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The execution of Dr. David Minton Wright

By the Federal Authorities, at Norfolk, Virginia,
October 23, 1862.
[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 [327] 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 [328] 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: [329]

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? [330]

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 [331] 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 [332] 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.

‘Attempt to escape.’

The Doctor made a bold attempt to escape from incarceration and its consequences last Wednesday night. Few can penetrate the deep sagacity or subvert the determination of woman. Seeing the desperate circumstances of her father, Miss Penelope, the eldest daughter of Dr. Wright, resorted to an expedient that, in most cases, would result in perfect success, but the readily observed disproportion of the Doctor and his daughter foiled her most sanguine expectations. It has long been the custom of the family to visit the Doctor every evening, and that evening Miss Penelope came as usual, but soon after entering the cell, the light generally used by the Doctor on such occasions was extinguished, which aroused the suspicion of Lieutenant Cook, who has special charge, and he placed a detective fronting the door to watch their movements. But there is no penetrating the mystery of an intelligent woman's deliberate purpose.

‘Although the eye of the detective apparently scanned the cell's interior, she managed, in the shadow, to transfer to the Doctor the guise of woman, and so to veil and otherwise conceal his person that in passing through the building there was no recognition, until one of the turnkeys, named Garrison, after he had got out of and some fifty yards from the prison, suggested that that lady was very tall for Dr. Wright's daughter. Lieutenant Cook immediately hurried after the figure, lifted the veil, and discovered the person of the Doctor. He exhibited but little embarrassment, simply observing to the Lieutenant “that desperate means were pardoned under desperate circumstances,” and, turning, walked back to his cell as unceremoniously [333] as if nothing unusual had occurred. Entering, the daughter was found reclining upon the bed, boots on and protruding from the covering—the Doctor's style. She was as much surprised as she was disappointed at the apprehension of her father and the thwarting of her deep-laid scheme.’

Another very interesting and remarkable event occurred in the jail during the Doctor's confinement, viz: the marriage of his daughter, Miss Elizabeth M., and Mr. William Henry Talbott. These parties were engaged to be married, and the Doctor wished to witness the marriage ceremony, and hence petitioned the authorities to permit its consummation in the prison, which was granted, and Saturday before the execution, the affianced, with some thirty invited guests, assembled in the office of the prison, and the Doctor ‘gave away his daughter,’ the ceremony being performed by a Methodist United States chaplain from Fort Monroe.

The afternoon of the day preceding the closing scene, the Lord's Supper was administered to Dr. Wright in the presence of his family, three or four friends, and a few other spectators, by the Revs. Messrs. Rodman of Christ Church, and Okeson of St. Paul's. The last separation between the Doctor and his family is said to have been most solemn and affecting. It was done. The faithful Mr. Rodman seems to have lingered near to administer the consolations of the Gospel. Morning came. A deeply interesting interview was held between the Doctor and his spiritual adviser. Mr. Rodman then left him for a time.

The day of execution had come, dark clouds obscured the heavens, the city of Norfolk was enshrouded in gloom. Many, very many left early in the day, and sought secluded places of refuge in the country. Many buried themselves in the deepest recesses of their homes with blinds, curtains and doors securely closed.

And while, as we will presently learn from Mr. Rodman, the soulless blacks, and senseless, vulgar whites, thronged Church street as the cortege passed to the Federal gibbet, with the exception of some of his poor patients, who wished to take a last look at their loved and kind physician, who gazed at him as he passed along, and who, so soon as he acknowledged their salutation, burst into tears and ladened the air with their cries and wails—with these exceptions, all of Norfolk had settled into the deepest gloom, only equalled by the darkest hours of the great scourge in 1855,—while Nature, as if in full sympathy [334] with the people, had drawn her sable curtain over the eye of day, that an act which has found a parallel only in the judicial murder of the man of Andersonville, or the woman of Washington, soon after the fall of the Confederacy, might be shut out from her vision forever.

Mr. Rodman returned, while yet it was early, and thus describes the few remaining hours: During the few hours that intervened before morning (I have gone back a little to bring up the connection), he said but little. He said he hoped he had maintained his composure during the presence of his family, and I told him he had astonished me by his remarkable self-possession. He spoke of his wife and children in the most tender and affectionate manner. And once or twice he seemed to be suffering intensely, and remarked, ‘My brain reels,’ but he soon recovered his composure. As to the future, he said he had no fears, for he felt assured his family would be provided for, and that God would raise up friends for them; for himself, he placed his trust in God's mercy for pardon and acceptance, through the merits of his Saviour; he frequently expressed his gratitude to me for my visits to him. I left for a short time in the morning, and on going back with the Rev. Messrs. Parkman, Okeson and Hubard, he mentioned, as we entered his cell, ‘You find me, gentlemen, putting my little house in order,’ while he was putting some little things in a box.

As the time for his departure drew nigh we knelt in prayer. Just before leaving he took a long lingering look around the walls of the cell, which had been to him ‘the house of God and the gate of Heaven.’ Then he called to his fellow prisoners, many of them by name, and bade them all an affectionate farewell. On reaching the street he asked permission to look into his coffin, which was in the hearse before the door of the jail. The top was taken off, and he stood for some minutes and looked fondly at the daguerreotypes of his wife and children, which he had directed to be hung up around the inside of the coffin.

As he stepped back to the sidewalk, he remarked to me: ‘I think there is nothing improper in that.’ Then he saw a man standing on the steps of the jail, who had been editor of the Old Dominion, and had written most bitter and untruthful articles about him. ‘There is a man,’ said he, ‘to whom I want to speak.’ He advanced towards him, extending his hand, and the editor slunk back. ‘Isn't this [335] Mr.——?’ asked the doctor. The editor mentioned his name. ‘I thought so, said the doctor, I wanted to speak to you and shake your hand.’ I thought it was the most Christ-like forgiveness of injuries I had ever witnessed.

All the way out of the city the streets were filled with an idle crowd, many of whom, however, were mourners. The windows of the houses on both sides of the streets were filled with women and children, among whom he recognized many of his patients, and, as they caught sight of him, they would break out into wailing and rush away, and the air was loaded with their bitter cries. He was constantly bowing to these, his old friends, and remarked to me: ‘It is just as well that my mind is occupied in this way.’ Several times I repeated to him texts of Scripture and verses of hymns, as they occurred to me, among others the 157th. He asked me to repeat the second verse, ‘Brought safely by Thy hand thus far,’ &c. He repeated afterwards the last verse of the fifty-first hymn, ‘My life's bright remnant all be Thine,’ &c.

He asked the officer, who was in the carriage with us, if his body was to be given up to his friends for burial from the church. The officer said he had no such instructions. I told him that the Provost Marshal had, the night before, assured me that this request should be complied with. He seemed grieved that it was not to be so, and said he desired that the prayers of the church should be said over his body in the church. I assured him I would see the General, and had no doubt he would order compliance with his request. This seemed to satisfy him. It was very touching to hear him, after a few moments silence, repeat, as if to himself, the names of his children.

And now, the time of his departure was near at hand. He took leave of his clerical friends, embracing each one of us most affectionately. He begged me to take an interest in his children, and sent three kisses to his heart-broken wife. I offered a short prayer. He, himself, afterwards knelt down and repeated the first three sentences of the Litany and the Lord's Prayer. (The cap was drawn over his face; he asked if he must give notice; ‘all's well,’ was uttered; the drop fell; there was no struggle), and then his soul returned to the God who gave it.

His friends soon came out from the city, and the remains were brought in and deposited in Christ church. (Freemason and Cumberland streets were so packed with negroes, who gloated over the [336] scene like hungry vultures over a carcass, that the Federal horsemen, with sabres drawn, had to open a way for the hearse.) The members of the medical profession kept watch from this time till the funeral. Hundreds of his patients and friends came into the church to show their respect for his memory, and to drop a tear on his coffin. They kept coming all the next day, till the time for the funeral, though it was raining very hard. They brought wreathes and bouquets and crosses and crowns in such profusion, that the coffin was completely covered, sides and ends, as well as the top—loving hands tacking them on.

‘At the funeral the church was crowded to its utmost capacity, and thousands followed his remains to their last resting place. Thus passed from earth one of the truest, noblest men I have ever known—one of the few of whom the world is not worthy.’

Mrs. Wright and her desolated family soon passed into the Confederate lines. The Hon. Richard H. Baker, Jr., then representing Norfolk in the General Assembly of Virginia, offered the following preamble and resolutions, which were unanimously adopted:

Whereas, the arrival within Confederate lines of the distressed family of the deceased, establishes beyond question the newspaper announcement of the execution by Federal authorities, in obedience to the sentence of a military commission, of Dr. David M. Wright, in the city of Norfolk, on the 23d day of October, 1862; and whereas, it is fit and proper that Virginia should place upon permanent record her high appreciation of a son whose courage, zeal and devotion marked with blood the first effort to establish upon her soil an equality of races, and introduce into our midst the levelling dogmas of a false and pretended civilization; be it

Resolved (by the General Assembly of Virginia): 1. That in the death of Dr. Wright this Commonwealth recognizes another addition to the long and illustrious catalogue of martyrs, whose stern inflexible devotion to liberty have rendered historic the history of the people of the present struggle.

2. That, as the proudest tribute which Virginia can offer to his memory, she would earnestly invoke her children, whether in or beyond the enemy's lines, to imitate his example and emulate his high resolve.

‘3. That the Governor of the State be requested to transmit a copy of this preamble and these resolutions to the family of the deceased, [337] together with assurances of the sincere sympathy of the General Assembly.’

From every available source of information I have sought materials for this portraiture of Dr. David Minton Wright as a student, a physician, a husband, a father, a citizen, a patriot, a hero, a Christian, and a martyr. And having impartially analyzed his character as it was developed in all these relations, I am not surprised that many members of the circle and society in which he moved have for him words of the highest commendation and of sincerest praise.

Rest, our most worthy compatriot and professional brother, though abolition malice has striven to fix a stigma upon thy name and a blot upon thy character; it has only enshrined thy virtues more securely in the hearts of thy countrymen and engraved thy name more deeply upon their memories forever.4

1 ‘A Doctor's Experiences in Three Continents,’ by Edward Warren-Bey, Mi. D., C. M., Ll. D., page 199.

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.

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