Founded in 1836, Emory and Henry is a small, private liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church and named in honor of John Emory, a Methodist bishop, and, a hero of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and Virginia’s first governor. Early on, students worked the college’s farm as a way to defray the costs of tuition, and the school hired local slave labor for cooking, cleaning, and farm work. After suffering through the financial crises of the 1830s and 1840s, Emory and Henry was debt free by the 1850s. Its most famous student was Stuart, a native of Patrick County, who attended the school from 1848 until 1850 before enrolling at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
During the, many Emory and Henry students campaigned on behalf of the Constitutional Union Party, a political refuge for cautious border and nativists who were intent on preserving slavery but alarmed by the belligerence of fire-eating Democrats and Northern Republicans. After the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected and , most students set aside their political differences and withdrew from classes in order to join the war effort. The college’s president, Ephraim Emerson Wiley, served as a chaplain, ministering to wounded soldiers who were relocated to the college grounds.
The Emory and Henry board of trustees rejected a request to turn the college into barracks for the Washington Mounted Rifles, or Company D of the 1st Virginia Cavalry. (Theroll at that time included the soon-to-be-famous guerrilla fighter , while the regiment was commanded by Stuart.) Instead, the Confederate government established the Emory Confederate States Hospital, reimbursing the school for use of the grounds and buildings. During this period, the college also earned money by selling supplies to the Confederate quartermaster corps.
Emory and Henry’s location in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains kept it isolated from the military campaigns that raged across theand the Piedmont. Still, it was threatened by periodic Union raids targeting the nearby Wytheville lead mines and the salt production facility at Saltville, the latter of which was crucial in provisioning the Confederate army. One such raid in October 1864 resulted in the Battle of Saltville, where outnumbered Confederate cavalry managed to drive back a determined assault led by Union general Stephen G. Burbridge.
Union prisoners of war, many of them wounded and belonging to the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry, were transferred to the Emory hospital, where, according to a Union surgeon left behind to care for them, Confederate troops killed at least five to seven of the black troopers along with a white lieutenant, Elza C. Smith. Some historians, including Thomas Mays, have argued that as many as forty-six were killed that day, both on the battlefield and in the hospital. But scholar William Marvel has argued that a smaller number, anywhere from five to as many as two dozen, is more likely.
Emory and Henry College reopened in August 1865 with a few antebellum students returning to complete their degrees.