Tuesday, July 29, 2008

J.E. Johnston... The Rest is History

If there is one fact that can attest to the immense nature of this collection, it is that even seven weeks after we first began rummaging through the papers at Poplar Grove, the team has yet to stop making new and exciting discoveries. One would think that the countless cycles of sorting, chronologizing, and cataloguing would have eventually resulted in a thorough familiarity with the collection. But that’s not the case. In fact, the past week or so has unearthed a strong connection between famed Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and the Emory family. Since the early stages of research, it was pretty well known that William H. Emory had been long-time friends with Johnston, but the details and extent of their relationship was a bit foggy.

In a recently-surfaced memoir of William, titled “Recollections,” William recounts the night that would lay the foundation for the long friendship. According to Emory, in the early days of West Point, the young cadets would pass their Saturday nights “in carousing, and it was customary to draw lots who should cross the River, or go to Benny Havens for a jug of whiskey.” Having just turned 15 at the time, young Emory was not permitted “the high priviledge of taking [his] chances in this discreditable lottery.” William continues:
One cold night, when the River was running rapidly, and the ice beginning to move, the venture fell to the lot of one Johnston who afterwards became a confirmed sot and was dismissed. As he left the room, he beckoned me to follow, which I was not slow in doing. Unknown to the others, he intended I should be his companion in his risky foray. On reaching the River just above Gee’s Point, we found the ice weak and covered with slush. Johnston said he thought the ice would not bear him, but would carry me over nicely. Then the caitiff pointed to a bright light directly across, and said ‘That is the little red cottage, take this,’ at the same time thrusting money into my hand, ‘and give it to Hunker; he will fit you out with a sled and jug, and I will wait here on the shore until you return.’ Goose that I was, instead of spurning him as I would have done a year later, I accepted his proposition as a fine chance to signalize myself by crossing the River when he was afraid to do so. Going over was easy enough, but coming back the ice began to move, and on nearing the shore, I found a belt of water between the ice and the rocks. After some difficulty in finding Johnston’s exact locality I threw him the end of the rope attached to the small sled on which the jug was fastened, and asked him after dragging the trophy on shore to throw the rope back to me. In place of doing as requested, he deliberately uncocked the jug and settling himself, commenced immediately to fill his worthless carcass with whiskey. The danger to me was imminent, for the ice was receding from the shore. Seeing Mr. Johnston intent on guzzling, and fearing he would not throw me the rope until it was too late, I made a leap for the shore which I could not reach, and landed in water over my head. Being a good swimmer I reached the shore, but found the rocks too steep and slippery to climb, so drifting along a short distance, I struck an inclined plane and landed thoroughly chilled, and very much ashamed of my companion.”

Unfortunately, William spares us the details of what immediately followed, but we do know from letters found at Poplar Grove, that
the event helped initiate the friendship of the two men. Since then, Joe Johnston had apparently also befriended William’s younger brother, John Register, presumably though William. In a letter dated October 7th, 1838 (eleven years after the river/whiskey incident), Johnston jokingly writes to J.R.: “I have just come from church where in compliance with the request of your last paragraph, I prayed fervently for your deliverance from all temptation. Particularly in the shape of women.” Although Johnston did have a reputation for being even-tempered and passive, these letters reveal his clever sense of humor—a side of him that is hardly apparent in most Civil War history.

Lamenting a recent lack of communication between him and William, Johnston asks, with prodding humor: “What has become of ‘Bro Bill’? I have heard no news of him since his marriage, except your casual notice. Couldn’t you get married until your friends are all dead? The man is worth a straw after it.” It seems Matilda had “Brother Bill” so caught up in the raptures of love as to make him forget about his old friend!

Sadly, after years of service together in the same artillery, engineer and cavalry units, the War of the Rebellion would throw William and Joseph on opposite sides of the conflict. Regarding this, in his memoir William would state that “in spite of his going against us, the old Army will bear me out in asserting that he has always maintained... impulsive generosity and great magnanimity.” The loss of his old West Point comrade would be but one of many relationships consumed by the war; William would also fight against two brothers, one son and at least one other close friend (none other than Jefferson Davis).

Thanks to Bill Emory, who has provided the Poplar Grove Project with transcriptions of WHE's memoir, there is much more to come concerning “Recollections”.
Painting of West Point: West Point, New York by Seth Eastman, 1875. Oil on canvas.


Anonymous said...

I believe I have a copy of that same 'autobiography', entitled 'Reminiscences', 59 pages long.

I found it fascinating on his way to 'the Point' he met both the Willard Brothers (later the Willard Hotel in D.C.) and also Sam Houston!

Jim Schelberg said...

Yes! And his anectdote of Houston being confined at Fort Gibson for disorderly conduct, and having nothing on his person but a breech clout!

I mistakenly referred to his autobio as "Recollections" because that was as WHE referred to it within the work (I forget which page). And "Reminiscences" was as the typed transcription was titled when I receieved it from Bill Emory, so that is probably the correct title.

I was just floored to read through it for the first time... Especially the passage describing the milk maid affair!

If you would, could you give your contact info, or email me at jschelberg2@washcoll.edu? I have some questions for you! And feel free to tell us more about your copy and thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Shelburg,
I too am related to the Emorys. Growing up I heard a great deal of family stories
I had heard about your team’s work with papers from Poplar Grove a while back, but have just now visited your site. It is fascinating. I have just finished reading all of the back and forth.
I envy you this project!!!!
One summer about 15 years ago I visited Nevada and California with my then four small children. Growing up I had heard many stories of William H. Emory’s exploration out west. I wondered as we drove around if we were following any of the routes he had taken. I particularly wondered one day when we drove out to Pyramid Lake, Nevada, when we were off paved roads for hours and never saw another human. So I went to the local library in Carson City to see if they had any copies of his maps. They did, and I had been in many of the same places that he had been. I discovered that John C. Fremont is credited with exploring around Lake Tahoe.
Growing up mostly on the east coast I knew very little of the history of the west, and during our trip and my visits to the local library I grew fascinated. I started to read about John C. Fremont, whom I had known nothing about. I discovered that his life sort of paralleled William. H. Emory’s. Fremont did not come from a long established family, and he did not go to West Point, but here these two young men were out west doing very similar things. So I started to read, and read, and read.
As a child I had heard the story of Matilda Emory interceding in her husband’s career. I know that family stories are not always 100% accurate, but I also know that they are just about always based on something that did happen. I loved the idea that a young woman from Queen Anne’s county would go directly to the President of the United States about her husband, but I wasn’t too sure about how likely it was that it had actually happened.
The things I learned reading in that library about Fremont and Emory put just about any soap opera or romance novel to shame. A lot of my sources were newspapers of the time, and the press is concerned not only with reporting the news, but also for selling papers. In fact about 15 or so years after Emory was out west, and just before the Civil War broke out, Samuel Clements invented Mark Twain and was living in Carson City, and writing “news” for a paper in Virginia City.
I hope that as a part of this project you and your team are reading periodicals written during the period, and are looking specifically for mention of people whose papers you are going through..
In response to what Louis Michael wrote, and your response.
Kearney was William. H. Emory’s commanding officer, but it is Emory’s report and it really was a big deal at the time, and it’s a big deal out west.
I learned a lot from reading about Jessie Benton Fremont and her impact on her husband’s career, and then comparing it to Matilda Emory. If I were on your team and I was curious at to why William H. Emory did what he did in the 1860’s, I would look very closely at the transcripts of Fremont’s court martial in the 1850’s, Emory’s involvement, and the coverage in the press at the time.


Erik Donald France said...

This is amazing. Great new finds!

I'm working on a Joseph E. Johnston study and would love to read all the related letters!

My email: efrance23@gmail.com

Erik France

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