Going Courting in Lexington, Virginia – Part 2

John S. Wise, 1865

There’s nothing quite like a primary source. John S. Wise –a cadet at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia during 1863-64 – later wrote his remembrances of trying to get acquainted with the “good Presbyterian girls” of the town. Certainly, he exaggerated a little, but he managed to paint an amusing word picture of a young cadet, dressed to impress, getting a cold reception at a local home.

No offense intended to any religious denominations or personal opinions on dating by the presentation of this account. There were many strict Presbyterians in the Lexington area and their mannerisms were decidedly different than what John Wise had experienced in Richmond and other locations, giving him plenty of entertainment.

In the light-hearted satire it’s intended to be, may I present the scene? Eighteen-year-old Johnny Wise in his ill-fitting cadet jacket strides into town, trying to make friends with one of the girls he’s seen. Maybe he just wants to be friends, maybe he’s “goin’ courting.” Let Act One of the drama begin…in his own words:

The red brick house with severe stone trimmings and plain white pillars and finishings were still and formal. The grim portals of the Presbyterian church looked cold as a dog’s nose. The cedar hedges in he yards, trimmed hard and close along straight brick pathways, were as unsentimental as mathematics. The dress of the citizens, male and female, was of single-breasted simplicity; and the hair of those pretty Presbyterian girls was among the smoothest and the flattest things I ever saw.

Shall I describe their habitations? Would it violate the laws of hospitality to do so? I hope not. We have entered a hallway, tinted gray, furnished with an oaken hat-rack and straight oak chair of Gothic features, and passed into a parlor. Although it is autumn, the polished floors are uncovered save by strips of deep-red carpet, such as one sees in chapel aisles. There is a fireplace, but the fires are unlit. The furniture is straight up and down mahogany covered with haircloth. I have often wondered what a Presbyterian would do if he could not secure mahogany haircloth furniture for his drawing room. The room is dark; the red curtains are half drawn. Upon the black marble mantelpiece, under a glass shade, are cold, white wax flowers. On the walls are solemn engravings of Oliver Cromwell, Stonewall Jackson, and The Rock of Ages. A melodeon, with church music, stands in the corner. If, perchance, it be a pianoforte, it seems like profanation. There is also a Gothic table on top of which is the family Bible, beside it a candlestick, Jay’s “Morning Excercises,” and the “Life of Hannah More.” Drawn near to these is a long-armed, low easy chair. Facing the fireplace are two rocking chairs, and six others, all in haircloth, stand stiff as horse guard sentries about the walls.

If your call is timed in the evening, you will learn the uses to which these articles are put, for, as nine o’clock approaches, the sweet little Presbyterian girl you are visiting will begin to fidget; and when the hour strikes, the family will file into the room with military silence and precision. Before you know it, the head of the house will occupy that chair by the table, and open that Bible, and give you the benefit of at least twenty minutes of Christian comfort. Then, if you have not the good sense to leave, he will proceed to fasten the window-blinds.

If your visit is in the daytime, other things will suggest themselves to your mind. For example, you will wonder what is the family dinner-hour. If you are so fortunate as to receive a formal invitation in advance, you will not only learn, but you will have a bountiful and well-cooked meal, – not perhaps an Episcopalian epicurean feast, but bountiful and nutritious food. If, however, your notion was to drop in unexpectedly, and take an informal family dinner, let me beg you to give it up. You may go a hundred times, and the sleek-headed girl in poplin will give no sign, and the bell will never ring. She would starve before she would ask you out, but she would die before she would ask you in, for Presbyterians are not built that way. Her father would immolate her for taking such a liberty. The best you can hope for, on an occasion like that, is a cold red pippin [apple] on a cold white plate served where you sit shivering in that vault-like place.

If you wish to be frisky with Miss Westminister, it is possible in but one way. Ask her to go to church. Sunday morning church is the most tumultuous of her gayeties; Sunday night service is to her what an ordinary dancing party would be, as compared with a state ball…and Wednesday evening lectures are to her what excursions for ice-cream or soda-water are to “unregenerate” girls.

Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia

My! For wild hilarity commend me to a coterie of strictly reared young female Presbyterians. An evening spent among them is like sitting upon icebergs, cracking hailstones with one’s teeth.

Yet, dear reader, believe me, after one has tried it awhile, surprising as the statement may seem, one comes to like it. Now and again, one of says something or does something, like ordinary mortals; and what she says or does is in such a fetching, fascinating, feminine way that it makes one want to go again, and makes one feel glad that such gentle, pure, refined, simple, and true people countenance an outside barbarian like one’s self in their society.

These is, believe me, a lot of outcome in one of these little demure Presbyterian lassies. Of course, if she has no better luck than to marry one of her own people, that settles it! She will go through life mooning and mincing about, like a turkey hen come off her nest. She will pass her life thinking that going to hear sermons and lectures is the chief end of man, and that pippins, spiced gingerbread, and cracked walnuts, served in a chilly parlor, are fit Christian entertainments.

She may even live and die thinking she is happy, not knowing any better.

Evelyn Byrd Wise

But if, perchance, good fortune brings her a knight with a feather in his bonnet, and it catches her little meek eye, as it is mighty apt to do; if, after prayerful consideration, her strait-laced parents decide that it is best for her happiness to let her go, even at her soul’s peril; if, all doubts and dangers past, she is borne triumphantly away, her bonnet-box stuff with the Shorter Catechism and all orthodox kirk rudiments, –  I assure you it is surprising how promptly the little bud expands, and how quickly she adapts herself to new surroundings.

I speak of whereof I know…[i]

Act Two and epilogue of the historical narrative drama:

VMI Cadet John S. Wise fought at the Battle of New Market in May 1864, suffering a temporary debilitating (but not serious) head wound when the Corps of Cadets first came under fire on Shirley’s Hill. Later that year, he joined up with Confederate forces near Petersburg. After the war’s end in 1865, Wise went back to school, studying law at University of Virginia, and then practicing his profession in Richmond. Politically active and a busy writer of fiction, memoir, and non-fiction accounts, Wise filled his life with opportunities to serve his state and nation.

John Wise did marry, but his bride wasn’t living in Lexington, Virginia, when he married her in 1869. It’s not completely clear if she lived in Lexington during the war; perhaps more research this spring will unravel that detail. We know that Miss Evelyn Byrd Beverley Douglas from Nashville, Tennessee became his bride on October 3, 1869. It’s suggested she might have been one of those strict Presbyterian girls whether she lived in Lexington or not, but the known facts about her life also suggest a happy marriage.

Miss Douglas found her “knight.” Whether or not she stuffed her bonnet box with religious volumes or was the girl who served him a cold apple, Johnny Wise eventually found the love his life and carried her off to start a new life with more joys than rules…and certainly plenty of laughter.


[i] Wise, J.S. (1899). The End of an Era. New York, NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Co. Pages 240-243. (Accessed at The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)

2 Responses to Going Courting in Lexington, Virginia – Part 2

  1. Since both VMI and W&L have gone coed, the opportunities for sparking have become somewhat more extensive. My future wife was one of a score or so coeds in the Law School when we met in 1977.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!