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This historical marker shares the story of Henry Alexander Wise, who was born in Drummondtown in what was later named Accomac County, Virginia. Wise was orphaned at a young age and adopted by his uncle and Revolutionary War veteran, Major John Custis. After completing law school at Washington College in Pennsylvania, Wise returned to Virginia in 1830. He was first elected to Congress as a Jackson Democrat and then served three terms as a member of the Whig Party. He served an additional term as a John Tyler Democrat. After declining appointment as Secretary of the Navy under President John Tyler, he served as Ambassador to Brazil from 1844 to 1847. Upon returning to the United States, Wise settled north of Onancock Creek on a four-hundred-acre farm that utilized nineteen enslaved Africans before launching himself into Virginia politics. Wise made a successful bid for Governor, serving from 1856-1860. His tenure was marked by John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which resulted in the arrest and execution of Brown. During the Civil War, Wise was appointed to general in the Confederate Army, taking part in the defense of Richmond and the retreat of the Confederacy at Appomattox. After the war, Wise continued to practice law and once again changed his party affiliation to become a Republican supporter of Ulysses S. Grant. Wise died in 1876 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. 

The historical marker

Plant, Motor vehicle, Sky, Tree

Henry Alexander Wise

Sleeve, Standing, Collar, Blazer

Henry Alexander Wise, U.S. House Representative

Eyebrow, Jaw, Art, Painting

John Brown

Brown, Picture frame, Art, Painting

Henry Wise began his tumultuous political career after meeting and befriending future president Andrew Jackson. Wise was elected to congress as a Jackson Democrat, though he would break with Jackson on two major issues during his time in the House of Representatives. Wise publicly opposed Jackson’s attempt to shut down the Bank of America in favor of state banks, as well as legislation that would allow the president to send federal troops to force the state of South Carolina to collect tariffs on crops. Wise opposed South Carolina’s attempt to void the tariffs, a position that led to a duel with Richard Coke Jr., whom the incumbent Wise had defeated two years earlier. These disputes compelled Wise to endorse secession from the union as a solution to the South’s opposition to federal government demands. Having left the Democratic Party for the anti-Jackson Whig Party, Wise left Congress and was nominated as minister to France by President John Tyler, though his appointment was blocked in retaliation for Tyler’s support of tariffs. Congress eventually approved Wise’s appointment to the position of Ambassador to Brazil in 1844. Wise continued to cultivate a public image of a fluid figure not beholden to a single political party in an increasingly politically divided, pre-civil war nation.

In 1847, he returned to the United States to oversee his plantation near Onancock Creek and the enslaved peoples laboring there. By 1850, Wise was elected as the Eastern Shore delegate to the Richmond Constitutional Convention. There, he used his platform to lend his support to various political positions such as fairer representation for the mountains of western Virginia, eliminating the requirement that men must own land to vote, and free public school. Wise proposed appropriating seats in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate based on overall voting population, instead of a region’s number of white citizens and disenfranchised Blacks. In pushing this reform to Virginia government, Wise believed that a growing tension threatened to divide the state at a time where he feared the growing influence of abolitionists. In his view, a unified Virginia would be better equipped to withstand demand for the abolition of slavery. At the convention, Wise also openly declared slavery to be in line with natural and divine law, allowing him to further his political career as a compromise between slaveholders and abolitionists.

Having established himself in the Tidewater region as well as taken a public stand for the western regions of Virginia, Wise ran for Governor of Virginia. Wise, being only the second Governor of Virginia directly elected by the voting populace, won a 10,000 vote majority over his anti-slavery opponent, Rep. Thomas S. Flournoy. During his governorship, Wise once again promoted himself as a national voice, writing letters to political groups and newspapers around the country. It was through this exposure that Wise attempted to plan a route to the presidency as a pro-union, but pro-slavery, compromise candidate.

In the waning months of Wise’s term as governor, an abolitionist named John Brown led a raid on the Harper’s Ferry military arsenal. Brown, along with eighteen other men, planned to seize weapons and ammunition to arm enslaved peoples, motivating them to rebel against white enslavers throughout the South. Brown and his conspirators were captured by U.S. Marines and Brown was quickly convicted of treason and sentenced to death. The raid garnered national attention. Hundreds of letters arrived on Wise’s desk, mostly from Northerners sympathetic to the cause of abolition, urging clemency for John Brown. Governor Wise traveled to the jail where John Brown was being held and interviewed him. While he later admitted to admiring Brown’s dedication to his beliefs, Wise declined to halt the execution, and Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859. Events that followed pushed the nation toward an open conflict that Wise hoped to avoid. However, when President Abraham Lincoln demanded that Virginia raise 75,000 troops to assist against the Southern Rebellion, the state of Virginia soon seceded from the Union.

The Confederate States of America appointed Wise as a general and he experienced mixed success during the war. He led troops against the United States Army in Northeast Virginia, Williamsburg, Petersburg, and North and South Carolina. The 2,800 under his command suffered staggering losses, including one of Wise’s sons. With just under half of his original troops, Wise accompanied General Robert E. Lee to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1965.

After the Civil War, the United States charged Wise with treason, resulting in his loss of citizenship when he refused to swear allegiance to the newly reunited nation. Wise attempted to regain ownership of his plantation near what was later known as Norfolk, however, U.S. forces in the area argued that Wise had abandoned the property. They subsequently utilized the land for the Freedmen’s Bureau efforts to open schools for newly emancipated African Americans. Approximately two hundred newly freed people were said to be taking classes on the property when Wise relocated to what is now the Virginia Beach area. Wise would eventually become a Republican and a supporter of future president Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general partially responsible for the Confederacy’s defeat during the Civil War. However, Wise would never ask for a pardon nor regain his citizenship. Wise died in 1876 and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. His name continued to be prevalent in the development of Virginia when, in 1856, the newly established southwest Virginia county was named after recently elected Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise.

Craig Simpson. "Political Compromise and the Protection of Slavery: Henry A. Wise and the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 83, no. 4 (1975): 387-405. Accessed May 24, 2021.

“Governor Henry Alexander Wise. National Governor’s Association. (Accessed June 23, 2019).

Hanes, Samuel P. “Governor Henry Wise’s Antebellum Oyster Quest to Make Virginia Great Again.” Southeastern Geographer 58, no. 4 (Winter 2018): 365–78. doi:10.1353/sgo.2018.0036.

“Henry A. Wise.” PBS: American Experience. (accessed June 24, 2019).

Photographs of Henry Wise, Encyclopedia Virginia, History, Art, and Archives: United States House Representatives.

Photographs of John Brown, Encyclopedia Virginia.

Schapiro, E. Jeff. “He Didn’t Spare John Brown’s Body: The Tumultuous Times of Virginia Gov. Henry Wise.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 12, 2018.”

Simpson, Craig M. A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A.Wise of Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Wise, Barton Haxall. The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Image Sources(Click to expand),-Henry-Alexander-(W000649)/