Thursday, July 10, 2008

Toadies and Demagogues

All I can say is that I wish I had more of these—the sort of “gem of a letter” that snares the mind of a reader into the 19th century with such engrossing content. This particular letter of William H. Emory was written to his wife and is at once a love letter, war letter and political letter. Much of William’s writing stands alone and needs no explanation, but it is helpful to know the circumstances under which the letter was written.

In early June of 1846, William received the following official orders in Washington: “You will report without delay, to Fort Leavenworth, and report yourself and party to Col. Kearny, 1st Dragoons… Should Col Kearny have moved on the prairie with his command, you will make every effort to overtake him.” He was given less than 48 hours to leave his pregnant wife and children and begin the long march to the Mexican War. Once at Ft. Leavenworth, Lt. Emory would play a large role in what is one of the United States’ greatest westward pushes, an expedition that is known as the “Army of the West.” This expedition, under the command of Col. Kearny, would strike a decisive blow to the Mexican forces, leading to an American victory. Alas, it was hardly an easy victory. During the loathsome marching months, the expedition was ravaged by the forces of hunger, disease and death. Here are William’s words to Matilda during one of those months:


Bents Fort July 29th 1846




My dear Matilda, this is the only opportunity which has presented itself since I left Pawnee Fork to write you & I am almost afraid to avail myself of it as I must necessarily say that James Abert has been extremely ill, but is now recovering although still very low. He has received every attention & was carried in my instrument wagon. Had he have shared the fate of other officers of the command who were placed in the common wagons, death inevitably would have been the consequence. I have placed him in a very comfortable room at Bent Fort, where he receives every attention. His fever is entirely gone and he has nothing to contend against now but debility. I attribute the whole business to the infamous tents furnished us by the Qtr Mtr Depmt. They are worse thanthe open air. They are simple, thin, sleezy sheets of cotton, that do not reach the ground and produce on you a constant current of air. Peck & myself have both been sick but I have not yet been out of my saddle at the call to assemble or the call to halt. My whole attention for the last three or four days has been taken up with poor Albert who is a noble fellow. With Peck I am utterly disgusted not only with his selfishness & inattention to Abert, but


his unhappy childish disposition. The Army is below 7 miles, there being no grass about here. I pushed on to get observation but the night is overcast. Tomorrow or next day we commence the really difficult part of our march over the deserts to the South. Already we have traversed 600 miles and 250 are still between us and the enemy. Seven hours a day besides ever so many at night are devoted to you & the children from the moment I mount my mule until I dismount. I am building castles peopled with yourself &the chicks. God grant I was with you. This is my last absence is[sic] resignation is the consequence. What is the use of toiling & sweating in the service of a government that no[sic] knows no merits but those of the basest toadies & demagogues. I wish my paper on Latitude at the Hd of Lake Sophy sent to Mr. Hamilton for publication in the journal of the Franklin Institute. You will find it amongst my papers, headed Latitude with the " Zenith Telescope & double wise micrometer." Do not neglect this it is all important thatI shall have it out at once. There are several copies with the


appendix, and you can easily distinguish the one which is the last corrected copy. Send to borrow it from James Graham, should you have any difficulty in seeing which is the right paper. He has a copy and it is of little consequence if you never return it to him. The money due me by John and by the estate about $2900 will no doubt be coming in soon & I think you better buy a house either in Princeton or in Washington, in that part of it about the Walkers & Sestons live. It is the most healthy & will be the most convenient to the Smithsonian & other [illegible/torn, "institutions'] In hopes you will receive it without theknowledge of James friends. I have written him a short note describing our march which he will send you. We have now been a month on the march and no mail but one, which brought me nothing. I shall perhaps have no other opportunity till we get to Santa Fe. Afftly & truly yrs


WH Emory

If a brighter note is to be found among the words of the Lieutenant, it will be in the shared love
and adoration of Matilda and William. Speaking of which, a direct descendent of WH Emory recently shared with the Poplar Grove Project photos of the couples' individual portraits. Unfortunately we have not pinpointed an exact date for them, but Adam has worked to narrow it down between 1838 and 1846. And is anybody else seeing the resemblance from B. Franklin in Matilda?




Portraits courtesy of Bill Emory

2 comments:

Jim Schelberg said...

Note: I have just made a correction to the transcription. The sick "noble fellow"'s correct name is James Abert-- the son of WH's former commanding officer.

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