Relations (September 27, 1863)

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade's brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

Henry Wise, the former governor of Virginia and George Meade’s brother-in-law (Library of Congress).

In this letter Meade mentions the Wises. He’s speaking of Henry Wise and his family. Wise was a relative—his first wife (deceased) had been Magaretta Meade’s sister, making Henry Wise Meade’s brother-in-law. He was also the former governor of Virginia—in fact, it was Wise who signed John Brown’s death warrant after the radical abolitionists failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection at Harpers Ferry. He was a fiery secessionist who waved his pistol when he took the podium at Virginia’s secessionist convention in April 1861 and demanded that his state leave the Union. Once war began Wise joined the Confederate army and, as a brigadier general, led his troops to a successful defense of Petersburg when the Union army attempted to capture it in 1864—a battle in which Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was badly wounded.

Chamberlain later wrote of an encounter he had with Wise immediately following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Hearing a Confederate general railing at his own troops, the Union general decided to ride over and offer him some words of solace. He saluted and remarked on how well the men on both sides were responding to the surrender. “This promises well for our coming good-will,” he said. “Brave men may become good friends.”

“You are mistaken, sir, we won’t be forgiven, we hate you, and that is the whole of it,” Wise snapped at Chamberlain. He gestured towards his chest. “There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of. We hate you, sir.”

According to another story, Robert E. Lee once took Wise aside to gently chastise him about his strong language. Wise claimed he cut Lee off and said, “General Lee, you certainly play Washington to perfection and your whole life is a constant reproach to me. Now I am perfectly willing that Jackson and yourself shall do the praying for the whole army of Northern Virginia; but, in Heaven’s name, let me do the cussin’ for one small brigade.”

Lee laughed. “Wise, you are incorrigible,” he said.

We are having lovely weather at present; our camps are beautifully situated at the foot of the Blue Ridge, with the mountains in view, with pure air and plenty of good water; the best country in Virginia we have yet been in.

I had a visit yesterday from the Rev. Mr. Coles, Episcopal minister at the village, who told me he had seen Mr. Wilmer some few weeks since, and he had talked a great deal of me, and told him I had been his parishioner. He says Mr. Wilmer is not connected with the army, and has no church, but occupies himself in works of charity, and when he saw him he was on his way to visit the sick and wounded of the Confederate army, after its return from Pennsylvania.

I have tried, but unsuccessfully, to get some news of the Wises. Mr. Wise’s command undoubtedly went with Longstreet to Tennessee, but whether he went I am not able to ascertain.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), p. 151. Available via Google Books.

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