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The men from New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Wisconsin and Vermont milled about the clearing in the middle of the afternoon. A cool spring breeze rustled the leaves on the trees around them. Some talked, while others smoked, chewed on hardtack or quietly read. While they passed the time in different ways, each man shared one thing in common: they made up the twelve regiments that Emory Upton would lead in the evening assault. Altogether, the force numbered around 5,000.
As Upton walked through the woods from observing the enemy lines, he reflected on what he had seen. The enemy fortifications impressed him. Joining the attack force near their rendezvous point at the Scott/Shelton House, he knew that if he was to be successful he would have to improvise.
The Confederate earthworks at Spotsylvania presented a quandary to the Union army. Never before had Lee’s army built field fortifications on such a magnitude. In the past, Lee’s men had been able to utilize both natural and man made positions—the railroad cut at Second Manassas, the Sunken Road at Antietam, the stonewall, sunken road and Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg—to their defensive advantage. The rolling fields of Spotsylvania did not offer up such features. To negate the nearly two-to-one superiority in manpower, the Rebels elected to build massive entrenchments.
Construction began by digging a ditch five to six feet deep, with the dirt thrown up in front. Logs would be brought forward to reinforce the earth. About six to twelve inches above the embankment, a “head log” was placed to protect the soldiers and provide an opening from which they could fire on an attacker. Every ten to twelve feet, traverses were constructed from dirt to protect from enfilading fire. To casual onlookers, the traverses gave the earthworks the semblance of animal pens. Ten to fifteen yards in front of the trenches, branches, their ends sharpened were pointed toward the attacking enemy.
Upton recognized that his objective would be two fold: getting his men across the open field to the Confederate line while maintaining enough momentum to pierce it. To that end, he formulated a revolutionary idea. An attack using the traditional two lines, known as close order, against such works would devastate his regiments. Sustaining such high casualties would reduce the effectiveness of the force, let alone any ability of actually reaching the earthworks. By the time Upton reached the entrenchments, it would be doubtful as to whether he would have numbers enough to break the line.
Taking into account these factors, Upton decided to form his regiments in three by four column formation. Rather than stopping to open fire on the enemy during the assault, the men would charge straight across the field and would not discharge their weapons until they had reached the enemy line.
Although the column assault had its advantages, the concept also came with disadvantages. Such a compact formation was susceptible to both frontal and flank fire. But with MacKenzie’s eye for terrain, Upton would be attacking the Confederate line at a point where he would only have to concern himself with frontal fire. The swale in front of Doles’ line and abutting ridge would protect the men from the Confederate artillery on their right and the Confederate riflemen on their left.
The last and most important aspect of the plan was the support of the attack. By design, the column would only move forward, penetrate the Rebel line and hold the ground long enough for additional troops to move up and exploit the breach. Curiously, Upton’s assault came in the form of a II Corps division commanded by Brigadier General Gershom Mott. Mott was slated to hit the Confederate line several hundred yards east of Upton’s point of attack.
At the Scott/Shelton House, Upton’s regiments unslung their knapsacks and relieved themselves of any accoutrements that would make noise or weigh them down during the charge. Upton would later write “a wood-road led from our position directly to the point of attack…the column of attack was formed in four lines of battle, four regiments being on the right and eight on the left of the road.
The regiments on the right moved up the road by the right flank, those on the left by the left flank, each regiment lying down as soon as in position. The lines were arranged from right to left as follows: First line, One Hundred and Twenty-first New York, Ninety-Sixth Pennsylvania, and Fifth Maine; second line, Forty-Ninth Pennsylvania, Sixth Maine and Fifth Wisconsin; third line, Forty-Third and Seventy-Seventh New York and One Hundred and Nineteenth Pennsylvania; fourth line, Second, Fifth and Sixth Vermont.
No commands were given in getting into position. The pieces of the first line were loaded but not capped; bayonets fixed. The One Hundred and Twenty-first New York and Ninety Sixth Pennsylvania were instructed, as soon as the works were carried, to turn to the right and charge the battery. The Fifth Maine was to change front to the left and open an enfilading fire to the left upon the enemy. The second line was to halt at the work and open fire to the front if necessary. The third line was to lie down behind the second and await orders. The fourth line was to advance to the edge of the woods, lie down and await the issue of the charge…all the officers were directed to repeat the command “Forward” constantly from the commencement of the charge till the works were carried”.
Moving to only a couple hundred yards from their objective, Upton ordered his men to lay down and await the word to begin the assault. Prior to the attack, Union batteries were to open a bombardment of the Confederate lines in order to pave the way for the infantry. All seemed ready, however little did Upton know, that events were transpiring on other parts of the field that would unhinge his well laid plans.
Earlier that afternoon, the V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren appealed to George Meade to attack at 4 p.m. ahead of schedule. Warren’s attack was beaten back and in turn, the attack time was pushed from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. In a massive oversight, no one thought to inform Gershom Mott. Thinking that he was advancing in conjunction with Upton, Mott went forward against the tip of the Mule Shoe Salient and like Warren, was repulsed. Nor did anyone inform Upton of Mott’s failed attempt. At 6:10 p.m. on May 10, 1864, Upton’s men stepped off.
Upton recalled “The lines rose, moved noiselessly to the edge of the wood, and, with a wild cheer and faces averted, rushed for the works. Through a terrible…fire the column advanced, quickly gaining the parapet. Here occurred a deadly hand-to-hand conflict. The enemy, sitting in their pits, with pieces upright, loaded, and with bayonets fixed, ready to impale the first who should leap over, absolutely refused to yield the ground. The first of our men who tried to surmount the works, fell, pierced through the head with musket-balls; others, seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arm’s-length and fired downward; while others, poising their pieces vertically, hurled them down upon their enemies, pinning them to the ground…the struggle lasted but a few seconds. Numbers prevailed, and, like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works”.
Upton’s charge had shattered the Confederate line. Doles’ Georgians were running for the rear. Reaching the Confederate line, the 5th Maine turned to their left and quickly drove in the left two regiments of the Stonewall Brigade. Turning to their right, the 121st New York and the 96th Pennsylvania neutralized the Richmond Howitzers. These regiments were joined by the 49th Pennsylvania and the 6th Maine who quickly moved up into the breach.
Although the Yankees had punched a hole in the Confederate line, they had awakened a hornet’s nest. A number of Rebel brigades responded to the attack. North Carolinians under Junius Daniel and Stephen Ramseur, Alabamans under Cullen Battle, Georgians under Clement Evans, Virginians under William Witcher, elements of the Stonewall Brigade and a mixed brigade commanded by George “Maryland” Steuart combined to pinch off the Federals within the salient and slowly drive them back. Upton hurried back to the tree line in an attempt to bring up the Green Mountain Boys only to find that the Vermonters had already joined the fray. Drawing his men back to the first line of works, Upton eventually withdrew to the safety of the Union lines. One New Yorker remembered “the noise of the battle gradually died away as night threw her mantle over the fearful scene of carnage and both armies were glad of a respite from their severe labors”.
Later that night, Upton received a battlefield promotion to Brigadier General. His tactics so impressed Grant as well as other Union commanders, that the column assault would be adapted as the unofficial tactic when the Army of the Potomac attacked fortified position. Two days later, Grant would send Maj. Gen. Winfield Scot Hancock’s II Corps against the Mule Shoe. Hancock would also enjoy initial success, until Confederate counterattacks drove him back in savage fighting. On May 18, Grant once again sent the II Corps forward in column against “Lee’s Last Line” along the Brock Road. At Cold Harbor on June 1, Upton would lead the 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery in an assault using the same tactics he helped formulate at Spotsylvania. In the great Union attack at Cold Harbor on June 3, elements from the Army of the James, along with John Gibbon’s II Corps division copied Upton’s tactics during their assault. Finally, on April 2, 1865, the Sixth Corps stormed the Confederate lines at Petersburg.
Upton’s tactics came to define offensive operations for the Army of the Potomac for the remainder of the war in Virginia. The New Yorker’s story, though is a tragic one. From 1870 to 1875, Upton served as Commandant of Cadets at West Point. Throughout the decade, he would travel extensively studying the armies of Europe and Asia. He would also author new manuals and treatises on military tactics. These accomplishments merely covered up his personal struggles. After suffering from the mental and emotional anguish of losing his wife and struggling with his own physical health, Upton took his own life on the night of March 14, 1881. He is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York.
Today, a simple, solitary monument rests at Spotsylvania in the field that Upton’s regiments crossed to reach Doles’ line. It commemorates the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought at the Mule Shoe during Upton’s Charge. In a larger sense, it commemorates a man who overcame the earthworks of the battlefield, but could not breach the bastions of his own soul.
The best work available on Upton’s Assault at Spotsylvania is Upton’s Attack and the Defense of Doles’ Salient by Greg Mertz in Blue and Gray Magazine, Volume XVIII, Issue 6.
For more on Emory Upton, see The Life and Letters of Emory Upton by Peter S. Michie. New York D. Appleton and Company, 1885.
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