Military Wiki
Henry Alexander Wise
33rd Governor of Virginia

In office
Lieutenant Elisha W. McComas
William Lowther Jackson
Preceded by Joseph Johnson
Succeeded by John Letcher
Personal details
Born (1806-12-03)December 3, 1806
Drummondtown, Virginia, U.S.
Died September 12, 1876(1876-09-12) (aged 69)
Richmond, Virginia, U.S.
Political party Jacksonian Democrat, Whig
Profession Politician, Lawyer

Henry Alexander Wise (December 3, 1806 – September 12, 1876) was a United States Congressman and governor of Virginia, as well as a general in the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. He served as US minister to Brazil from 1843–1847, during the administration of President John Tyler.

Early life[]

Wise was born in Drummondtown, Accomack County, Virginia, to Major John Wise and his second wife Sarah Corbin Cropper, whose families had long been settled there. Wise was of English and Scottish descent.[1] He was privately tutored until his twelfth year, when he entered Margaret Academy, near Pungoteague in Accomack County. He graduated from Washington College (now Washington & Jefferson College) in 1825.[2] He was a member of the Union Literary Society at Washington College.[3] After attending Henry St. George Tucker's Winchester Law School, Wise was admitted to the bar in 1828.[4] He settled in Nashville, Tennessee, in the same year to start a practice but returned to Accomack County in 1830.

Marriage and family[]

Wise was married three times, first in 1828 to Anne Jennings, the daughter of Rev. Obadiah Jennings and Ann Wilson of Washington, Pennsylvania.[5] Anne died in 1837, leaving Henry with four children: two sons and two daughters. A fifth child died with her in a fire. Wise married a second time in November 1840, to Sarah Sergeant, the daughter of Whig U.S. Congressman John Sergeant and Margaretta Watmough of Philadelphia. In nineteen years of marriage with two wives, Wise fathered fourteen children; seven survived to adulthood.[6] Sarah gave birth to at least five children. She died of complications, along with her last child, soon after its birth on October 14, 1850.[7] Henry married a third time to Mary Elizabeth Lyons in 1853.[8] After serving as governor, Wise settled with Mary and his younger children in 1860 at Rolleston, an 884-acre (3.58 km2) plantation which he bought from his brother John Cropper Wise, who also continued to live there.[9] It was located on the eastern branch of the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Virginia. It had first been developed by William and Susannah Moseley, English immigrants who settled there in 1649.[10] After Wise entered Confederate service, he and his family abandoned Rolleston in 1862 as Union troops were taking over Norfolk. Wise arranged for residence for his family in Rocky Mount, Franklin County, Virginia. After the Civil War, Henry and Mary Wise lived in Richmond, where he resumed his law career.

Political career[]

Henry A. Wise served in the United States Congress from 1833 to 1844. He was elected to Congress in 1832 as a Jacksonian Democrat. On the question of the rechartering of the United States Bank he broke with the Jackson administration, and became a Whig, but was sustained by his constituents. After his first election in 1832, he fought a duel with his competitor for the seat in Congress.[11] Wise was reelected to Congress as a Whig in 1837, serving till 1841, and was reelected as a Tyler Democrat in 1843. In 1840 Wise was active in securing the election of John Tyler as . After succeeding to the presidency, Tyler appointed Wise as United States minister to Brazil from 1844 to 1847.[4] Two of his children were born in Rio de Janeiro. In Brazil, Wise worked on issues related to trade and tariffs, trying to ameliorate Brazilian concerns about the US annexation of Texas, and working toward establishing diplomatic relations with Paraguay.[4]

After his return to the United States, Wise identified with the Democratic Party. In 1855, he was elected governor of Virginia over the Know Nothing candidate. Wise supported the annexation of Texas by the United States and Wise County, Texas, was named in his honor. In the statewide election of 1855, Wise defeated Thomas S. Flournoy and subsequently served as the 33rd Governor of Virginia from 1856 to 1860. Wise County, Virginia, was named after him when it was established in 1856. One of his last official acts as Governor was to sign the death warrant of John Brown. As a member of the Virginia secession convention of 1861, Wise supported immediate secession. On April 17, with delegates debating secession, Wise declared that he had ordered Virginia militiamen to seize Harpers Ferry Arsenal and Norfolk’s Gosport Naval Yards. Wise had forced the issue and Virginia seceded from the Union. He joined the Confederate army and was commissioned as a brigadier general.

Electoral History[]


Wise was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives with 57.24% of the vote, defeating Whig Hitt Carter.


Wise was elected governor of Virginia with 53.25% of the vote, defeating American Thomas Stanhope Flournoy.

Military career[]

Gen. Wise during the American Civil War.

Despite having no formal military training, Wise was appointed brigadier general in the Confederate States Army (CSA) due to his profile as a prominent supporter of secession.[12] In summer 1861, Wise and Brigadier General John B. Floyd began feuding over who was the superior officer in the western Virginia region. At the height of the feud General Floyd blamed Wise for the Confederate loss at the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, stating that Wise refused to come to his aid.[13] The feud was not resolved until Virginia Delegate Mason Mathews, whose son Alexander F. Mathews was Wise's aide-de-camp, spent several days in the camps of both Wise and Floyd. Afterward he wrote to President Jefferson Davis urging that both men be removed.[14][15] Davis subsequently removed Wise from his command of the western Virginia region.[13]

In 1862 Wise commanded the District of Roanoke Island during the Battle of Roanoke Island. His part in the decision to cede the island when faced with much greater Union forces drew the ire of some of the Confederate government leadership.[citation needed]

His forces were attached to the division of Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes during the Seven Days Battles. For the rest of 1862 and 1863, he held various commands in North Carolina and Virginia. In 1864 Wise commanded a brigade in the Department of North Carolina & Southern Virginia. His brigade defended Petersburg and was credited with saving the city at the First Battle of Petersburg and to an extent at the Second Battle of Petersburg. Wise commanded a brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia during the final stages of the Siege of Petersburg. He was promoted to the rank of major general after the Battle of Sayler's Creek. He was with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, where he fought bravely but urged Lee to surrender. He was the brother-in-law of Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade.

Postbellum activities[]

Wise (top row, second from right) with Robert E. Lee and Confederate officers, 1869.

After the war Wise resumed his law practice in Richmond, and settled there for the rest of his life. In 1865 he was unable to reclaim Rolleston, his plantation outside Norfolk, before he received pardon from the president. He had abandoned the residence when he moved his family to another residence at Rocky Mount, Virginia. As recounted in an exchange of letters published in the New York Times, Maj. Gen. Terry of the U.S. command in the Norfolk area did not permit Wise to reclaim the Rolleston property. Terry stated that under post-war conditions of parole for Confederate officers, Wise had claim only to the Rocky Mount property, where he and his family were living when he went to war. The Freedman's Bureau adapted Rolleston Hall and other plantations in the Norfolk area as schools for the newly emancipated slaves and their children. Two hundred freedmen were said to be taking classes at Rolleston.[16]

Along with working at his law career, Wise wrote a book based on his public service, entitled Seven Decades of the Union (1872). His two surviving sons were both active in state and Federal politics.

His younger son John Sergeant Wise wrote a memoir entitled The End of an Era, (1899), reprinted in numerous editions since its first publication.[17] John Wise was fourteen in the summer of 1860 and served in the Confederate Army late in the war. He wrote about his own memories of Rolleston, a childhood slave companion and friend, and the war years, as well as about his father's role and their family members. In addition, Henry A. Wise's grandson Barton Haxall Wise wrote a biography of the former governor entitled The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia (New York, 1899).[18]

The older son, Richard A. Wise, was a student at the College of William and Mary when the war began in 1861. During the war, he served with J. E. B. Stuart and later as aide-de-camp to his father during the Battle of Roanoke Island. After the war, he earned his MD degree at the Medical College of Virginia in 1869. He served as a professor of chemistry at William and Mary (1869–1878). In 1871 he helped reorganize a volunteer militia for the city of Williamsburg and James City County, Virginia, which he commanded. Known as the Wise Light Infantry, the unit continued at least through 1885, when it appeared during the inaugural festivities of President Grover Cleveland in Washington. Richard A. Wise later served in politics like his father: he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates (1885–1887); served as clerk of the court of Williamsburg and James City County, 1888–1894; and was elected as a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, serving April 26, 1898 to March 3, 1899 and again March 12, 1900 until his death on December 21, 1900.


  1. A biographical sketch of Henry A. Wise: with a history of the political campaign in Virginia in 1855: to which is added a review of the position of parties in the Union, and a statement of the political issues: distinguishing them on the eve of the presidential campaign of 1856
  2. "Washington College 1806–1865". U. Grant Miller Library Digital Archives. Washington & Jefferson College. Archived from the original on 2009-05-01. Retrieved 2010-02-22. 
  3. McClelland, W.C. (1903). "A History of Literary Societies at Washington & Jefferson College". The Centennial Celebration of the Chartering of Jefferson College in 1802. Philadelphia: George H. Buchanan and Company. pp. 111–132. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Renee M. Savits, "Blame It On Rio", Out of the Box, Library of Virginia, accessed 4 January 2012
  5. Jennings Cropper Wise, Col. John Wise of England and Virginia (1617-1695): His Ancestors and Descendants, Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1918; Digitized 2007 by University of California, p. 196, accessed 20 Mar 2008
  6. Simpson, p. 23
  7. 1850 US Census, St. George's Parish, Accomack Co, VA, accessed 5 Mar 2008; John S. Wise, The End of an Era, New York: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1899, p. 39; Documents of the South Collection, University of North Carolina Website, accessed 11 Feb 2008
  8. Simpson, p. 95.
  9. Simpson, p. 222.
  10. Idris Bowen, "Rolleston Hall, Virginia", The Rollestonian, Spring 2002, accessed 2 Feb 2008
  11. "Henry A. Wise," New International Encyclopedia,
  12. McClure, J. M. Henry A. Wise (1806–1876). (2011, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from
  13. 13.0 13.1 Civil War Daily Gazette Confederate General Henry Wise Relieved of Duty; “Contraband” Allowed in Navy. Retrieved November 21, 2012.
  14. Rice, Otis K. 1986. A History of Greenbrier County. Greenbrier Historical Society, p. 264
  15. Cowles, Calvin Duvall (1897). "The War of Rebellion: A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Government Print Office: 1897. Retrieved from
  16. The Wise and Terry Letters, 31 Jul 1865, The New York Times, accessed 4 Feb 2008; Idris Bowen, "Rolleston Hall, Virginia", The Rollestonian, Spring 2002, accessed 2 Feb 2008
  17. John Sergeant Wise, The End of an Era, Documenting the South, University of North Carolina[dead link][dead link]
  18. "Henry A. Wise," New International Encyclopedia


  • Simpson, Craig M., A Good Southerner: A Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 1985
  • Wise, Barton Haxall. The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1899. googlebooks Accessed January 29, 2008

External links[]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Richard Coke, Jr.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 8th congressional district

March 4, 1833 – March 4, 1843
Succeeded by
Willoughby Newton
Preceded by
William L. Goggin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Virginia's 7th congressional district

March 4, 1843 – February 12, 1844
Succeeded by
Thomas H. Bayly
Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph Johnson
Governor of Virginia
1856 – 1860
Succeeded by
John Letcher
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
George H. Proffit
United States Minister to Brazil
August 10, 1844–August 28, 1847
Succeeded by
David Tod

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