This text is part of:
Table of Contents:
By the Federal Authorities, at Norfolk, Virginia,[Among the tragic events of the late war between the States, none enlists deeper sympathy and will be permanently more harrowing, than the ignominious fate of Dr. David Minton Wright, of Norfolk, Virginia. His was a character cast in the noblest mould, and animated by the most generous impulses. A friend bears touching testimony to his qualities of mind and heart. Whilst hostilities were impending, ‘although devoted to the South, he deprecated the war, expressed his love for the Union, and hoped the wisdom and patriotism of the nation would assert themselves before an issue was irretrievably made between its sections. In a word, he spoke as a patriot, and not as a politician, giving expression to the most liberal and fraternal sentiments, and exhibiting that his position was altogether conservative.’1 As civil law had been established by the Federal authorities in Norfolk, it was expected that justice by civil trial would have been conceded Dr. Wright. The services of Hon. Reverdy Johnson for his defence were secured, and an appeal was made to President Lincoln for the grace, but it was denied. ‘A trial by court-martial was immediately held; no extenuating circumstances were admitted, and the simple fact that an officer of the army had been slain by a rebel sympathizer outweighed all other considerations, and this good  man, who had never entertained an unkind thought toward a human being, and who had only fired as a last resort when his life was in jeopardy, was condemned to die the death of a felon, and was actually hung, despite the entreaties of his wife and children, the appeals of his friends, and the protests of the Confederate authorities.’ Thus died ‘a gentleman, a Christian, and a hero.’2 The deplorable circumstances which caused the visitation of extreme penalty on an involuntary agent, were presented by a distinguished physician of Norfolk, Dr. L. B. Anderson, well known throughout the State, in the Landmark of December 31, 1892. This account is republished with a slight emendation, which is noted.] On the 10th of May, 1862, a report reached the officials of Norfolk that General Wool, of the Northern army, was advancing upon the city from the direction of Hampton Roads at the head of 8,000 troops. It seems that the advance upon the city was designed to have been via the Indian Poll bridge and Church street, But when the enemy approached the bridge a squad of Confederates, who, seeing the dust raised by them, halted at the northern end and opened fire with two pieces of small artillery. Their speedy disappearance, and the piles of knapsacks, blankets, and other superfluous incumbrances, fully attested the consternation with which they received the Confederate salutation. They deflected their march and moved on until they intersected the Princess Anne road, a distance of seventeen miles, and approached the city from that direction. In the meantime the city officials had held a meeting and drawn up the terms of surrender, and deputed Mayor Lamb, the father of our present Colonel William Lamb, Mr. J. B. Whitehead, Mr. Charles H. Rowland, Mr. George W. Camp, and Captain James Cornick, to proceed to meet General Wool beyond the city limits, and arrange the terms of surrender. They went out in two carriages just beyond a little bridge across Princess Anne avenue, a short distance beyond Chapel street, which was the eastern boundary of the city. Here they raised a white handkerchief on a pole, and awaited the approach of the Federals. In a short time a squad of videttes rode up, who were informed that these gentlemen were city officials and desired to see General Wool. They immediately retraced their steps, and shortly after, the  General, accompanied by a company of horse and other officials, made their appearance. After the usual salutations, General Wool, his legal adviser, and the Norfolk officials entered a small wooden house, still standing on the northern side of the avenue just beyond the bridge. The terms of surrender drawn up by the City Council, which, in brief, were a surrender of all public property, with an assurance that persons and private property should be respected and protected by the Federal officials, were now submitted to General Wool. When this was done, the legal adviser essayed to speak, when General Wool waved his hand and stopped him. He then accepted the proposed terms, and with some of his officers entered the carriages with the Norfolk deputation, and rode down to the City Hall to confer with the Council. During the passage of the city and Federal officials through the city, the hypocritical demonstration of a few low whites and the wild, unbridled exultation of the negroes were indescribable. During the administration of General Wool, a noble old army officer and a gentleman, the terms of the surrender were respected, and persons and property were rigidly protected. Remaining but a short time, he left General Veille in command, whose department was soon placed under the supervision of General Ben. Butler. From this time onward private houses were searched, valuable private property seized, boxed up and shipped North. While now and then a considerate and unselfish officer would hold the reins of government, frequently the controlling power was in the hands of a cruel, niggardly despot, who not only annoyed, irritated and harrassed the people beyond measure, but often as many as three Federal soldiers were seen at a time suspended by their thumbs, so as barely to touch the head of the barrel on which they were presumed to stand with their toes, and being kept in this position bareheaded for hours in the greatest agony. To submit quietly to the authority of such a man, and bear with patience the petty annoyances to which they were constantly and unreasonably subjected, was truly annoying to every Virginian freeman. But when General Butler sent over negro troops who took possession of the sidewalks and rudely thrust both ladies and gentlemen from their way, the feeling of indignation and irritation was almost unbearable. It was during the first of these parades of negro troops on the sidewalk that the following memorable scene occurred:  As Dr. David Minton Wright, of the city of Norfolk, was walking up Main street on the afternoon of July the 11th, 1862; just as he reached a point opposite the store of Foster & Moore, now occupied by S. Frank & Son, No. 156, he met a column of negro troops, commanded by a white lieutenant by the name of Sanborn. As they completely filled the sidewalk, everybody, old and young, little and big, ladies and gentlemen, were compelled to yield to their arrogant usurpation, and surrender, for the first time in the history of Norfolk, to a military satrap and his sable soldiers, an avenue, which had always been assigned to civil pedestrians. ‘The poor Doctor, in the excitement of the moment as it passed him for the first time, exclaimed, “How dastardly!” and, the officer hearing the remark, turned upon him with his drawn sword. At this critical moment, a friend thrust a pistol in his hand.’3 The Doctor, holding the pistol behind him, warned Sanborn to ‘stand off.’ Disregarding the warning, Sanborn continued to advance, when Dr. Wright fired the shot, taking effect in Sanborn's left hand. The latter still advancing and ‘persisting (as Dr. Wright stated) in having a gentleman arrested by his negro troops,’ he fired again, the ball taking effect in a vital part. They then clinched, Sanborn struggling to get possession of the pistol, which Dr. Wright retained, ‘and, had it pointed at his breast, could have killed him instantly, but did not fire again, though negro bayonets were within four feet of his breast.’ So soon as they ceased to struggle, Lieutenant Sanborn, weak and faint, ‘went into the store of Foster & Moore and immediately expired.’ The Provost guard then arrested and conducted ‘Dr. Wright before Major Bovey, who committed him to jail to await trial.’ The above succinct account of this tragical affair, which has been derived from a close analysis of the testimony given by the leading witnesses, harmonizes with the account of Dr. Wright himself, and, I believe, constitutes the only rational and reliable portraiture of the whole transaction which has ever been given to the public. Who was Dr. Wright?  Dr. David Minton Wright was born in Nansemond county, Virginia, in the year of our Lord 1809. After his preliminary education was sufficiently advanced he was sent to the military school of Captain Patrick, in Middletown, Connecticut. After completing the usual course here, he returned home and then entered the office of Dr. William Warren, of Edenton, North Carolina, the father of Dr. Edward Warren (Bey), now of Paris. After prosecuting his studies for some time under the tutorage of Dr. Warren he repaired to Philadelphia, where he was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania as doctor of medicine about the year 1833. After his graduation he remained for a time in attendance upon the hospitals. Returning to Edenton, North Carolina, he settled there and commenced the practice of medicine. During the early years of his sojourn in his new home he united with his preceptor in the practice of medicine, and continued in association with him for eighteen years. Two years after he settled in Edenton, he was united in marriage with Miss Penelope Creecy, of whom we will speak more particularly hereafter. After having prosecuted his professional labors, as previously stated, for many years with increasing reputation and success in the town of Edenton, North Carolina, he determined to remove with his large family to Norfolk, Virginia. So in 1854, he located in this city, and soon secured a large and lucrative practice. The next year, 1855, the yellow fever visited the city, and, though he had a large family, both of children and servants, not one of them left the city. The Doctor threw himself into the great work, which suffering humanity so imperatively demanded of him, with such abandon and zeal that he quite early in the progress of the fever fell a victim to its ravages. But the kind nursing of his loving companion, his indomitable will, and the skill of his physicians, in the providence of God, brought him safely through. After the fever was over, a meeting of the surviving physicians was held to give some expression of their feelings and judgment in regard to their fallen comrades. Dr. Wright was chosen chairman of the meeting, and delivered a most chaste and beautiful address, pronouncing most feeling and impressive eulogies upon all of his martyred comrades. From that time till the opening of the war, Dr. Wright continued the practice of his profession with zeal, energy and success. At the time the Federal troops entered the city, Dr. Wright  and family occupied the house where the Citizens' Bank now stands, opposite the Atlantic Hotel. It was here he lived when Sanborn and his negro troops swept down the northern sidewalk of Main street. It was here, on the 11th day of July, 1862, he celebrated his wedding day, and from thence he went to the store of Foster & Moore, where the active duties of life and his professional career closed forever. After being remanded to jail, the Federal authorities proceeded to organize a court martial for his trial. It assembled in the customhouse, and for eight days the Doctor, with clanking chains around his wrists and ankles, was carried to the place of trial and compelled to walk up and down the stone steps in the sight of his sympathizing friends. On one occasion as he hobbled out into the porch, some thirty or forty of his acquaintances happened to be standing on the opposite side of the street, when, on seeing him, they simultaneously raised their hats and bowed to him. He immediately raised his fettered hands, lifted his hat, and bowed his head in grateful recognition of their cordial salutation. While in prison he addressed the following note to his beloved wife: ‘I am to be tried by a military commission to-day or to-morrow. I suppose the verdict will be the same as that of the provost marshal, made before he had examined the first witness. Should it be so, let us, while we hope and pray for the best, try to prepare for the worst. To this end I shall pray continually. I wish also to avail myself of the benefits of baptism and the communion. I regret very much having so long deferred this, but you know my feelings and views on the subject. My dear wife, all things must have an end, so to our happiness. Oh! how blest we have been! Blest in mutual love and admiration; blest in congeniality of tastes and sentiments; blest in a store of early memories and associations; blest, oh! how blest, in our dear ones; blest in friends, blest in the confidence and respect of all; blest in health, blest in the means of support, blest in the prospect before us. It was too bright to last, and I have always felt it would terminate by some accident to myself.’ In several of his letters he expresses the most affectionate regard for and confidence in his wife and the warmest love for his children. His wife and friends seem to have exhausted every resource to save him. On one occasion, as reported in the Old Dominion newspaper, when Mrs. Wright visited General Foster at Old Point, she carried  one of her little daughters with her, and during the interview the little one climbed upon the knee of the General, and looking wistfully into his face said, ‘save my father, won't you?’ The appeal touched his heart and he wept. On another occasion one of the little boys went to Lieutenant Roberts and most earnestly addressing him, said: ‘Can I not die for my father?’ Another incident occurred just before the execution, which reflects great credit upon the devoted daughter, who planned and so successfully executed her part of the programme. Having heard it related by many, but always with some variation, I give it is it appeared in the Old Dominion three days after it happened.
2 Ibid, page 192.
3 The account of Dr. Anderson is here slightly amended, upon the authority of Dr. Edward Warren-Bey, (‘A Doctor's Experiences in Three Continents,’ page 192) and of members of Dr. Wright's family. Dr. Wright had never carried firearms, insisting that no one should go prepared to take the life of another.
4 Six children of Dr. Wright survive: Mrs. Pencie (who attempted the rescue of her father), the widow of Rev. Alexander W. Weddell, D. D., the beloved and lamented rector of the venerable St. John's church, Richmond; Mrs. Sarah, wife of Mr. Thomas Warren; Mrs. Mary, wife of Mr. Frederick A. Fetter; Joshua Wright, unmarried; and William Wright, who married Miss Sarah Coke, a niece of Hon. Richard Coke, ex-governor of, and United States senator from Texas. The second child, Mrs. Elizabeth M., wife of Mr. William Henry Talbott, whose marriage is mentioned in the preceding narrative, died some years ago.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.