“You were once… Governor… and we will take orders from you, sir.”

Posted on April 16, 2011 by



During the next few days of the Sesquicentennial, I’ll have a few things to say about what I believe to be a dark time in Virginia’s history. But, why? I’ll keep it simple.

On April 15, John D. Imboden was summoned to Richmond, for a meeting with ex-Governor Henry A. Wise. They met on the street, in Richmond, 150 years ago today.


Openly frustrated and impatient with the inaction of the Virginia Convention, Wise was ready to take the steps that he felt necessary to force Virginia’s hand on secession.

“Do you remember, sir,” asked Wise, “what passed between you and me when I was governor, at the moment you thanked me for the order permitting you to have two brass field-pieces for your company of artillery in Staunton?” Imboden acknowledged that he did remember.

“What was a joke then, is earnest now. I want those guns with which to aid in the immediate capture of the United States arsenal in Harper’s Ferry; can they be had with all the men you can raise?” Imboden replied, “They can, and, if you say so, the men shall be raised, and the arsenal taken.”

Later that day, Imboden met with Wise again, and others, including Oliver R. Funsten, Turner and Richard Ashby, John S. and Alfred Barbour, and John A. Harman. In the meeting, Wise did remark that the move on Harper’s Ferry needed some official sanction; Imboden, Funsten, and Alfred Barbour made up the committee to call upon Gov. John Letcher in the hope that he would “support, or countenance, at least an attempt to secure the arms and munitions” there. To their dismay, however, Letcher declined “as he was under some informal pledge not to do or promote any hostile action against the United States without apprising the Convention and conferring with it.”

Turner Ashby

Once the committee of three had returned to Wise, and Letcher’s refusal to endorse was made clear, the ex-governor remarked, “Well gentlemen, you have heard the report; are you willing and ready to act on your own responsibility?” Imboden answered in the affirmative, to “act without official authority”, while Ashby responded by saying, “You have once been Governor of Virginia, and we will take orders from you, sir, as if you were now Governor; please draw your orders.”

As Wise outlined the plan, Alfred Barbour was tasked with assuming the superintendency of the arsenal, and to repair the operation there. Turner Ashby was to return immediately to Fauquier County, to “rouse the Black Horse Cavalry there”. Likewise, Imboden was to return to Staunton ro raise volunteers for the deed.

“At that moment, Milton Cary came into the meeting and was ordered to see to the railroad transportation; went out and brought in Col. Edmond Fontain[e], the president of the Central Railroad, and transportation was arranged. Whilst the meeting was in session, Gov. Wise received a telegraph saying that Federal troops were on their way to Harper’s Ferry.” In turn, Imboden sent a wire to Staunton, alerting his unit to be ready to move by 4 p.m., on April 17. That evening, before moving on to Staunton himself, Imboden spent the night drawing ammunition from the Virginia Armory, and prepared for its removal to the depot.

The game was afoot… and, unbeknownst to Virginians, their future was in Wise’s hands.

*For those who are interested, you can read in in-depth account by Imboden, here.