Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Gen. William H. Emory (b. 1811 - d. 1887)
MSA SC 3520-9485
Soldier/Property Owner, Queen Anne's County


    General William H. Emory was a member of one of the wealthiest, elite families on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The Emorys resided at Poplar Grove, a vast estate in the Spaniard Neck region of Queen Anne's County. His father Thomas Emory was a prominent politician and businessman, who groomed William for the military from a young age. He had made arrangements with future South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun to reserve an appointment at West Point for his son, when the boy was still only 11 years old.1 William would go on to attend the academy, followed by a distinguished career with the U.S. Army that kept him far from Maryland for much of his adult life. However, Emory's upbringing on the Eastern Shore still exposed him to the many facets of southern aristocratic society, and forced him to contemplate the conflicting interests surrounding slavery, its defining institution. 

    In his unpublished memoir, William H. Emory remarks early on about an enslaved man's service to his father during the War of 1812. He claims to have a recollection of "my Father's negro servant Jacob, a tall stately man," arriving home after the August 1813 burning of Queenstown by British troops. William would have been too young to truly remember this instance, but he undoubtedly became familiar with the slave throughout his childhood. Thomas Emory owned roughly 30 to 40 slaves during the time when his son resided in Queen Anne's. William mentions the mentorship of "a negro boy just a few years older, and perfectly subservient to my wishes, but to whom I was devotely attached."2 These close relationships between wealthy children and enslaved African-Americans were commonplace in such households, making a boy like William more aware of their circumstances. 

    Later on, William describes the mass flight of a family from Poplar Grove, while his mother and father were both away. Strangely, the escape was executed by the same personal servant, Jacob, whose wife and children were also house servants, presumably with more privelege than others on the plantation. William seems to suggest that his mother Anna Maria, "an avowed abolitionist," had given tacit approval to the enslaved family. There were no items stolen from the house as was somewhat typical of such situations, "tho' the opportunity was ample." He also posits that they had escaped by boat since no locals had observed the eight freedom seekers. Jacob's family and Anna Maria Emory may well have had a mutual understanding, which had allowed for this plan to be executed so easily. William asserts that his mother "only regretted that every slave on the place did not go at the same time," though he could recall no other instances of flight from the family homestead.3      

    It is difficult to place this incident into a historical context, since Emory does not provide many specific details. William's father never placed runaway advertisements in local newspapers as many aggrieved owners did. However, Thomas Emory's personal correspondance does reveal efforts by his associates to retrieve alleged fugitives in New Jersey. Writing in 1826, Delaware farmer William Duhamel tells him that, "having a recollection of the circumstances of your negroes leaving you, I embrace this opportunity to communicate to you the probability of their apprehension."4 There were at least two other letters from concerned parties, who had similarly been informed of free black communities that might be harboring Maryland slaves. None of these instances mention Jacob or his family specifically, but if they were indeed the only slaves to flee Poplar Grove, Thomas Emory would likely have explored that region. William H. Emory would go on to say that the freedom seekers were never heard from again.

    Despite being away at West Point from 1827 to 1831, the younger Emory remained connected to Maryland politics. He was one of about 50 white Queen Anne's County residents who signed an 1832 petition, protesting the Maryland General Assembly about proposed manumission laws. After Nat Turner's bloody 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, the state sought to limit the supposedly dangerous influence of the growing free black population. However, some Eastern Shore citizens saw these legal restrictions as a greater evil, especially the proposal to expel freedmen from the state. These farmers relied on enslaved and free black labor, while they utilized future manumission as a motivational tool for the former group. Interestingly, William's father was a state legislator at the time, so he would have been in the middle of such debates. At times, the petitioners lean toward anti-slavery sentiments, saying " many of your constituents, who believe that slavery is in direct violation of the express commandments of God." However, much of the document focused on their economic self-preservation and the possible discontent amongst the enslaved population which such laws might cause.5 William H. Emory's reflected briefly on the subject in his memoir, though such post-emancipation statements might not accurately reflect his opinions at the time. 

    During the 1830's, Emory was probably more concerned with his career and personal life than with the divisions developing on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In 1838, William married Matilda Wilkins Bache, a Philadelphia native who was a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin. The couple would go on to have ten children, over nearly 50 years of marriage. Matilda's family was also quite well-connected politically, her father being the director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Emory undoubtedly had taken note of such details, as he was set to enter a career with the Corps of Topographical Engineers.6 Over the next 25 years, he would embark on numerous mapping expeditions into the expanding western territories, where William sharpened the skills he had developed as a young cadet. In this capacity, he also became a de facto anthropologist and scientist, observing various landscapes and cultures that white Americans had previously had little contact with. William's posts also required him to protect settlements against the incursions of western tribes, who still sought to preserve their way of life. These campaigns further displayed Emory's value as a military leader, which would place him in an awkward position as North-South tensions finally erupted in 1861. 

    Even at the outset of the Civil War, he straddled the line between regional attitudes toward slavery. William was forced him to confront these conflicting sympathies, as well as the personal relationships which further complicated matters. Emory was childhood friends, and possibly cousins, with the future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee was also his fellow cadet at West Point.7 Gen. Emory was in command of federal troops in Indian Territory, Arkansas, just as that state was preparing to secede from the Union. He seemed to be unsure of how to reconcile those loyalties, reflected in two letters to the War Department. Emory initially asked to be relieved of command, with the possibility of a formal resignation to follow. However, he would quickly rescind the resignation and continue to lead his troops out of the southwest. In Oklahoma, a Confederate agent offered Emory to join the Southern army at the rank of major general, but was loudly rejected then chastised for being a traitor. The Federal contingent was able to narrowly escape what had become enemy territory, settling at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.8 

    During the war, Emory served as brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, while also leading several campaigns in Virginia and Louisiana. Though he does not discuss the significance, this experience would have placed him in command of African-American soldiers. The XIX Corps included six regiments of colored troops from Louisiana, whose success may have informed some of his opinions on race relations as it did for many other white officers. Initially, military leadership was hardly convinced that the former slaves and free blacks could perform as well as their white counterparts.9 While he includes nothing about the service of colored troops, Emory's memoir does include some thoughts on the morality of slavery. 

    In many ways, General Emory represented the conflicted conscience of his home state. He recognized the inherent evil of the system, but could not ignore the many close relationships to friends and family who were allied with the South. While making the common argument that slavery in the Upper South was not as harsh, Emory still acknowledged that "nothing can compensate a family for the misfortune of having been brought up with the surroundings which necessarily accompany that institution." He goes on to espouse education for both of the races as the only avenue that can repair the region's fortunes, after the devestation of the Civil War. Furthemore, William felt that "the conflict of races would end with the disappearance of ignorance and corruption from the Legislative Halls."10  

    The general was undoubtedly referring to the Reconstruction period, in which local and federal government action had provoked more conflict than reconciliation between racial factions. 

    Emory retired as a brigadier general in 1876, after 45 years of service. He died in 1887 and was buried in Washington D.C. at the Congressional Cemetary, where his headstone still resides.11

Footnotes -

1. L. David Norris,  James C. Milligan, Odie B. Faulk. William H. Emory: Soldier-Scientist. The University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ (1998), pp. 1-2.

2. William Hemsley Emory. Unfinished copy of memoir, Reminiscences of General William Hemsley Emory, p. 3.

3. Ibid, pp. 12-13.

4. Poplar Grove, Series 13, pp. 129-131.

5. Ibid, pp. 262-268.

6. Norris, pp. 4-5.

7. Adam Goodheart. "Poplar Grove and the Emorys: A Preliminary History Subject to Revision." 1 June, 2008.

8. Norris, pp. 198 - 207.

9. William A. Dobak. "Freedom By The Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867." Center of Military History, United States Army: Washington, D.C. (2011), p. 123.

10. Emory, pp. 14-15.

11. Find a Grave: "William Hemsley Emory".

Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.

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