Batavia, New York, sits midway between Buffalo and Rochester along the busy New York State Thruway. Western New Yorkers know it best for its racetrack, Batavia Downs, a half-mile track that features live harness racing July through December.
But I best know Batavia as the birthplace of Emory Upton, a Civil War officer whose name I evoke every time I take people across the battlefield at Spotsylvania Court House. When I tell Upton’s story, I make it a point to mention his hometown because it’s kind of in my neck of the woods. I feel a kind of residual hometown pride.
I had never actually been to Batavia before last week, though, although the Thruway has taken me “thru,” as its name implies, on several occasions. I was there last week to speak to a room full of Civil War enthusiasts at Genessee Community College, situated atop a high open hilltop just outside of town. It was an artillerist’s dream, I imagined, had any artillerist a reason to set up cannons there.
The campus buildings are all connected by hallways and corridors, which quickly told me something else about that wide, expansive hilltop. Such connections are a common defense mechanism against western New York winters. I suddenly envisioned bitter wind and thick layers of lake-effect snow.
This spot seemed so Upton: cold, humorless, and perfect for artillery.
That’s how Upton, a member of West Point’s Class of 1861, got his start in the army—in the artillery—before being appointed colonel of the 121st New York Infantry in October of 1862. His regiment earned the nickname “Upton’s Regulars”—a testament to a group of volunteers so well disciplined and well drilled that they performed as professionals. The regiment’s name and reputation were, says my friend Kris White, “a true reflection of their tough-as-nails commander.”
Upton’s biographer, Stephen Ambrose, described the Batavia native as being “single minded in his purpose.” According to Ambrose, “He never drank, smoked, or cursed, and seldom laughed. He was asocial to the point of being acutely uncomfortable in the presence of civilians.”
Were it not for that awkwardness, Upton might have had a bit of dash to him. One observer described him as having “a light mustache, high cheek bones, thin face, and a strong, square jaw. He had a small mouth and thin, usually closed lips, which made his mouth look even smaller. His deep blue, deep-set eyes ‘seemed to be searching all the time.’”
“Upton was a nearly humorless man that took his duties as an officer seriously,” Kris has written. “He was deadly serious on a battlefield, and serious about receiving his general’s stars. Upton may have lacked social graces, but he was blessed with a gifted military mind.”
Indeed, the 24-year-old colonel demonstrated that with his innovative tactics on May 10, 1864, at Spotsylvania, finally earning his stars. He demonstrated that, too, by commanding at various times during the war all three branches of the army (he finished the war, after being wounded several times, as a cavalry commander in the Military Division of the Mississippi).
After the war, he served as commandant of cadet at West Point. Later, the army sent him to inspect military forces in Europe and Asia, bringing back sheaves of recommendations to modernize the U.S. army. He also began work on The Military Policy of the United States from 1775, a document that would remain unfinished at the time of his death but one that still had a major influence on army practices and reforms once it was posthumously published.
Upton’s death came early. Suffering from debilitating migraines that might possibly have been the result of a brain tumor, toiling under acute depression after the untimely death of his wife, Upton committed suicide on March 15, 1881, by shooting himself in the head. He was, at the time, commander at the Presidio in San Francisco. His wife’s family had his body brought back to upstate New York; he is buried in Auburn.
“I think he might be more well-known had he not died at such a relatively young age,” says my friend Daniel Davis, who has admired Upton for as long as I’ve known him. “One of the things I find interesting is that William Tecumseh Sherman is one of his pall-bearers. That fact alone I think speaks volumes on how high in their regard the Army held Upton and illustrates their esteem for him.”
“Upton is the quintessential Common Man from the Age of Jackson. He comes from nothing, but builds himself up through his own determination and skill,” says Daniel, who lauds Upton as “one of the most influential military minds of the 19th century.” “He was a brilliant visionary that steps out of the shadows and, in the midst of incredible carnage, formulates a concept that he believes will not only achieve victory but, in some instances, save men’s lives.”
I tease Dan for having a “man crush” on Upton, but in fact, Dan’s respect for Upton is palpable. “What makes this all the more haunting is the way he died,” Daniel says. “We do not have a suicide note. And it also conflicts with Upton’s religious views. Not knowing the how or why, taken together with what I mentioned above, is what draws me to him.”
I was half-hoping I would run into Upton during my visit to Batavia, and so perhaps that’s why I spotted him so readily as I drove down West Main Street. There he stood, cast in bronze, as part of the Soldier’s Memorial in front of the Genessee County courthouse. I passed by to the left but circled back on Court Street and found a parking spot along Ellicott. I wanted to get out and pay my respects.
If a bronze statue could look stone faced, Upton’s did. I’m used to the stern but fresh-faced photo of Upton taken right after the war, but his statue depicts him in the full vigor of adulthood. He looks martial without looking noble, vigilant without looking bold. The weather has patinaed him just as sadness had in real life.
Had I known Upton personally, I’m not even sure I would’ve liked him. He probably wouldn’t have liked me, either. I don’t mesh well with people who take themselves so seriously. But that doesn’t stop me from sharing his story, which is fascinating and surprising and tragic. I am proud to remember him.
After I left Upton, I drove up to that high and lonely hilltop. Had Upton ever stood there?
I suspect he would have liked it.