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Jennings Wise: Captain of “the Blues”


I found in an old portfolio, the other day, the following slip from a Norfolk paper of the year 1862:

The Confederate steamer Arrow arrived here this morning, from Currituck, having communicated with a steamer sent down to Roanoke Island under a flag of truce. She brought up the bodies of Captain O. J. Wise, Lieutenant William Selden, and Captain Coles. Captain Wise was pierced by three balls, and Lieutenant Selden was shot through the head. The Yankees who saw Captain Wise during the fierce and unequal contest, declare that he displayed a gallantry and valour never surpassed. Alas, that he has fallen in a contest so unequal! But who has fallen more honourably, more nobly? Young Selden, too, died at his gun, while gallantly fighting the enemy that had gathered in so superior numbers upon our shores.

Last night, when the steamer arrived at Currituck, General Wise directed that the coffin containing the remains of his son be opened. Then, I learn from those who were present, a scene transpired that words cannot describe. The old hero bent over the body of his son, on whose pale face the full moon threw its light, kissed the cold brow many times, and exclaimed, in an agony of emotion: “Oh, my brave boy, you have died for me, you have died for me.”

What an epitaph! [148]

The gray-haired father, forgetting the past and the future, losing sight, for the moment, of the war and all other thingsbending and weeping over the dead body of the son who “had displayed a gallantry and valour never surpassed” --giving his heart's blood to the cause he loved — the annals of tragedy contain no spectacle more touching!

Of the remarkable young man who thus poured forth his blood, and passed away, before the age of thirty, in defence of his native soil, I propose to give a few personal recollections. It is hard that a noble soul should go from the haunts of the living, to be remembered only by the small circle of loving friends who knew and appreciated him. And though I shall not attempt anything in the shape of a memoir of young Jennings Wise, my few words may not prove uninteresting to those who watched, from a distance, his meteoric career, and perhaps admired his brave spirit, while ignorance of his real character led them to misunderstand him.

Jennings Wise!

How many memories that name recalls!--memories of gentleness and chivalry, and lofty honour, to those who knew him truly — of fancied arrogance and haughty pride, and bloody instincts, to those who accepted common rumour for their estimate of him. For there were many rumours of this description afloat-and it must be acknowledged that there was some excuse for the misconception. He had little of the spirit of conciliation if he believed a man to be his foe; managed early to arouse bitter enmities; and continued to defy his opponents without deigning to explain his character or his motives. Before he was better understood-when the mists were only beginning to clear away, and show his virtues of devotion, and patriotism, and kindness-death called him.

Born in Virginia, and going in his early manhood to Europe, as Secretary of Legation, he there perfected himself in riding, fencing, and all manly exercises; studying political science, and training himself, consciously or unconsciously, for the arena upon which he was to enter soon after his return. He came to Virginia at a time when the atmosphere was stifling with the [149] heat of contending factions in politics, and becoming the chief editor of the Richmond Enquirer, plunged into the struggle with all the ardour of a young and ambitious soldier who essays to test the use of those arms he has been long burnishing for battle. He did not lack for opponents, for a great contest was raging, and the minds of men were red-hot with the mighty issues of the time. He had scarce thrown down the glove when many hands were extended to take it up. Then commenced a strife on the political arena, in which the opponents fought each other with bitter and passionate vehemence. What the pen wrote, the pistol, unhappily, was too often called upon to support; and the young politician was ere long engaged in more than one duel, which achieved for him a widely-extended notoriety and a venomous party hatred. Of these quarrels I do not design to speak. It is no part of my purpose to inquire who was to blame or who was faultless; and I would not move the ashes resting now upon the details of those unhappy affairs, under which the fire perhaps still smoulders, full of old enmities. That he was carried away by passion often, is unfortunately too true; but he had no love for conflict, and publicly declared his aversion to “private war.” Unhappily the minds of his political opponents were too profoundly swayed by the passions of the epoch to give him credit for these declarations. They were not listened to, and the young politician became the mark of extreme political hatred. The sins of passion and the heated arena were regarded as the coolly planned and deliberately designed crimes of a moral monster, who had never felt the emotion of pity or love for his brother man. Intelligent and honourable persons believed that all the young man's instincts were cruel; that his hatreds were capricious and implacable; that his nature was that of the tiger, thirsting for blood; his conscience paralysed or warped by a terrible moral disease. His splendid oratory, his trenchant pen, the dash and courage of his nature, were allowed; but these were his only “good gifts;” he was, they said, the Ishmael of the modern world.

All this he knew, and he continued his career, trusting to time. He fought for secession; joined the First Virginia Regiment, [150] and served at Charlestown, in the John Brown raid. Then war came in due time. He was elected captain of the Blues-the oldest volunteer company in Virginia-took the leadership from the first, as one born to command, and fought and fell at that bloody Roanoke fight, at the head of his company, and cheering on his men.

His body was brought back to Richmond, laid in the capitol, and buried, in presence of a great concourse of mourners, in Hollywood Cemetery. That was the end of the brief young life-death in defence of his native land, and a grave in the beloved soil, by the side of the great river, and the ashes of Monroe, brought thither by himself and his associates.

Then came a revulsion. His character was better understood; his faults were forgotten; his virtues recognised. Even his old opponents hastened to express their sympathy and admiration. It was remembered that more than once he had refused to return his adversary's fire; that championship of one whom he loved more than life had inflamed his enmity — no merely selfish considerations. His sweetness of temper and kindness were recalled by many, and the eyes which had been bent upon him with horror or hatred, shed tears beside the young soldier's grave.

Oh, tardy justice of good men! Oh, laurel-wreath upon the coffin!-soft words spoken in the dull, cold ear of death! This soul of chivalry and honour-this gentle, kindly, simple hearthad been branded as the enemy of his species — as a haughty, soulless, pitiless monster!

In speaking of this young Virginian, I wish to espouse no personal or party quarrel — to arouse none of those enmities which sleep now — to open no old wounds, and to fan into flame none of the heart-burnings of the past. Those who contended with him most bitterly have long ago forgotten their feud. Many shed tears for the noble youth when he fell, and speak of him now as one of those great Virginians whom it is the pride of our soil to have produced. They know him better now, and understand that this man was no hater of his species — no Ishmael of civilization, cold and haughty and implacable-but a beautiful and noble nature, attuned to every honourable impulse, and only [151] embittered temporarily by party passion. Dying, he has suffered change; and there is a beauty in the pale, cold face, which it never possessed while living. Traits never suspected come out now, when Death has stamped the countenance with his melancholy seal; and love and pity have quite banished the old scorn and hatred. The green grass on his grave has covered all enmity, and the love of friends has taken the place of the bitterness of foes.

Among those friends who knew and loved him living, I count myself. To know him thus was speedily to love him — for his traits and instincts were so conspicuously noble and endearing, that he irresistibly attracted the affection of all who were thrown in familiar contact with him. How gentle, modest, and unassuming these inner instincts of his heart were, those who knew him in his private life will bear witness. They will tell you of his honest and truthful nature; his unpretending simplicity; his chivalric impulses, and nobility of feeling. Indeed, you would have said that the Creator had breathed into this clay the loveliest traits of humanity, and raised up in the prosaic nineteenth century a “good knight” of old days, to show the loveliness of honour.

This was one side of the young man's character, only. With these softer traits were mingled some of the hardiest endowments of strong manhood. No man was ever braver. Indeed, his nerve had in it something antique and splendid, as of the elder days of chivalry, when neither monster nor magician, giant nor winged dragon, could make the heart of the good knight quail, or move him from his steadfast purpose. What in other men was the courage of habit, or training, or calculation of forces, was in him that of native endowment and birthright. To match himself, if need be, against any odds, however overwhelming, and breast all opposition with a stubborn, dauntless front, was to act as his character dictated, and to follow his temperament. The sentiment of fear, I believe, never entered his breast; if it did, it never stayed there long enough for him to make its acquaintance. He would have led the charge of the English cavalry at Balaklava with the nerve and dash of Hotspur, glorying in [152] the roar of the enemy's artillery, and resolute to take their guns or die. At Thermopylae, he would have stood beside Leonidas, and fought and died without the shudder of a nerve. In battle at the head of his men, his coolness and resolution were invincible. The grim front of war possessed no terrors for him, and he advanced into the gulf of battle with the calmness of a holiday soldier on parade.


He was early in the lists as the advocate of resistance to the North, and fought its opponents with persistent vehemence. To “wait” was to sign the death-warrant of the State, he declared. “God save the liberties of this brave old Commonwealth!” if this was the course defined for her. What he preached he practised. He sounded the onset, and the lines once in motion, he took his place in the great army. At first as a private, with musket on shoulder; eager, active, untiring; inspiring all with his own brave spirit. Then, when his acknowledged capacity for leadership placed him at the head of a command, he took the post as his of right, and led his men as all who knew him expected. How he led them on that disastrous day at Roanoke — with what heroic nerve, and splendid gallantry, in the face of the deadliest firelet his old comrades in arms declare. There, in the front of battle, he fell-giving his life without a single regret to the cause he loved.

It was the phase of character, indicated above, which the outer world chiefly considered, and estimated him by. Yet this was by no means his most attractive phase. The dauntless nerve, the stubborn and indomitable will, revealed themselves on certain occasions only — the social virtues of the individual were seen every day. It would be difficult to imagine a human being more modest, kindly, and simple. His modesty amounted almost to shyness; and it was doubtless this species of reserve which led many to regard him as cold, and destitute of feeling. Let it not be understood, however, that he was subject to mauvaise honte --the diffidence of one who distrusts his own powers, and shrinks [153] from collision with other minds. His peculiarity was rather the reverse, as his perfect self-possession and control of every faculty in public speaking indicated. Self-reliance, rather than self-distrust, marked the character of his intellect-boldness to undertake, and unshrinking courage to execute. But in this there was no arrogance — no hauteur. In the combat he would contend with all his powers, and shrink from no odds: but the contest once over, the hot blood cool, the old modesty returned, and the kindly, gentle smile. The indulgence of his affections was evidently one of his chief happinesses. He was fond of children, and delighted to play with them, sharing their gambols and amusements with the bonhomie and abandon of a boy. In such scenes, the vehement young politician no doubt took refuge from the strife of the public arena, where so many hot passions met and clashed, and found in the playful antics of children the antidote to the scorns and hatreds of those grown — up childrenmen. It was in the society of the eminent Virginian, his father, however, that he seemed to experience his greatest happiness; and his devotion to him was the controlling sentiment of his being. If this sentiment impelled him to a partisanship too violent at times, the fault will not be regarded as a mean or ignoble one, nor detract in any measure from the character here attributed to him, of the kindest and simplest of gentlemen.

The intellect which accompanied this courageous spirit and kindly heart was eminently vigorous and original. It was rather that of the actor than the thinker-rather, ready, acute, inventive and fruitful in resources-quick to move and to strike, in debate or reasoning with the pen-than deliberate, philosophic, or reflective. It wanted the breadth and depth which result from study and meditation, but as a sharp and tempered weapon to accomplish direct tangible results, it was exceedingly forcible and effective. As a writer in the larger acceptation of the term, he was not conspicuously endowed; but his style as a journalist was fluent, eloquent, and when his nature was strongly moved, full of power and the fire of invective. Some of his editorial writings deserve to be collected, and preserved in a permanent form, as among the most forcible expositions of the great principles [154] involved in the struggle which absorbed the energies of the South.

His most notable gift was unquestionably that of oratory. He possessed native endowments which entitled him to very high rank as a public speaker. In the columns of a daily journal his powers were always more or less cramped, and did not assert their full strength, but on “the stump” he was in his own element. Here all the faculties of his intellect and nature had full swing, and “ample room and verge enough” for their exercise. The spectator saw at a glance that the young man with the thin slight figure and quiet manner, was a born orator. His first words justified the opinion, and stamped him as one born to move, to sway, to direct the thoughts and the actions of men. The crowd --that unfailing critic of a public speaker's ability-always received him with acclamations, and hailed his appearance on the rostrum with loud applause. They felt that, youth as he was, and as yet untrained in the arts of the orator, he was a match for the oldest opponents, and they were content to leave the advocacy of great principles, at momentous crises, in the hands of this young man — to accept and rely on him as their champion.

He did not disappoint their expectations ever. A born politician, and thrilling with the great party issues before the country, he entered the arena with the bold and self-possessed demeanour of one in his chosen element, and equal to the occasion. Political history — the careers of public men — the principles underlying the American frame of government-all were thoroughly familiar to him, and his knowledge was available at a moment's notice. His speeches were skilful combinations of philosophic reasoning anad hard-hitting illustrations. In the employment of invective, his handling was that of a master; and when his scorn of some unworthy action or character was fully aroused, his delivery of the scathing sarcasm or the passionate defiance was inexpressibly vehement and bitter. Those who have seen the flashing eye and the scornful lip of the young orator at such times, will not readily forget them, or wonder at the wild excitement of the crowd as they listened to these outbursts. Even the cool intellects of old men were taken captive with the rest, [155] and I think all who heard the youthful speaker, came away with the impression that time and training only were needed, to make him one of the most famous orators of the old Commonwealth which has produced so many giants.

With the termination of his speeches disappeared all the passion, vehemence, and ardour of the man. The handkerchief passed over the damp brow, seemed to wipe away all excitement; and the fiery gladiator, swaying all minds by his fierce invective, or his vivid reasoning, subsided into the quiet, almost shy young man. The old modesty and simplicity of demeanour returned, and the forces of the vigorous intellect returned to rest, until some other occasion should call them into exercise.

I could add many things relating to this eminent young man in his personal and private character, but the subject may not interest the general reader as much as it does him who writes. Perhaps, too, they are better kept for other years, when time shall have extinguished the few heart-burnings that remain, and obliterated the scars of old contests. I have thought it right, however, to put thus much concerning him on record without shaping my discourse to please either friend or foe. Foes, I believe, he has no longer. Even those who most bitterly opposed him while living, now acknowledge his great qualities, and lament his untimely end.

If enmity exist toward him in any heart, however, no answering defiance comes back. The weapon of the good knight will never more be drawn-he has fought his last battle and yielded up his soul. He sleeps now quietly, after all the turmoils of lifeafter heart-burnings and triumphs, and loves and hatreds-sleeps in the bosom of the land he loved, and toiled, and thought, and fought, and died for. His is not the least worthy heart which has poured out its blood for Virginia and the South; and in the pages of our annals, among the names of our dead heroes who surrendered youth, and coming fame, and friends, and home, and life for their native land-surrendered them without a murmur or a single regret-among these great souls the Genius of History must inscribe the name of Jennings Wise.

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O. J. Wise (4)
Jennings Wise (4)
William Selden (3)
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