedness, he would search
sadly and in vain.

In the day of which I write, Virginia, among the States
of the Union, was, in territorial area, second only to


Texas. Her western boundary was the Ohio River ; north
ward, her Panhandle projected high up between Ohio and
Pennsylvania. Her wealth made her credit at home and
abroad above question. Her bonds sold higher in New
York and London than those of the federal government.
Her political importance placed her sons in commanding
positions in the cabinet, on the bench, and as representa
tives to many important foreign governments. In every
national assemblage her voice was hearkened to as that of
a potent and conservative and reliable guide.

Eichmond was admittedly the centre of a society unsur
passed in all America for wealth, refinement, and culture.
Nearly every distinguished foreigner felt that his view of
America was incomplete unless he spent some time in the
capitol of the Mother of States and Statesmen. Soldiers,
authors, sculptors, artists, actors, and statesmen sought
Richmond then as surely as to-day they visit New York
and Boston.

The actual population of the city was small. It is diffi
cult to realize that in 1860 Richmond had but thirty-eight
thousand inhabitants. But the truth is, that its real con
stituency was much greater ; for it was the assembling-
point of a large class of wealthy persons who resided on
their plantations upon the upper and lower James, and in
Piedmont, Tidewater, and the South Side.

It is not uncommon nowadays to see references to
Southern society of that period as uncultured, and rather
sensual than intellectual in its tastes. This historic false
hood, like many others assiduously told for a long time,
may find permanent lodgment in the belief of the future.
No statement was ever more unjust. With inherited
wealth, with abundant leisure, with desire to excel in
directing thought, and to attain that command of men
which knowledge affords, with an innate passion for ora-


tory, a thorough education was the natural ambition of a
Virginia gentleman. True, his efforts were not directed
towards acquiring practical or scientific knowledge ; for
these were in those days possessed, for the most part, by
men who expected to apply them to earning a livelihood.
But in education in the classics, in the study of ancient
and modern languages, in history, in philosophy moral
and political, in the study of the science of government,
in the learned professions, no men in America were better
equipped than the wealthy Southerners of that period.

It is true, there was no public-school system, and the
reason for it was very plain. The wealth of the upper
classes enabled them to have private tutors. The paucity
in numbers of the lower classes of the whites, and the dis
tances at which they lived apart, rendered public schools
impracticable for them. Education of the blacks was,
of course, contrary to all ideas of slavery. Suppose we
depended upon the wealthy to inaugurate public schools,
how many should we have ? Yet nobody suspects that
they are indifferent to education. The best proof of the
care of the slaveholding Southerner for education may be
found in the lives of distinguished Northern men who
grew up fifty years ago. In many instances, they record
the fact that their first employments were as tutors in
wealthy Southern families. The private libraries of Vir
ginia destroyed in the war, or burned in the old Virginia
homesteads, would have filled every public library in the
North to overflowing. Every current periodical and pub
lication of that day, American and foreign, was upon the
library table of the Virginian not later than it was in
the Northern reading-room.

Conversation at social gatherings did not run to games
and sports, and dress and dissipations, and gossip and
amusements, but to the great events of the day, to the


latest productions in literature and art, and to things
worthy of man s noblest thought and discussion. It is an
insult to the memory of those most intellectual people to
describe the men as a breed of swearing, drinking, and
gambling fox-hunters, and the women as pampered, candy-
eating dolls. The per cent, of youth educated at foreign
universities was greater in proportion to white population,
at the outbreak of the war, in Virginia than in Massa
chusetts. This was natural, in view of the greater indi
vidual wealth.

It is true that every enterprise dependent upon what
is known as public spirit, or originating in the demand
or desire of common use, was sadly lacking. Wealthy
people seldom cooperate. Each buys, for private use,
things which all might well use in common if the price
was an important consideration ; and none, perhaps, have
as much, or as good, as all might more cheaply obtain if
they acted conjointly.

In times of slavery, there never was a decent hotel or
public livery in the South. The private establishments
were so large that their hospitality was deadly to the suc
cess of public houses, or other provision for the public
comfort. Of a thousand or two thousand visitors to the
city of Richmond, not one hundred would seek public
accommodation. They either had town residences of their
own, or were taken in charge by friends and relatives as
soon as they reached the city. Everybody was kin to
everybody. Visitors were ushered into vacant chambers
that were already yearning for them, attended by the ser
vants that were idle in their absence, furnished with equi
pages and horses that needed use and work, and fed of an
abundance that had been wasted before they came. All
this was repaid by their mere presence, which banished
ennui, in those days when public amusements were raro
and inferior.


The domestic luxury and comfort of these people was
all that heart could wish for. Their houses were fur
nished sumptuously in every detail. From drawing-room
to chamber, everything was provided which wealth could
wish. Mahogany, rare china and glass ware, massive
silver, and the choicest of damask and linen were found
in the dining-room, which was an important feature of
every home. But there was a singular lack of the elabo
rate ornamentation and gilding so prevalent at present.
The servants were in numbers, in thorough knowledge of
their duties, in considerate care of their guests, and in
respectful deference to their superiors, such as never were
surpassed anywhere, and such as are now found on no
portion of the earth s surface, unless, perhaps, it be in
England. The Virginia cook and the Virginia cooking
of that time were the full realization of the dreams of
epicures for centuries. They also have passed away, like
many of those precious gifts which are too delightful to be
of long continuance. The dress of the period was, con
sidering the opulence of the people, remarkable for its
simplicity. Of diamonds and precious stones and jew
elry there was abundance, and they of the most costly
kind, and in quality the costumes of the women were of
the best ; but neither in number nor in extravagance of
make-up was there any such display, especially in public,
as later times have developed.

Male attire was exceedingly simple. As late as 1858,
several of the old gentlemen wore the queues we see in
pictures of Washington and his contemporaries, but those
instances were exceedingly rare. Among elderly men, no
such thing as a beard was admissible. The clean-shaven
face was almost without exception. Young dandies began
to wear hirsute adornments about the time Ned Sothern
appeared in " Our American Cousin," and made " Lord


Dundreary " side-whiskers the fashionable fad. Elderly
gentlemen wore broadcloth, with tall silk hats, high stand
ing collars, and white or black stocks. This was varied
among country gentlemen by broad slouch hats of felt or
straw, and expansive white or nankeen waistcoats. Dur
ing the heated term, a fashionable attire was an entire
outfit of white or brown linen duck.

Until the year 1858, there was little difference between
the costumes of old and young men, except in neckwear.
Among youngsters, colored cravats were worn. About
that year came, among the ultra fashionables, a remark
able outfit, consisting of short, double-breasted reefing
jackets, trousers immense at the hips and tapering to the
ankles, Scotch caps, and " Dundreary " whiskers. But a
country youth would have scorned such wild imaginings
of tailors. A city man thus equipped, walking beside a
woman in hoops and a broad-faced bonnet, would give
Fifth Avenue a genuine sensation if he reappeared to

The private equipages were handsome. Rogers, of Phil
adelphia, and Brewster, of New York, built nearly all of
the carriages in use among the Virginians, and the horses
were Virginia or Kentucky thoroughbreds. There was
rivalry to possess the handsomest teams, and the equi
pages on Franklin Street compared favorably, in number
and style, with those in any city in this country. One
remarkable old lady, a Mrs. Cabell, had a vehicle swing
ing upon immense C-springs, drawn by large Andalusian
mules of her own importation, with liveried coachman and
footmen. But that was never adopted as a model. Even
at that late day, a few people drove to the White Sulphur
in their private vehicles, and a drive of forty miles to visit
friends in the country was a mere episode. The socia
bility of the period was great.


Concerning the mode of life, there were but two impor
tant meals daily. Breakfast, except for business people or
schoolchildren, was rather late. Morning visiting among
the ladies was from one o clock until three p. M. The
dining hour was generally at three P. M. From dinner
time until about 7.30 P. M. came a leisure period for
driving ; and then an informal repast, consisting of tea,
coffee, chocolate, biscuits, sandwiches, and light cakes,
served in the drawing-rooms. At this hour the family, its
guests and visitors, were generally assembled in their best
dress. The meal, if such a light repast could be so desig
nated, was served by butlers bearing great trays. Every
drawing-room had its "nest" of tiny tables on which
to place the plates and cups. The repast did not even
interrupt the flow of conversation. In pleasant weather,
many of the guests sat upon the porticoes and were served
there. This was the time when young folks, male and
female, interchanged visits.

Music, vocal and instrumental, and dancing varied the
enjoyment of those charming evenings. The wit of the
time was brilliant and refined. There was Littleton
Tazewell, remembered as having declined a proffered cup
of tea by dryly saying : " No, thank you, I would be azwell
without the T." There was Tom August, whose wit was
like Sheridan s. He it was who refused to bet on the
great four-mile race between " Ked Eye " and " Revenue "
because, as he said, the result was already certain. When
asked why it was certain, he replied, " The first legal
maxim I ever learned was, 4 Id certum est, quod certum
Reddi potest. On another occasion, responding to the
frightened inquiry, " Who is that ? " when a neighbor
heard him falling downstairs, he promptly replied, " T is
I, sir, rolling rapidly." Sweet Tom August, courtly
to dames, loving to friends, brave in war, brilliant at the


bar, gentle and loving to the last, green be the grave
that covers thee ! Dying July 31st, he laughed, an hour
before he died, and remarked, " For once, the first and
last of August have come together."

And then there was mincing and primping John R.
Thompson, the poet, and young Price, now a grave pro
fessor of Columbia, and handsome, dashing Willie Mun-
ford, to-day a white-haired minister ; and Jennings Wise,
and Brandfute Warwick, and John Pegram, the last
three dead in the battle front before five years had rolled
by. And there were young Randolph Barksdale and
Randolph Harrison, twin Apollo Belvideres in youthful
beauty. And red-faced George Pickett, in his army
clothes, before Gettysburg immortalized him, leading
his charming petite sister to the piano to flood the house
with melody like that of the mocking-bird. There, too,
was the brilliant Lucy Haxall, whose exuberant wit made
all the welkin ring ; and sweet Mary Power Lyons, who
made men better for beholding such exquisite refinement
and maidenly beauty ; and the rich Penn heiress from
New Orleans ; and the gentle Morsons ; and Pages and
Carters and Lees by the score.

In the quiet corners sat matrons smiling on this scene
of pleasure, Dame Scott, of Fauquier, with her great
white turban, her intellectual face looking like a queen s ;
Mrs. Judge Stanard, handsome and charming; Mrs.
James Lyons, young and beautiful as the most blushing
debutante ; stately Mrs. Fowle, of Alexandria, and, by
her side, hospitable Mrs. McFarland, and beautiful and
accomplished Mrs. Seddon, of Goochland. Last, but
by no means least, were the middle-aged and elderly
representative men of the city and State, engaged in
courteous attention to the ladies, or grouped in drawing-
room, library, or veranda, discussing the living issues of


the times. There was James Lyons, one of the leaders
of the Virginia bar, the handsomest man of his day ; and
noble-looking John B. Young, who, in the forefront of
his profession, still found time to read Dickens until
he was a walking encyclopaedia of Dickens s wit ; and
William H. McFarland, Richmond s king of hospitality,
portly and imposing, in ruffled shirt and spotless black ;
and Judge Robert Stanard, whose very presence was
suggestive not only of the bench, but of a certain weak
ness he had for whist and " Lou " and " Bragg ; " and
George W. Randolph and Roscoe B. Heath, the rising
men of the bar ; and the Reverends Joshua Peterkin and
Charles Minnegerode, spiritual doctors; and Doctors
Deane and Haxall, doctors of the flesh, all mingling in
most delightful and refined exchange of courtesy and

Once or twice a week the public band played in the
Capitol grounds. The park was illuminated. The citi
zens generally promenaded up and down the great parade
and enjoyed the music. Our home was opened on such
occasions to father s friends, and with clean-washed face
and most approved attire, I flitted in and out : now petted
in the drawing-room ; now stealing away with a biscuit or
a cake for some little pet darkey ; now out in the public
square with my boy acquaintances.

School occupied our mornings, and three afternoons of
the week were allotted to our French. When older, I
should never have begrudged that time to so charming a
companion as Mile. Vassas, the institutrice, but we looked
upon her then as our natural enemy. Afternoons and
Saturdays were left to us to indulge in boyish diversions.
At first, these were harmless and domestic enough. In the
spacious grounds about the Government House, we had
pet pigeons, tame squirrels, a rabbit-warren, an improvised


gymnasium, and other things to make home happy. Old
Harry, our slave coachman, often accompanied us on
horseback rides ; and the boys of our acquaintance were
glad to avail themselves of the attractions at our home.
We were warned against playing in the streets, or wan
dering into other portions of the city, and for a long time
obeyed such commands very well. But in time, I found
many excuses for absence. Between the visits to the
state barracks, where our soldier company drilled, and to
the Penitentiary, where ingenious convicts, without regu
lar employments, built us boats, and engines, and cannon,
and wagons, and all sorts of toys, there were always plau
sible excuses for frequent and long absences, the real
nature of which were never very closely investigated.

Then came the excitement of another presidential
election. I hear you exclaim, " Now what possible inter
est could a presidential election possess for a boy ten
years old ? " You ask that question because you do not
know the society I am describing. Not a day passed that
I did not hear something about the dangerous condition
of the political situation. Long before James Buchanan
was nominated by the Democrats, I knew that Stephen
A. Douglas, " the little giant," with his views of squatter
sovereignty, could not command the vote of the South
ern Democracy. Father was a warm supporter of Mr.
Buchanan as the representative of the conservative element
of Democracy. Accordingly, when Buchanan was nomi
nated, largely through the influence of the Virginians,
I felt a personal interest in the success of "Buck and
Breck," and was their avowed advocate in all places.
Richmond was still unreconciled to Democracy ; and the
American ticket, headed by ex-President Fillmore and
Andrew Jackson Donelson, was a hot favorite in Vir
ginia s capital. As for the new and third party, known


as Republican and led by Fremont and Dayton, it literally
had no following there. Out of the 160,000 votes cast in
Virginia in the presidential election of 1856, only 1800
votes were cast for the Republicans, and they were nearly
all cast in the Panhandle.

But the supporters of Buchanan and of Fillmore made
a great noise in Richmond. They were united in ridicul
ing Fremont, but divided in all else. Nearly every night,
open-air political speaking took place, with parades, ban
ners, red lights, and bands of music, and great orators vis
ited the city. From these, and from the political cartoons,
which were very plentiful, I learned a great deal about
Buchanan and Breckinridge, and about Fillmore and
Donelson ; but I was led to regard the candidacy of Fre
mont as a political farce, and chiefly heard of him as
finding woolly horses in the Rocky Mountains, and running
away with Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri s great
senator. I did not realize that, although the storm of
abolition had not yet assumed full force, it was rapidly
gathering, with its centre in this Republican ticket ; nor
appreciate that, in many Northern States, Fremont was
drawing to his support a great following, which, with its
" wide-awake " processions and other demonstrations,
excited an enthusiasm not seen in politics since the time
of " Tippecanoe and Tyler too." Even when the election

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 5 of 35)