Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Elihu Embree, Abolitionist

The Confederacy and Southern Cause are, of course, huge parts of Southern history. The battles where Southern men killed and died and were led by leaders almost god-like in their reverence consume nearly the full focus of the subject. While many celebrate the bravery and actions on the battlefield and homefront alike, how many pause to remember the Southern slaves or the Southern abolitionists?

The heroic bravery of the slave in revolt is fully a part of Southern history; every bit as real as the victory at Chancellorsville. The Southern abolitionists, though few in number, are sons and daughters of the South just as much as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. And yet, in both cases, too many deny these Southerners their history. Despite their heritage, they are forgotten, even scorned. By the time of the Civil War, the vast majority of the slaves had been Southerners numerous generations longer than even the families of Jeff Davis or P.G.T Beauregard.

From time to time, I’d like to highlight these forgotten heroes of Southern history – the slaves, the abolitionists, the draft dodgers, the Unionists. Though they fought against the Confederate Cause, they were Southerners through and through. The same Southern blood ran through their veins, and the same affection, reverence and undying devotion was felt for their cause. It’s our duty, Southerners or not, to cultivate, perpetuate and even sanctify their memory and their place in Southern history.

A Forgotten Southern Abolitionist

According to his 19th century biographer, Elihu Embree was “a dreamer of dreams, and had in him the genuine stuff out of which enthusiasts and martyrs are made.”


Embree’s name has fallen into obscurity. Unlike William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips, he receives hardly any praise. Yet his writings predate and were often more radical than both. Unlike the vast majority of abolitionists, Embree was a Southerner.  Embree was raised in East Tennessee, born in 1782, to a Quaker minister,. His early life is lost to history, but his writings remain for all to read. 1Elijah Embree Hoss, Elihu Embree, Abolitionist (Nashville, University Press Company, 1897) 7.

An iron manufacturer by trade, Embree’s upbringing as a Quaker led him to the Manumission Society of Tennessee, founded in Jefferson County in 1815 2“The First Manumission Society” The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History Vol. 7, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1911) 184-187. Before long, branches of the Society cropped up around much of Tennessee. Along with the vow not to vote for political candidates who were not pro-emancipation, members of the Manumission Society were required to post this message on their homes:

Freedom is the natural right of all men; I therefore acknowledge myself as a member of the Tennessee Society for promoting manumission of slaves. 3Caleb Perry Patterson The Negro in Tennessee, 1790-1865 (University of Texas, 1912) 81.

This statement was a radical declaration, even in the more progressive Eastern Tennessee. Still, many members eventually moved into Indiana, placing the buffer of Kentucky between themselves and the South. Elihu Embree, however, decided to remain. Perhaps it was his iron business that kept him in Jonesborough. Or maybe this was where he felt he could make the biggest impact.

Picking Up the Pen

Each year, he would mail “memorials” addressed to the Tennessee Legislature,  stating that slavery must be outlawed. Embree claimed “that there is not a civilized legislature now upon earth that” would allow slavery, implying that the very body he was addressing was barbarous. Continuing, he asked “are these the only laws which the representatives of a free and enlightened republic cannot modify, or repeal? Or are they to stand as lasting monuments of human depravity?” 4Elijah Embree Hoss Elihu Embree, Abolitionist (Nashville, University Press Company, 1897) 16.

In 1819, Embree approached the Manumission Society about publishing a newspaper. With their blessing, he wrote and printed the Manumission Intelligencer, releasing the first issue in March of that same year. Though there are several claims by others, it seems that this was America’s first anti-slavery periodical. It was a weekly publication and lasted around fifty issues, though few, if any, remain today. In April of 1820, Embree changed the name of the paper to The Emancipator, making it now a monthly.

The first issue of The Emancipator was released in April of 1820. Within it Embree laid out his position. It was, “especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject.” Even in his first issue, he held nothing back.

A large fire had burned much of Savannah, Georgia on January 11, 1820. Some citizens of New York City took up a collection, raising $12,000 [the modern equivalent of approximately $245,000]. When the New Yorkers sent in their donation, however, they stipulated that it be used “without respect to colour.” Savannah declined the offer, apparently wishing not to help the black community at all. Without restraint, Embree, who had himself already donated $100 of his own money, put forward his opinion on Savannah’s refusal.

The last word, colour, seems to have insulted their haughty spirits, to find that the donors had once thought of and felt a disposition to relieve the distress of the unfortunate black people as well as the white. […] Such are some of the effects of slavery on the minds of slaveholders. Pride, haughtiness, ingratitude and tyranny, are some of the general effects produced by suffering men to assume and undue controul over others. […]

embree emancipator

“I pitied [the slave-owning residents of Savannah] circumstances when I first heard of their late calamity; I now am truly ashamed that they are human beings, as this act of theirs disgraces human nature. But when I reflect that these monsters in human shape are citizens of America, the land of boasted LIBERTY, and that these very men have the audacity to take that sacred word in their polluted lips, I am struck with astonishment, amaze and wonder at the mercy of the supreme being, that instead of burning the town of Savannah, he has not destroyed its proud inhabitants with fire unquenchable!!!” 5Elihu Embree, “Savannah,” The Emancipator, April 30, 1820.

The Emancipator was published seven times prior to Embree’s death from “bilious fever” in December of 1820. Across those months, the readership soared to nearly 2,000. From time to time, Elihu Embree’s words and tidbits about his life will be featured on This Cruel War‘s Forgotten Heroes of Southern History.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: Elihu Embree, Abolitionist

    1. Thanks! I really wish we’d be able to know more about Embree. He died far too young, and left little behind.

Comments are closed.