Emory, William H. (William Hemsley), 1811-1887

Alternative names
Birth 1811-09-07
Death 1887-12-01

Biographical notes:

Soldier who served during the Mexican and Civil wars and surveyor of United States territory west of the Mississippi River with the Topographical Engineers.

From the description of Papers of William Emory, 1861-1873. (University of Maryland Libraries). WorldCat record id: 25058262

American army officer.

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Washington, D.C., to William Stanbery, 1867 Apr. 1. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270614403

From the description of Autograph letter signed : Cumberland, to Governor Fenton of New York, 1865 Sept. 30. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270614396

William Hemsley Emory (1811-1887) graduated from West Point in 1831, served in the army until 1836, and left to become a civil engineer. He returned to the army in 1838, serving in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, worked on the Northeastern Boundary Survey, 1844-46, and surveyed in the Southwest during and after the Mexican War. Later he served in Kansas, on the Utah Epedition, and commanded forts in the Indian Territory. Emory served in the east during the Civil War and retired in 1876.

From the description of William Hemsley Emory papers, 1823-1886. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702128554

William H. Emory served in the Mexican War; directed the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey (1848-1855); and served as a brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac, as a divisional commander in the Port Hudson campaign, and as the commander of the Nineteenth Corps in all the major battles in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Emory was commander of the Department of the Gulf, which included the Federal troops in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi (1871-1875), and retired with the rank of brigadier general on July 1, 1876.

The White League defeated the New Orleans Metropolitan Police and the Louisiana state militia in New Orleans, La., in the Battle of Liberty Place on September 14, 1874. The police, militia, and Republican governor William Pitt Kellogg briefly fled after the conflict before being reinstated by Federal troops and warships the next day.

From the description of William H. Emory report, circa 1874-1875. (Louisiana State University). WorldCat record id: 444710061

William Hemsley Emory was born on September 7, 1811 in Queen Anne's County, Maryland, the son of Thomas and Anna Maria (Hemsley) Emory. Emory was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1831, where he was know as "Bold Emory," and promoted to brevet second lieutenant, 4th Artillery. He resigned from the service in 1836. Two years later, upon the reorganization of the army, he re-entered the service and was commissioned first lieutenant in the Topographical Engineers. He also married Matilda Wilkins Bache, a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin in May of that year. Emory served as principal assistant on the Northeastern boundary survey between the United States and Canada from 1844 to 1846. At the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he became the chief engineer officer and acting assistant adjutant-general of the Army of the West and subsequently as a lieutenant-colonel of volunteers in Mexico.

While with the Army of the West, he won two brevets for distinguished service at the battles of San Pasquale, San Gabriel, and the Plains of Mesa. After the war, he became chief astronomer for the team appointed to determine the boundary line between California and Mexico (1848-1853). During the course of these duties, in 1851, he was promoted to captain. In 1854, he was appointed commissioner and astronomer with full powers, under the Gadsen Treaty. When the army was again reorganized in 1855, he was promoted to major in the 2nd Cavalry, a newly-formed regiment. After completing the work connected with the Gadsen boundary surveys in 1857, he was brevetted lieutenant-colonel in recognition for his service. Moved by familial concerns at the outbreak of the Civil War, Emory resigned his command on May 9, 1861, an action he immediately regretted. He tried to intercept the written dispatch of his resignation before it could be delivered, but failed in his efforts. Although within a week after this action, he was commissioned major general of the newly organized 3rd, later 6th Cavalry, it took several months for his reinstatement to be formally recognized. Not until General Winfield Scott, Lieutenant A. V. Colburn, and Emory himself testified to the Secretary of War and the Senate regarding his character, military performances, and loyalty to the Union, was his resignation formally rescinded and his reinstatement and current rank confirmed. Emory was appointed brigadier-general of volunteers in 1862 and served with distinction as brigade, division, and corps commanders. He received four brevets for separating the wings of the Confederate Army at Hanover Court House, destroying the railroad bridges between Hanover Junction and Chickahominy River, and driving the enemy out of Ashland Virginia. In 1865, he was commissioned major-general of volunteers and commanded the Department of West Virginia until mustered out of the volunteer service in January 1866. He commanded successively the Department of Washington, District of the Republican (1869-1871), and the Department of the Gulf (1871-1875) and retired with the rank of brigadier general on July 1, 1876 after forty-five years of service. It has been said of Emory that he was a talented and skilled soldier, calm and dignified in bearing, courageous and firm. Though apparently stern in character, he was also warm-hearted, sympathetic and generous. He died December 1, 1887 in Washington, D. C., and was buried in Congressional Cemetery.

From the guide to the William Emory papers, 1861-1873, 1861-1873, (State of Maryland and Historical Collections)

William Hemsley Emory was born in Queen Anne County, Maryland, in 1811, and graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1831, receiving a commission as brevet second lieutenant, Fourth Artillery. After five years of garrison duty, he resigned from the Army to take a position as a civil engineer but he returned to the reorganized Army in 1838 as a first lieutenant in the new Corps of Topographical Engineers. In May, 1838, he married Mathilda Wilkins Bache, a great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin. They had ten children. The Emorys maintained a home in Washington, D.C., even in Emory's long absences in later years. Mathilda Emory was for many years a conspicuous figure in the social life of Washington and she counted Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Joseph E. Johnston among her closest friends.

From 1844-46, Emory served as principal assistant on the Northeastern Boundary Survey determining the border between the United States and the British provinces. When war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1846 Emory was ordered to service as Chief Topographical Engineer and Acting Assistant Adjutant-General with the Army of the West. Under General Kearny the army made an expedition to California by way of Santa Fe. During this historic march, Emory distinguished himself at the battles of San Pasquale, San Gabriel, and the Plains of the Mesa, earning two brevets.

Emory's experience in the Southwest led to his assignment in 1848 as chief astronomer on the U.S. commission to determine and survey the southern boundary of the new territory acquired from Mexico under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Traveling by way of Panama, Emory reached California in June, 1849, to begin the survey of a boundary line from San Diego to the mouth of the Gila River. By September, 1849, with the surveying well under way, Emory requested reassignment. He was upset that the U.S. Commissioner, John B. Weller, had been removed and replaced by John Charles Fremont. Bitter feelings prevailed between Fremont and Emory stemming from the earlier conflict between Fremont and Kearny. Fremont had also provoked Emory by using information from Emory's reconnaissance in the Southwest in his map of 1848 without giving Emory credit. Though Fremont resigned the job without ever entering actively upon his duties, Emory's request for reassignment had been approved and Emory returned to Washington where he commenced work on recomputing astronomical and geodetic observations.

Although Emory had received word in October, 1849, that the initial point at the mouth of the Gila had been determined, the work of the Boundary Survey Commission was far from complete and Emory would eventually be called back into service in the field. The Commission's field work was resumed on the Rio Grande above El Paso under a new commissioner, John R. Bartlett. Bartlett had accepted the parallel 32° 20' as the southern boundary west of the Rio Grande but the U.S. Surveyor, Andrew B. Gray, refused to accept this line as meeting the requirements of the the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Secretary of the Interior ordered Gray to sign the convention into which Bartlett had entered with the Mexican commissioner, but the argument was taken up by Congress and raged for months. Moreover, Bartlett was unable to work with Emory's successor, Lieutenant Colonel J. D. Graham. Bartlett for his part set out for the Pacific and did not return to the principal base of operation for a year and a half.

In September, 1851, Emory agreed to replace Graham and resume command of the Scientific Corps of the Boundary Survey. Emory faced great hardships. He had inherited an awkward administrative apparatus. Bartlett, the commissioner, was absent and he controlled the finances of the commission. The survey found itself lacking for supplies. The survey party was open to attacks from Indians and had no military escort. Nevertheless, Emory had almost brought the survey to completion only to have it halted in December, 1852, by lack of funds. Bartlett's travels in the West had swallowed the whole of a deficiency appropriation and Congress had attached a rider to the regular appropriation bill in order to prevent any operations on Bartlett's line of 32° 20' which effectively cut off all funds to the survey.

After the Democratic victory in the 1852 election, Bartlett was removed and a new commissioner, Robert B. Campbell, was named. In the summer of 1853, he and Emory returned to the field, completing the survey of the Rio Grande. A diplomatic impasse, however, still existed stemming from Bartlett's acceptance of the 32° 20' line. In order to solve the conflict and to secure itself the only good road yet opened from the Rio Grande to the Pacific, the United States opened negotiations with Mexico for the purchase of an additional strip of land south of the limit agreed upon in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States and Mexico agreed on the terms of the Gadsden Purchase in December, 1853, and following ratification a new boundary commission was ordered to take the field.

Emory arrived in Texas in September, 1854, as commissioner and astronomer, and the work of the survey was carried forth efficiently and with far fewer problems than previous commissions. Emory continued the survey of the boundary line west from the Rio Grande as far as the vicinity of Nogales in present Arizona where he met his secondary party working east from the Colorado. In the fall of 1855 the field work of the survey was completed and Emory returned to Washington to oversee the writing, editing,and publishing of his three-volume report to Congress on the Boundary Survey.

While still engaged with the boundary Survey, Emory received a commission as major in the First Cavalry. In 1857 with work on the report nearly completed, Emory asked to join his regiment at Fort Riley in strife-torn Kansas. Later he was part of the Utah Expedition sent to bring the Mormons under U.S. law. The following summer (1858) he was sent to command Fort Arbuckle in the Indian Nation. At the outbreak of the Civil War Emory was in command of troops at Forts Cobb, Washita, Smith, and Arbuckle in the Indian Nation. With the forces in his command he captured an advance guard of Rebel Texas forces and then safely retreated to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The troops thus saved out of the general debacle along the Confederate frontier played a vital role in preventing secessionists from forcing Missouri into rebellion.

In May, 1861, Emory was re-appointed in the Army to lieutenant-colonel, 6th Cavalry. After spending July and August recruiting his regiment in Pittsburgh, Emory was engaged in the defense of Washington (August, 1861-March, 1862) and in the Virginia Peninsular Campaign (March-August 1862), seeing action at Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hanover Court House. In December, 1862, Emory was sent to the Department of the Gulf where he fought at Fort Hudson, commanded a division at Camp Bisland, and subsequently commanded the defenses of New Orleans. From the winter of 1863 through the spring of 1864 he was engaged in the Red River Campaign and then in July returned east to defend Washington, D.C. He moved to the Shenandoah and fought at Winchester, Fisher's Hill and Cedar Creek. These last actions elicited the praise of General Philip Sheridan. At the end of the war Emory was in command of the 19th Army Corps.

Emory continued in military service until 1876 having commands in the Department of West Virginia, the Department of Washington, the District of the Republican, and the Department of the Gulf. He retired with the rank of brigadier-general, and died December 1, 1887.

For further biographical information, see: Dictionary of American Biography ; George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy .

From the guide to the William Hemsley Emory papers, 1823-1886, (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)


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  • Scientific expeditions
  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877)
  • Wilkes Expedition
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