The word of John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry struck the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, Virginia like a thunderbolt. Immediately, the lanky Henry Wise sprang into action. He called on the state’s militia to help suppress the uprising before journeying to Harpers Ferry himself to subdue the raiders.
A slowed train delayed Wise’s arrival in Harpers Ferry until after the climactic moment of Brown’s capture. Several hours after that signal event, the governor and his train chugged into the excited town. Wise instantly sought out the raid’s ringleader. The authorities on hand led the governor to the United States Armory’s paymaster’s office, where the wounded Brown lay on the floor. As Brown and Wise exchanged glances, the two tough men, who could hardly have been more different politically, soon found common ground.
Brown began the dialogue, respectfully telling Wise, “Well sir, we have our opinions of each other” before launching into his plans. The conversation created respect between the two men. “He is a fanatic, vain and garrulous,” Wise later said, “but firm, and truthful, and intelligent.”
Despite the suddenly found respect Wise held for Brown, he wanted to ensure that no more John Browns caused any future disruptions in his state. Governor Wise felt certain that if any future fanatics tried to emulate Brown, the threat would come from outside Virginia’s borders.
To that end, Wise informed the states bordering Virginia’s northern boundary that he would preserve “the peace of our coterminous borders,” even if it meant pursuing the “invaders of our jurisdiction into yours.” However, doing so was the last resort. Wise took other steps to dissuade any prospective invaders from visiting Virginia in the first place.
“Virginia is arming to the teeth,” penned former President John Tyler from central Virginia in the wake of Brown’s Raid. This effort to arm Virginia’s militia and formalize its system was not a mere attempt to thrust arms into the hands of Virginians statewide. No, Wise turned to the border first to create a wall of fire on the periphery of the state that protected the rest of it.
The December 10, 1859 edition of The Shepherdstown Register reported that the local cavalry militia company recently received a supply of pistols and Sharps’ rifles. Situated on the state’s border with Maryland, shipments of arms like this were crucial to Wise’s defense plan. “It is the intention of Gov. Wise to arm the troops along the line of the Potomac with the best of arms that can be procured,” the paper noted.
On his way out of office at the end of 1859, Wise’s parting words to his fellow politicians in the Virginia Assembly were: “We must rely on ourselves. I say then–To your tents! Organize and arm!”
Of course, another John Brown did not materialize on Virginia’s borders. Whether or not Wise’s calculated arming of the state’s boundary counties preempted any future attempts is impossible to say. But he made sure another raid like that of October 1859 did not occur on his watch. Doing so paid large dividends for Virginia’s military preparedness come April 1861.