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 Patrick Henry, 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 enslaved 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 presidential campaign of 1860, many Emory and Henry students campaigned on behalf of the Constitutional Union Party, a political refuge for cautious border Whigs and nativists who were intent on preserving slavery but alarmed by the belligerence of the proslavery, fire-eating Democrats and the Northern Republicans. The college’s charismatic president, Ephraim Emerson Wiley, however, was a strident supporter of slavery and southern nationalism who inculcated many of his students with his views.
After the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected and Virginia seceded from the Union, most students set aside their political differences with the sucessionists and withdrew from classes to join the Confederate war effort. Wiley, according to historian Durwood Dun, “promoted loyalty to the Confederacy as inseparable from Christian values” (The Civil War in Southern Appalachian Methodism, 2013).
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. (The company’s roll at that time included the soon-to-be-famous guerrilla fighter John Singleton Mosby, 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. Wiley served as a chaplain, ministering to wounded soldiers who were relocated to the college grounds. 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 the Shenandoah Valley and 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.