Wise pushes Virginia over the edge

Posted on April 17, 2011 by


Morning of April 17, 1861…

On the floor of the Virginia Convention, ex-Governor Wise put on quite a show.


After drawing a horse pistol from his bosom and laying it on the table in front of him, he (according to a delegate present) “proceeded to harangue the body in the most violent and denunciatory manner. He concluded by taking his watch from his pocket and, with glaring eyes and bated breath, declared that events were now transpiring that caused a hush to come over his soul.” More or less, the cat was out of the bag… his plans for seizing Harper’s Ferry were in motion, though Wise’s efforts had not been endorsed by officials who should have had a say.

Many in the delegation were furious, including John Baldwin of Staunton. Baldwin was “aghast” when Wise announced that many of the “the patriotic volunteer revolutionists” were Baldwin’s own constituents, many of them his own “neighbors and friends.” On the other hand, delegate George Baylor rushed to Wise, openly sobbing and stated, “I don’t agree with you, I don’t approve of your acts, but I love you, I love you!” Wise openly accepted full responsibility and then turned the blame back on the convention, stating that his actions were moving forward to “aid the people who had waited on the convention too long in vain, in seizing arms for their own defense.”

With Virginia troops in motion, the Virginia Convention was in an awkward predicament. It was in this “emotionally charged atmosphere” (wrote Imboden’s biographer) that the convention began to take action, beginning with the passage of an ordinance to repeal the ratification of the Constitution of the United States by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Nonetheless, this was an ordinance and it was to be ratified by the people of Virginia. The referendum would not be put to the people, however, until the latter part of May.

In the meantime, Virginia militia prepared to descend on Harper’s Ferry… entering the town, and seizing the arsenal in less than 24 hours. A day later, Virginia troops moved toward Gosport Navy Yard, which would fall on April 21.