MICHIGAN TRAILS -
Michigan Governor 1859 - 1861
In the great struggle respecting the freedom of the territories acquired by the Mexican war, he was ever on the side of right, and freely employed his voice and purse in opposition to the schemes of the Democratic party,--North as well as South,--to introduce into these territories the blighting influences of slavery. As a lawyer, he was a man of great ability; but relied less upon mere book-learning than upon his native good sense. Liberal and courteous, he was yet devoted to the interests of his client; and no fact escaped his attention or his memory which bore upon the case. He was no friend of trickery and artifice in the conduct of a case; but, disregarding every thing merely formal and trivial, always met the real merits of the controversy with an intrepidity, a richness of illustration, and a power of argument, that rendered him a most formidable opponent. As an advocate, he had few equals. When fully aroused and warmed by his subject, his elocution was at once graceful and powerful. His fancy supplied the most original, the most pointed illustrations; and his logic became a battling giant, under whose heavy blows the adversary shrank and withered. To one unacquainted with him, his temperament appeared to be cold and unexcitable--even taciturn and indifferent; but, when inspired by his theme, his feelings were vivid and his imagination active; and woe to the unhappy object of the terse and sententious wit, the rugged logic and fiery sarcasm, which flowed in torrents from his lips. His high, pale brow and jet black hair; his strong and manly form; the solemnity of his mien, and the deep music of his intonations; the lofty utterances of his indignation, sympathy, or respect,--rendered his eloquence at times striking and masterly. Nature had bestowed upon him rare qualities; and, it is needless to say, his powers as a popular orator were of a high order.
On the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, of 1854, repealing the Missouri Compromise, and opening the Territories to slavery, he was among the foremost in Michigan to denounce the shameful scheme. He actively participated in organizing and consolidating the elements opposed to it in that State; and was a member of the popular gathering, at Jackson, in July, 1854, which was the first formal Republican Convention held in the United States. At this meeting, the name "Republican" was adopted as the designation of the new party, consisting of Antislavery Whigs, Liberty-men, Freesoil Democrats, and all others opposed to the extension of slavery, and favorable to its expulsion from the Territories and the District of Columbia,--a party destined, as the history of the last twenty-five years has shown, to grapple successfully, not only with the old Democratic party,--become proud and insolent by long years of alliance with the slave-holders,--but with an armed rebellion, which for five years drenched our land with blood. At this convention, Mr. Wisner was urged to accept the nomination for Attorney-General of the State, but declined; and Hon. Jacob M. Howard, also a pioneer in the same cause, received the office. An entire State ticket was nominated; and, at the annual election in November, was elected by an average majority of nearly ten thousand. Mr. Wisner was enthusiastic in the cause, and brought to its support all his personal influence and talents. In his views, he was bold and radical. He saw clearly that the long struggle between the North and the South,--that is, between the free-labor and the slave-labor system,--a struggle that had in countless forms disturbed the tranquillity of the country ever since the adoption of the Constitution, was now fast approaching a final crisis, and probably a bloody close.
He felt that one of the two must become extinct; and, fully appreciating the magnitude of the issue, his daring soul did not shrink from any form in which it might present itself, be it ballot or bullet, and did not hesitate to warn his countrymen to be prepared for the worst. He believed, from the beginning, that the political power of the slaveholders would have to be overthrown before quiet could be secured to the country. To effect this, he was willing to resort to any means within the reach of the party to which he belonged. He had no fear of disturbing or irritating the slave-power, or of offending its Northern abettors. On the contrary, feeling that his cause was just, that it was the cause of Republican Government, and that upon its success depended the continuance of the Constitution itself, and the liberties of the people, he used the boldest and most defiant language to its enemies, and was ready to resort to the most radical measures. He asked no pardon for his opinions, no favor from the pro-slavery party, but boldly threw into the arena the very existence of the Government as the gauge of battle; for he was deeply convinced that such was the real character of the contest. When pressing this view upon his audience, his eloquence rose to sublimity; and his prophetic spirit, picturing the future of our country, should the slave party triumph, brought them face to face with the disgrace, the degradation, the slavery, and the ruin, which would be the result. No true man could listen to his impassioned utterances without being moved. It was the eloquence of a man who loved his country; a wise, courageous, earnest man, pleading with his countrymen to stand firmly by the true principles of their Government, and to bear themselves proudly and confidently in its defense. In the Presidential canvass of 1856, he supported the Fremont, or Republican, ticket. At the session of the Legislature of 1857, he was a candidate for United States Senator, and, as such, received a very handsome support.
In 1858 he was nominated for Governor of the State by the Republican Convention that met in Detroit; and, at the subsequent November election, was chosen by a very large majority. Before the day of election, he had addressed the people of almost every county in the State, and his majority was greater even than that of his popular predecessor,--Hon. K. S. Bingham. He served as Governor two years,--from January 1, 1859, to January 1, 1861. His first message to the Legislature was an able and statesmanlike production, and was received with unusual favor. It showed that he was awake to all the interests of the State, and set forth an enlightened State policy, that had in view the rapid settlement of our uncultivated lands, and the development of our immense agricultural and mineral resources. It was a document that reflected the highest credit upon the author. No chief magistrate has shown a greater devotion to his duties, and to the interests of the State; none, a more disinterested and vigorous administration. During his term was passed the general registration law of the State, requiring every elector to enter his name on the proper book of the township or ward. A system of roads extending into the unsettled parts of the State, to be constructed by means of the proceeds of the State swamp land, was adopted, and vigorously prosecuted. That very important work,--the St. Mary's Ship Canal,--uniting the navigation of the lower lakes with that of Lake Superior, and thus aiding to develop the rich copper and iron mines of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was saved from destruction, and secured against accident from flood or frost. Many other measures of the highest public importance were adopted upon his recommendation, evincing a becoming pride and an enlightened statesmanship. His term having expired January 1, 1861, he returned to his home in Pontiac, and to the practice of his profession. The civil war broke out.
There were those in the State who counseled the sending of delegates to the "Peace Conference" at Washington. Mr. Wisner was opposed to all such temporizing expedients. His counsel was to send no delegates, but to prepare to fight. He foresaw that hard blows and frightful devastation were to be the arbiters between the contending parties; and he predicted the total abolition of slavery as one of the results of the impending war. He spoke of Mr. Lincoln's first call for seventy-five thousand volunteers as puerile and timid, failing in comprehension of the realities of the crisis. After Congress had met, and passed the necessary legislation, he resolved to take part in the war. He arranged his private business; and, in the spring and summer of 1862, set to work to raise a regiment of infantry, chiefly in Oakland County, where he resided. His regiment--the 22d Michigan--was armed, equipped, and ready to march in September. It was made up of the substantial men of Oakland County,--a robust, earnest, sober, and unflinching body of men, who left their homes and went to the war with the same spirit as their commander,--a regiment whose solid qualities were afterwards proved on many a bloody field. Colonel Wisner's commission bore the date of September 8, 1862. Before parting with his family, he made his will. As the most sacred place in which to deposit the farewell of an affectionate husband and father, he left in it this brief and characteristic document: "My dear children must never forget their father. I know my dear wife never will forget me. Upon the field of battle, next to my country, my last thoughts will be of them. M. Wisner." The regiment was sent to Kentucky, and quartered at Camp Wallace. He had, at the breaking out of the war, turned his attention to military studies, and had become a proficient in the ordinary rules of drill and discipline. His entire attention was now devoted to his duties. His treatment of his men was kind, though his discipline was rigid.
He possessed, in an eminent degree, the spirit of command; and, had he lived, would, there can be no doubt, have distinguished himself as a good officer. He was impatient of delay, and chafed at being kept in Kentucky, where there was so little prospect of getting at the enemy. But life in camp,--so different from the one he had been leading,--and his incessant labors, coupled with that impatience which was so natural and so general among the voluntcers in the early part of the war, soon made their influences felt upon his health. He was seized with typhoid fever, and removed to a private house near Lexington. Every care, which medical skill or the hand of friendship could bestow, was rendered him. In the delirious wanderings of his mind, he was disciplining his men, and urging them to be prepared for an encounter with the enemy, enlarging upon the justice of their cause, and the necessity of crushing the rebellion. But the source of his most poignant grief was the prospect of not being able to come to a handto-hand engagement with the "chivalry." He was proud of his regiment, and felt that if it could find the enemy it would cover itself with glory,--a distinction it afterwards attained, but not until Colonel Wisner was no more. The malady baffled all medical treatment; and, on the 5th of January, 1863, he breathed his last. His remains were removed to Michigan, and interred in the cemetery at Pontiac, where they rest by the side of the brave General Richardson, who received his mortal wound at the battle of Antietam. Colonel Wisner was no adventurer. Although he was, doubtless, ambitious of military renown, and would have striven for it with characteristic energy, he went to the war to defend and uphold the great principles he had so much at heart. Few men were more familiar than he with the causes and the underlying principles that led to the contest. He left a wife (who was a daughter of General C. C. Hascall, of Flint) and four children to mourn his loss.
Towards them, he ever showed the tenderest regard. Next to his duty, their love and their welfare engrossed his thoughts. He was kind, generous, and brave; and, like thousands of others, he sleeps the sleep of the martyr for his country.
American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men with Portrait Illustrations on Steel, Vol. I-II 1878