But war-- that is where my appreciation for history awakens. As I see it, few other areas of historical study offer such raw insight into the human condition. The papers found at Poplar Grove have already shed new light on a wide range of historical topics: slavery, social relations, agriculture-- the list goes on. Thankfully, military history is no exception. In fact, the attic of Poplar Grove housed the personal correspondence of a fascinating Civil War figure, Gen. William H. Emory.
From 1828 onward, W.H. Emory had dedicated his life to serving the United States Army-- a duty which he faithfuly fulfilled and tied closely to his personal honor. William would ultimately serve under the Union flag, but it was not without the struggle of conflicting loyalties. The circumstances surrounding Emory's ultimate commitment are quite foggy, to say the least. In the Spring of 1861 he hastily resigned his commision along with a large portion of southern officers of the 2nd Cavalry (which he commanded). For unknown reasons that have yet to be verified, he quickly retracted his resignation and came home to Washington.
Why the sudden change of heart? The Poplar Grove Papers are quickly lending insight into his actions and motivations during 1861. Recently found receipts and letters tie his economic interests to the Union, while almost all of his social relations including a son and many lifelong friends tie his sympathy and loyalty to the South.
What a struggle that must have been for the man! His own son, Thomas, was a surgeon for the Confederacy! His lifelong friends like Jefferson Davis and Joe Johnston were leading the Secessionist cause! According to his wife, Matilda (great granddaughter of Ben Franklin), all his sympathies fell with the South, yet he became a leading Union officer! What on earth drove him to commit to the North?
"I was simply performing my sworn duty as an officer of the U.S. Write the strongest letter you can & burn this. Five minutes conversation..."
Excerpt from a letter to J.R. 1861
With each letter I transcribe (many of which were secret, which he asked to be burned after being read), my theories make an about-face. Ask me at 8am why I think William retracted his resignation and I'll tell you it's because he was scared. Ask me again 3 hours later after I've transcribed another letter or two, and I'll tell you it was because economic ties kept him with the North. The only "fact" of which I'm sure of, is that I just don't know. But with each transcription, I am edging a little bit closer to the historical truth of William Hemsley Emory.