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The Maine man’s attempts at reconciliation were met with the Virginian’s everlasting bitterness

Union Brevet Major General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led the 20th Maine at Gettysburg and brigades in the 5th Corps during the Army of the Potomac’s final campaign against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. On April 12, 1865, Chamberlain received a new responsibility—command over the formal surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox Court House. As Chamberlain described the scene years later, he had his men snap to attention when Confederate Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon and his men passed to stack their weapons. Gordon’s soldiers responded with their own salute, “honor answering honor” in Chamberlain’s words. Chamberlain also wrote about another, less hopeful encounter at Appomattox. Later that day Chamberlain overheard a Confederate general berating his own men and he rode over to investigate. He found Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise. Rail-thin and gray-haired, Wise would not listen to Chamberlain’s talk about peace, forgiveness, and reunification. “You are mistaken, sir, we won’t be forgiven, we hate you, and that is the whole of it,” Wise snapped.

Confederate General Henry Wise looks gaunt and tired in this wartime image. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

Henry A. Wise was born in 1806 in Accomac County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Even as a boy he had an “excitable disposition” and was “wayward and impetuous.” He also displayed oratorical skills that made him a natural politician. Wise ran for Congress in 1833, winning both the election and a duel with his opponent, whom he shot in the shoulder. His sharp tongue and impetuosity made Wise enemies and a reputation for being politically undependable.

After the death of his first wife, in 1840, Wise married Sarah Sergeant, the daughter of Whig Congressman John Sergeant. Sarah’s sister, Margaretta, later married a young lieutenant named George Gordon Meade, making Wise the brother-in-law of the future commander of the Army of the Potomac. (Sarah died in 1850, and Wise married for a third time in 1853.) Wise left Congress in 1844 to become the American minister to Brazil, where he angered the local government by working to stem the African slave trade. Although a slave owner himself, Wise had an underlying ambivalence about the institution, which he believed was holding back Virginia’s economic development. He thought slavery would eventually die a natural death.

Back in the United States, Wise practiced law and remained involved in Virginia politics. He was elected governor in 1855 and was still in office in 1859 when John Brown attempted to spark a slave insurrection by raiding Harpers Ferry, Va. Even though Wise signed Brown’s death warrant, he respected the radical abolitionist. “He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous, but firm, and truthful, and intelligent,” Wise told a reporter. Like Brown, he saw the fissures that threatened to tear the country apart, but he opposed secession, even after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. The next February, Wise was appointed to a state convention to consider Virginia’s departure from the Union. As late as April 10, he spoke out against secession.

“As to parting from the Union, in my affections I shall never do that,” he declared. Two days later, Rebel forces in Charleston, S.C., fired on Fort Sumter, spurring President Abraham Lincoln to call for 75,000 soldiers to put down the insurrection. Wise’s doubts about secession vanished. On April 16, before Virginia had even voted to secede, Wise met with John B. Imboden, an artillery captain in the Virginia militia, and arranged for him to take a party to Harpers Ferry and capture Federal munitions and approved a request to secure Gosport Navy Yard.

Despite Wise’s age, poor health, and lack of military experience, the new Confederate government commissioned him a brigadier general. He hoped to raise “an independent partisan command,” but instead received orders to proceed to western Virginia.

Governor Wise signed John Brown’s death warrant but respected the fiery abolitionists. (National Archives)

While Henry Wise played on a national stage, Joshua Chamberlain remained obscure. He had been born on September 8, 1828, in Brewer, Maine, as Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain (he later reversed the order of his first and middle names). The oldest of four sons and one daughter, Joshua grew up on his family’s farm, where his father, a former Maine militiaman, gave his son an appreciation for military matters. Joshua even spent a term at a military school. After teaching some school in the Brewer area, he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 1848, where he displayed a talent for language. He also spent some evenings at the home of one of his professors, whose wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe, sometimes read aloud portions of her novel in progress, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

At Bowdoin, he fell in love with his pastor’s adopted daughter, Frances Caroline Adams. He and “Fanny” married on December 7, 1855. They settled in Brunswick, where Joshua accepted a teaching position at Bowdoin. He was still there, a full professor, when war broke out in 1861. Although he had the opportunity to go on a sabbatical in Europe, Chamberlain—now with two children—decided to join the army. “This war must be ended, with a swift and strong hand; and every man ought to come forward and ask to be placed at his proper place,” he wrote to the governor of Maine in July 1862. “I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line I know how to learn.”Appointed to lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine, Chamberlain diligently applied himself to learning the art of war.

By the time Chamberlain wrote to his governor, Wise had been at war for more than a year. Virginia’s Kanawha Valley had strong Union leanings (and would soon break off to become the new state of West Virginia). It was a wild, mountainous country laced with rivers and valleys. Overall Union command of the region lay with George B. McClellan, whose campaigns there would create the legend of the Young Napoleon. In late July, Robert E. Lee took command of the region for the Confederates.

McClellan dispatched 4,000 men under Brig. Gen. Jacob D. Cox, a former Ohio state senator, to the Valley. Wise was there with some 2,850 men, which he called Wise’s Legion, and he also had the use of 1,800 members of local militia. His son, O. Jennings Wise, commanded the Richmond Light Infantry Blues, and joined his father at Staunton. The former editor of the staunchly Southern Richmond Enquirer, Jennings was even more fiery than his father, having fought eight duels over two years. Threatened by Cox’s advance and concerned about McClellan’s defeat of a force on July 13, which left him vulnerable, Wise retreated to White Sulphur Springs.

Of his experiences in the Kanawha, Wise said, “Every step was amid the rattlesnakes of treason to the South or petty serpents of jealousy in the disaffection of my own camp.” The most troublesome serpent of all, in Wise’s view, was Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Floyd, dispatched from Richmond to aid the efforts in the Valley. Like Wise, Floyd was a former Virginia governor with no military experience, although he had been secretary of war in the James Buchanan administration. Floyd outranked Wise, and when he reached White Sulphur Springs on August 6, the two generals immediately experienced a “lack of harmony.” Wise refused Floyd’s orders to advance back into the Valley, and repeatedly asked Lee to separate his command from Floyd’s. On September 25, before Lee was forced to side with one general or the other, Wise received orders to transfer his command to Floyd and return to Richmond.

Union warships bombard Roanoke Island on February 6, 1862. The Federal amphibious expedition was a success and gave Wise another black mark on his military record. (Gado Images/Alamy Stock Photos)

Worse was to come. Wise fell ill with pneumonia in Richmond and didn’t reach the headquarters of his new command, on Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast, until January. The island was strategically important, protecting both the naval base at Norfolk and the Carolina interior. As Wise frantically attempted to prepare the island for a Union attack, he became ill again. He was still in his sick bed when the vessels of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Roanoke Expedition appeared off the coast on February 6, 1862.

With Wise unavailable, Colonel Henry Shaw led the defending forces, but the hopelessly outnumbered Confederates could only retreat when Burnside sent his men ashore. Wise’s son Jennings was mortally wounded during the lopsided fighting. His father recovered the body under a flag of truce. “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.’”

After the twin disasters of the Kanawha and Roanoke Island, Wise found little opportunity for glory. In May 1862, Lee used his influence to get Wise command of a brigade, composed of his old 46th and 59th Virginia regiments, plus the 26th and 34th Virginia and some artillery and cavalry. It remained mostly sidelined as Lee pushed McClellan back from Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign, and then it spent the next 16 months performing mundane defensive duties. Wise’s outspoken criticisms of President Davis did not help his stalled military career. “In the opinion of Wise, Davis was not the man for the position he held, and he did not fail to express himself on this point as on all others, and naturally enough this did not increase Wise’s chances of promotion,” his grandson noted.

In September 1863, Wise’s command was sent to Charleston, where it served under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. The next May, Wise received orders to move north to Petersburg as commander of the 1st Military District, Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, serving again under Beauregard, who had received command of the department. It’s possible that Wise received the post because Confederate authorities did not expect any fighting on his front. If that were the case, they were in for a rude surprise.

By that time, Chamberlain was also a grizzled veteran. His regiment suffered its first casualties at Shepherdstown, Va., on September 20, 1862, during a cautious probe of Lee’s army as it retreated from Maryland after the bloody Battle of Antietam. A Confederate counterattack sent the pursuing Union forces scrambling back across the Potomac River. Chamberlain had his horse shot out from under him.

Still, army life suited him. By October he had decided he would rather be on a military campaign than return to an academic life. Not even the horrors of Fredericksburg changed his mind. At Chancellorsville, the 5th Corps—now under General Meade’s command—was left mostly on the sidelines. But at Gettysburg the 20th Maine, with Chamberlain recently promoted to colonel and commander of the regiment, the corps successfully held its position on Little Round Top on July 2. “We are fighting gloriously,” he wrote to his wife two days later. “Our loss is terrible, but we are beating the Rebels as they were never beaten before.” During the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit of Lee back in Virginia, Chamberlain became ill and had to be briefly hospitalized. He returned in time to take up his new duties as commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, 5th Corps, but a case of “malarial fever” struck him down again. By the time he returned to the army, he had lost his brigade and resumed command of the 20th Maine.

On May 5, 1864, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant kicked off the Overland Campaign against Lee. Chamberlain was on court-martial duty in New Jersey when the campaign began, and he missed the terrible fighting in the Wilderness and outside Spotsylvania. He was back in time for the skirmishing along the North Anna River and the push south that climaxed in the bloodshed of Cold Harbor. After Cold Harbor, 5th Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren placed Chamberlain in command of the 1st Brigade of the corps’ 1st Division. Shortly afterward, the army started on a wide swing around Lee’s right flank. Lee did not realize what the Union forces were doing until they were across the James River and heading toward the vital railroad junction of Petersburg.

Only Wise and a force of about 2,200 men stood between the Union forces and Petersburg. Wise had to defend some eight miles of lines that stretched around the city south of the Appomattox River. The lines themselves “were barely marked out, and a horseman could ride over them without the least difficulty everywhere,” observed Confederate Brig. Gen. Raleigh Colston. On June 9, Wise and a jury-rigged force of local militia managed to repulse a cavalry attack by Brig. Gen. August Kautz. Six days later, when the 18th Corps of the Army of the James under Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith hit Wise’s stretched-thin lines, Petersburg appeared ripe for capture. The Rebels put up a stubborn defense, and Smith delayed his killing blow long enough for Beauregard to send reinforcements. The Confederates pulled back to a more defensible line. It was Henry Wise’s finest hour.

Chamberlain’s war nearly ended outside Petersburg on the afternoon of June 18. Ordered to take an artillery position called Rives Salient, Chamberlain’s brigade rushed forward “like a pack of infuriated devils.” After crossing a small stream bed, Chamberlain was waving his brigade forward with his sword when a bullet ripped through him from hip to hip. Chamberlain steadied himself with his sword, not wanting his men to see him fall. He finally collapsed and was taken to the rear, bleeding profusely. The wound appeared mortal, and Grant authorized a field promotion to brigadier general. Skillful doctors managed to save Chamberlain’s life and sent him home to recuperate. He remained determined to see the end of the war. “I owe the Country three years of service,” he wrote to his parents in February. “It is a time when every man should stand by his guns. And I am not scared or hurt enough yet to be willing to face to the rear, when other men are marching to the front.”

Brig. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain served four one-year terms as governor of Maine after the war. He championed the 14th Amendment and was a proponent for education. (Heritage Auctions/Dallas)

Chamberlain was back with the army on March 29, 1865, when his 3rd Brigade left camp early in the morning to head west and press Lee’s already thin lines around Petersburg to the breaking point. Chamberlain’s men encountered Confederates entrenched along the Quaker Road. Among them were the members of Wise’s Brigade, now part of a division belonging to Maj. Gen. Bushrod Johnson’s Division. True to form, Wise “detested” Johnson, probably due to an incident the previous spring when Johnson publicly protested after Wise’s men took credit for battle flags that Johnson’s soldiers had captured on June 16.

Splashing through the cold waters of Gravelly Run, Chamberlain’s two regiments assaulted the enemy defenses. “The attack was impetuous; the musketry hot,” recalled Chamberlain, who later wrote that he was not only wounded but also nearly captured during the fighting. On March 31, Chamberlain and Wise tangled again during the Battle of White Oak Road. Two 5th Corps brigades had broken and fallen back before Chamberlain’s men pushed forward and steadied the situation. Chamberlain was in the thick of the fighting the next day at Five Forks, when the Union victory ended Lee’s hope of holding Petersburg. He had no choice but to abandon his lines and move west, with Federal cavalry nipping at the Rebel heels while the footsore infantry of the Armies of the Potomac and the James followed.

Henry Wise was the governor of Virginia from 1856-1860 and implemented some reforms, but insisted that slavery must be maintained. (Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

Lee’s army began to disintegrate. In the fighting at Sailor’s Creek, Va., on April 6, the Confederates lost about 8,000 men. “We were overcome by exhaustion, and without food or water,” Wise said. He recalled how on the morning of April 7 he washed his face in a creek turned crimson by red soil and wore a gray blanket a private had wrapped around him when he saw the general sleeping uncovered on the ground. He reported to Lee, who seemed to suppress laughter at the vision before him. “I knew he had a sub-vein of humor, which he was hardly concealing when he saw my appearance—that of a Comanche savage,” Wise said. Lee told Wise to take command of the disorganized men around them. The Confederate army staggered on, but surrendered to Grant on April 9.

Writing years later, Chamberlain recalled that most of the Confederate generals he met at Appomattox accepted the Confederacy’s fate. “General, this is deeply humiliating,” one told him, “but I console myself with the thought that the whole country will rejoice at this day’s business.” Another pointed to the banner of the United States and pronounced, “That is my flag, and I will prove myself as worthy as any of you.”

Henry Wise felt no such sentiments. “There is a rancor in our hearts which you little dream of,” he told Chamberlain. “We are going home pretty soon, but not till we see you home,” Chamberlain said, attempting to end the conversation on a conciliatory note. Wise would have none of it. “Home! We haven’t any. You have destroyed them. You have invaded Virginia, and ruined her. Her curse is on you.”

Wise and Chamberlain went their separate ways. Chamberlain returned to Maine. For the rest of his life, he suffered from the effects of the terrible wounding of June 18, 1864. It finally led to his death in 1914. By the time he was lowered into his grave in Brunswick, Chamberlain had served four terms as Maine’s governor and as president of Bowdoin College. His years with the Army of the Potomac had always been the central event of his life. “This army will live, and live on, so long as soul shall answer soul,” he wrote, “so long as that flag watches with its stars over fields of mighty memory, so long as in its red lines a regenerated people reads the charter of its birthright, and in its field of white God’s covenant with man.”

Wise returned to Richmond as, in the words of his grandson, “an old and broken man, who, after a stormy and dramatic career, in which he had gained prominence and honor, had been overtaken by disasters, political and domestic, which had nearly conquered his indomitable spirit.” He was a man of the past, with the present holding no promise and the future little hope. The former governor never applied for a Federal pardon before he died. In fact, he said, had the roles been reversed and the Federals the supplicants, “They might have appealed for pardon, but I would have seen them damned before I would have granted it.”

Wise died on September 12, 1876, in Richmond, consumed by bitterness that lingered long after the shooting had stopped.

Tom Huntington is the author of Maine Roads to Gettysburg and Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. His latest book is Maine at 200: An Anecdotal History (Down East Books, 2020). He is also the editor of Aviation History and World War II magazines for HistoryNet.

This story appeared in the June 2020 issue of Civil War Times.