Confederate General Henry Wise Relieved of Duty; “Contraband” Allowed in Navy

Wednesday, September 25, 1861

As dawn broke over the mountains in Western Virginia, General Lee could be found riding along the Confederate lines, observing the Union forces, a mile west. Though General Henry Wise, who had held the position for a week or more, assured Lee that the Union forces of Generals Cox and Rosecrans had not yet combined, it appeared to Lee that they had.

He could make out six to eight regiments dug in at the crest of Big Sewell Mountain, but due to the dense woods, could see no more. On the James River & Kanawha Turnpike, he noticed a wagon train that appeared to be independent of those regiments. Seeing this induced him to believe there was a larger number of troops before him.1

In actuality, few of General Rosecrans’ men had made it across the Gauley River at Carnifex Ferry. If Cox had any reinforcements on this date, they were from his own troops.

Though possibly greater in number, Lee could see that the Federals were not planning to attack. While their position was a good one, his was better. In a dispatch to General Floyd, twelve miles back at Meadow Bluff, Lee informed him that their position “was a strong point, if they fight us here.” He reasoned that “they can get no position for their artillery, and their men I think will not advance without it.”

Lee then asked Floyd, “how would it do to make a stand here?” He wasn’t asking Floyd to join him at Big Sewell, however. In a post script, Lee asked Floyd to send three days’ provisions for Wise’s Legion and Col. Heth’s Brigade. No mention was made for Floyd to move forward.2

This was a move both military and political in nature. Militarily, Floyd had to cover the rear. If Rosecrans somehow managed to make use of a small Wilderness Road that would place his force behind Lee’s at Big Sewell, Floyd had to be there to prevent complete destruction.

Politically, Floyd and Wise had never been able to get along. Floyd, who was Wise’s commander, had ordered him to fall back from Big Sewell. Wise refused. If Lee then ordered Floyd to Wise’s position, it would give strong support to Wise’s insubordination.

The rift had become so bad that Floyd wrote to Richmond after the Battle of Carnifex Ferry, describing how Wise refused to come to his aide. While that wasn’t quite true, he was very adamant that Wise be removed from command.

Finally, his prayers were answered. As Lee was reconnoitering the Confederate lines, a messenger from Richmond bore a dispatch from Acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin. He carried two messages. The first was for General Floyd, and contained praise from the President over how he handled the affair at Carnifex, despite General Wise’s bungling.

The second, relieved Wise of his duty:

Sir: You are instructed to turn over all the troops heretofore immediately under your command to General Floyd, and report yourself in person to the Adjutant-General in this city with the least delay. In making the transfer to General Floyd you will include everything under your command. By order of the President:

Floyd happily sent the messenger forward to Wise’s command.

In the meantime, Union skirmishers had been pushed forward to probe the Confederate right. Wise was personally directing the defenses as his own skirmishers fell back to the main line. He called upon an artillery officer to fire into the advancing Yankees.

As the battery let loose its fire, Wise received the dispatch from Richmond. He was mortified and embarrassed. After he had a few minutes to take it all in, he wrote to General Lee, asking his advice. Though he was ordered to Richmond “with the least delay,” surely the orders couldn’t mean that he should have to abandon his men in the midst of a battle!

Lee immediately replied that if he were Wise, he would “obey the President’s order.”4

Realizing that there was nothing he could do, Wise capitulated. That evening, he penned a terse farewell address to his beloved Legion.

It is not proper here to inquire into the reasons of this order. It is in legal form, from competent authority, and it could not have been foreseen by the President that it would reach me inopportunely whilst under the fire of the enemy…. But the order is imperative, requiring the least delay, and promupt obedience is the first duty of military service, though it may call for the greatest personal sacrifice.5

Wise returned to his tent and packed his bags. He would leave at dawn.


Freed Men of Color Allowed in the Navy

The United States Army had barred black men from service since the Militia Act of 1792, that only allowed “every free able-bodied white male citizen” to enlist in the militia. The Navy, on the other hand, never had such a rule. Limits, however, had been put into place during the Mexican War, ruling that only 5% of the Navy’s force could be made up of black men.

During the rush to recruit after Fort Sumter, nearly 300 black men enlisted (and in many cases, re-enlisted) in the US Navy. These numbers outgrew the 5% rule and were on pace to beat it three times over (by the Summer of 1862, 15% of all Navy recruits would be of African decent).6

In light of this trend, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, issued an order to deal with the “contrabands.”

The Department finds it necessary to adopt a regulation with respect to the large and increasing number of persons of color, commonly known as contraband, now subsisted at the navy yard and on board ships of war.

These can neither be expelled from the service to which they have resorted, nor can they be maintained unemployed, and it is not proper that they should be compelled to render necessary and regular services without a stated compensation. You are therefore authorized, when their services can be made useful, to enlist them for the naval service, under the same forms and regulations as apply to other enlistments. They will be allowed, however, no higher rating than “boys,” at a compensation of $10 per month and one ration a day. I am, respectfully, your obedient servant,
Gideon Welles7

  1. Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p312. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p148-149. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p879. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51 (Part 2), p313. []
  6. Prologue Magazine, Fall 2001, Vol. 33, No. 3. []
  7. Official Navy Records, Series 1, Vol. 6. p252. []
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Confederate General Henry Wise Relieved of Duty; “Contraband” Allowed in Navy by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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