Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Johnny Reb's Political Last Will and Testament

To some the pain that Confederates felt upon being defeated militarily is easy to dismiss. Regardless of whether one sympathizes with the Southern cause, or one feels their decision to secede was unwise and traitorous, the hurt of being beaten on the battlefield was very real to those that served in the ranks.

That pain comes through loud and clear in some of the writings they left. One such account is provided by John Sergeant Wise, son of the Virginia governor, Henry A. Wise, who saw John Brown hanged and became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. John's brother O. Jennings Wise, was a noted honor-bound duelist and pre-war editor of the Richmond Enquirer, who was killed leading Rebel troops at Roanoke Island, North Carolina. John knew sacrifice and loss during the war, but not defeat until the end.

John S. Wise was a cadet at Virginia Military Institute during the war and he participated in May 15, 1864, Battle of New Market where the cadets made their famous charge. After the war, John returned to the home of relatives in Richmond where his mother and sister were staying. In his memoir he remembered sitting on the veranda of the house his first evening back watching what was during the war a loyal Confederate group of young ladies. Now however they were entertaining Union officers serving in Richmond's occupation. He wrote, "We looked upon the conduct of the girls, in making merry, singing, playing, and receiving the attentions of Union officers as grossly indelicate, heartless to our dead and us, and treason to their Confederate comrades."

John tells us he spent a restless night plagued with his thoughts of defeat. He awoke in the morning and penned a scathing political last will and testament:

"I, J. Reb., being of unsound mind and bitter memory, and aware that I am dead, do make, publish, and declare the following to be my political last will and testament.
1. I give, devise, and bequeath all of my slaves to Harriett Beecher Stowe.
2. My rights in the territories I direct shall be assigned and set over, with the bricabrac known as State Sovereignty, to the Hon. J___ R___ T____, to play with for the remainder of his life, and remainder to his son after his death.
3. I direct that all of my shares in the venture of secession shall be canceled, provided I am released from my unpaid subscription to the stock of said enterprise.
4. My interest in the civil government of the Confederacy I bequeath to any freak museum that may hereafter be established.
5. My sword, my veneration for Robert E. Lee, his subordinate commanders and his peerless soldiers, and my undying love for my old comrades, living and dead, I set apart as the best I have, or shall ever have, to bequeath to my heirs forever.
6. And now, being dead, having experienced a death to Confederate ideas and a new birth unto allegiance to the Union, I depart, with a vague but not definite hope of a joyful resurrection, and of a new life, upon lines somewhat different from those of the last eighteen years. I see what has been pulled down very clearly. What is to be built up in its place I know not. It is a mystery, but death is always mysterious. AMEN."

John shared his political last will and testament with his family later that morning at breakfast. They thought it was humorous, but he didn't. "I was dead. Everything that I ever believed in politically was dead. Everybody that I had ever trusted or relied upon politically was dead. My beloved State of Virginia was dismembered, and a new State had been erected out of a part of her, against her will. Every hope that I ever indulged was dead. Even the manhood I attained was dead. I was a mere boy again, - precocious, ignorant, conceited, and unformed."

John eventually gained his bearings and seemingly accepted defeat. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Virginia, was a practicing attorney in Richmond, served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and ran for governor - but lost to fellow former Confederate Fitzhugh Lee. He died in 1913 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

Accepting defeat was not easy for the Confederate generation, or their children, or their grand children, or their great grand children, and some still struggle with that defeat to today. Hopefully those that still hold grudges and feel they have to carry their disdain for their ancestor's enemies can find a way to let the defeat go. Many of the original Rebels found a way.

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