Wise always believed that few exceeded his commitment to Virginia and the South during the secession crisis and the Civil War. Like many Southerners, he wished to be known as a man of peace who abided by the decision of his people and reluctantly took up arms. There was no ordinary reticence in him, however. He never wanted to argue the case for either secession or war because he thought each unprovable and therefore unwinnable. But if his decisions were thus hard ones, there was little chance of his forsaking the cause of Southern independence altogether, as Senators James H. Hammond of South Carolina and John Bell of Tennessee at least contemplated. Wise’s prevarications help to explain, in ways he never acknowledged, both the intensity of his commitment to political revolution and the wavering of his loyalty.
If Wise was not wholly committed to secession, neither did his decision result from disentanglement in the “relentless, horribly logical meshing of ears within” the political mechanism that “dictated an almost certain outcome” during the winter of 1860-61. To be sure, Wise’s maneuverability was diminished as a result of changes in the political structure. But as Barrington Moore, Jr., writes, “The uncertainty of all actors is one of the most significant and neglected aspects of historical crises, great and small.” Options remained open and potential outcomes appeared hazardous and unclear until very late. Secession startled and surprised him.