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John S. Wise (John Sargeant), 1846-1913
The End of an Era
Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company; Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1899.

Summary

John Sergeant Wise was born to Henry Alexander and Sarah Sergeant Wise on December 27, 1846 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where his father was serving as the U.S. ambassador. While Wise was still very young, the family returned to Virginia, where his father pursued a political career. Sarah Wise died in 1850, and the family moved to Richmond upon Henry Wise's election as governor of Virginia in 1855. On November 3, 1860, Wise married Evelyn Douglas, the daughter of Hugh Douglas, a Tennessee Unionist. They would have seven children. He studied at the Virginia Military Institute for two years before joining the Confederate military in 1864. In 1867, Wise graduated from the University of Virginia and began to practice law in Richmond.

Wise became deeply involved in politics. In 1873, he accused Virginia's Conservative party of corruption and became a reform leader. In 1880, he ran unsuccessfully for public office as a readjustor. He was elected in 1882 as a congressman on the Republican ticket. He ran for governor in 1885 but was defeated by fellow Confederate veteran, Fitzhugh Lee. In 1888, Wise moved to New York City and became a lawyer specializing in railway disputes and legal matters involving electricity. Near the end of his life, Wise returned to live in the South. He died in Princess Anne, Maryland on May 12, 1913 and is buried in Richmond.

Wise begins The End of an Era with a preface explaining his decision to write in the first person while also relating events that he did not witness, thereby blurring the boundaries between "autobiography and romance" (p. xx). Wise argues that this "confession" does not diminish the value of the narrative, however, as "the reader gets the facts as they were, and that is all he ought to expect" (p. xx). As the son of an important Southern politician, Wise does have first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of his father's political life and other major players in the Civil War era. He begins his narrative, for example, with an anecdote about two American soldiers who were invited to dinner at the Wise residence in Brazil. Wise later reveals that the men to were the future Union generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Henry Wager Halleck. As Wise was a very young child while in Brazil and could not possibly remember these events, this anecdote reflects how he weaves first-hand family stories into his own memories.

Wise also romanticizes tradition in general and Virginia heritage in particular. When describing the Wise family's return to Virginia, Wise traces the history of Virginia from the time of John Smith's first encounter with the Native Americans before discussing the geography, agriculture, and people of Virginia. Wise also details his family's English descent, telling the "boys of America" of the pride that accompanies "knowledge that you come from honest blood" (p. 24). He also laments that his life was beginning just as the plantation era was dying, and that the decline of this unique culture "was complete before [he] attained manhood" (p. 32).

Despite these sentiments about the plantation tradition, Wise's narrative exhibits complicated views on slavery, and he ultimately argues in favor of its abolition. After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wise witnesses his first slave auction. He is sickened by the humiliation of the slave women and the separation of families. Wise believes that all of the men present at the auction felt this way, save one—the trader—and it was these rare exceptions to benevolent slavery that made abolition necessary. Yet he was not originally in favor of full and immediate emancipation, and instead favored "the adoption of some plan of gradual emancipation which, while it would free the slave, would not destroy the labor system of the South or leave the slave-owner impoverished" (p. 113). Wise portrays abolitionists as the real threat to the security of the South, despite his professed desire for the abolition of slavery.

During the Civil War, Wise is an enthusiastic soldier, even though the conflict begins early and harshly for the Wise family. On February 7, 1862, Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside attacks Roanoke Island, North Carolina, with troops that greatly outnumber those led by Wise's father, a brigadier general for the Confederacy. The Confederates surrender with fewer than a hundred deaths, but shortly thereafter, Wise's brother dies from injuries in a prisoner camp. Young Wise is eager to join the fighting and finally persuades his father to let him enroll at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). There, he feels deeply honored when he serves as one of the funeral guards for fallen VMI professor and Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. He and other young cadets then enter active service at the Battle of New Market in Virginia on May 15, 1864, where they fight alongside seasoned Confederate veterans. During this battle, a shell explodes in Wise's face. He later awakens from unconsciousness to find the battle still raging around him, and his desire to fight remains strong. After the Confederate victory at New Market, the cadets are sent back to VMI. Shortly thereafter, however, they have to evacuate the campus, when it is threatened by Union troops.

With VMI destroyed, Wise joins his father's brigade. While the elder Wise wants his son to have a safe commission, the eager young soldier wants to return to the front lines. In September 1864, Wise is made a lieutenant but is sent to a less active part of Virginia. Later he serves as messenger between General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis, and it is he who carries Lee's verbal message of surrender to Davis. The war ends soon after he delivers the message.

Wise then returns to Richmond and notes that reconstruction began immediately, with men working to rebuild the city ravaged by war. One of Wise's greatest hardships was returning to the life of a student, as he feels infantilized and impotent: "I was dead. Everything that I had 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 had ever indulged was dead. Even the manhood I had attained was dead" (p. 462). Accepting his reduction to "a mere child," Wise nevertheless goes on to become a lawyer and later a politician (p. 462). His reflections in this narrative end at the conclusion of the war, but The End of an Era gains added significance because Wise wrote it after his days as a controversial Reconstruction politician.

Works Consulted: Meade, Robert Douthat, "John Sergeant Wise," Dictionary of American Biography, Ed. Dumas Malone, New York: Scribner's, 1936; "John Sergeant Wise," Who Was Who in American Politics, Eds. Dan and Inez Morris, New York: Hawthorne Books, 1974.

Amanda M. Page

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