Remembering Emory Upton

A post war photo of Emory Upton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A post war photo of Emory Upton. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What is it that attracts us to particular individuals of the past? I think the answer varies from person to person. We all have people who we tend to gravitate towards in our studies. For readers of this blog, friends and family (especially my lovely wife) is it obvious I have an affinity for George Armstrong Custer. Another person who has appealed to me through the years is Emory Upton. While Upton was far ahead of Custer as a tactician, they are similar in other ways. Their deaths are shrouded in mystery and many questions still remain unanswered. Despite the extensive research and examination of Sioux and Cheyenne accounts and archaeological evidence over the last thirty years, we may never truly know the circumstances surrounding Custer’s demise on June 25, 1876 above the banks of the Little Big Horn River in southeastern Montana. Upton’s passing, however, is far more tragic. On the night of March 14, 1881, just after he penned a letter of resignation to the Adjutant General, Upton committed suicide in his quarters at the Presidio in San Francisco.

In life, there are perhaps three things that stand out to me about Upton. He was deeply religious, highly ambitious and quite likely, a bit of a genius. For all of those Big Bang Theory fans out there, he was the Dr. Sheldon Cooper of his day. Through the course of the Civil War at one point or another he commanded all three branches of the army. Upton may be best known for his time as an infantry officer in the Army of the Potomac. As colonel of the 121st New York Infantry and later as a brigade commander, Upton was one of the few to recognize technology and advancements in defensive warfare had made traditional tactics obsolete. Rarely did attacking infantry succeed in driving their opponent from a fortified position. From Upton’s perspective, to achieve victory, innovation was required.

At Rappahannock Station on November 7, 1863 Upton led an assault on a Confederate redoubt. Rather than stop and return enemy fire, he ordered a bayonet charge. This tactic allowed the infantry lines to maintain momentum and reduce casualties, thus putting more weight in the ranks upon reaching the objective point. Such an approach had proven successful at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and once again proved to be effective. Upton’s brigade captured the Confederate position.

The following spring at Spotsylvania Court House, Upton was chosen to lead a similar attack, but on a much larger scale. With twelve regiments, he was given the task of assaulting the famous “Mule Shoe Salient”. He would again employ the use of the bayonet but expand on the general premise. Upton decided to attack in a compact column, using a three by four formation. Each line of regiments had a specific assignment during the assault. Most importantly, Upton was to serve as the initial phase of a much larger operation. His regiments were to move forward, punch a hole in the line and hold their position long enough for supporting troops to arrive and exploit the breech. The assault was initially successful, earning Upton a promotion to Brigadier General, however the attack was unsupported and he was eventually forced to fall back to the Union lines. This column assault was unofficially adopted by the Federals and was used again at Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, where Upton led yet another, similar assault and at Petersburg.

After the war, Upton revised the army manuals based on his new tactics and served as Commandant of Cadets at West Point. He also traveled extensively overseas, observing and studying the military forces of Europe and Asia. He wrote a number of treatises on the military of the United States and foreign nations. Whether it was the ongoing grief from the loss of his wife or no clear fix to his poor health, authors and historians today still cannot agree on the reason or reasons why he took his own life early in the spring of 1881. Upton is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York. Interestingly enough, he rests next to Captain Myles Keogh who perished with Custer.

Despite the questions regarding his death, I believe Upton’s image has not become shrouded with the passage of time. If I had to stop and think about it, I am drawn to Upton because he was successfully able to make logic out of chaos. In the process, he likely saved many of the lives of the men who followed him into battle who may died otherwise using ┬átraditional linear tactics. That is where I think his greatness lies.

5 Responses to Remembering Emory Upton

  1. Of interest to me is the nearness of Upton’s death to that of General McDowell, also at the Presidio in San Francisco. Only a few years separated them, but much was made of Upton’s demise. There were obits & editorials aplenty. McDowell, who died on May 4, 1885, was barely mentioned. Granted, he died from an illness, and he lost at Bull Run, but geez–doesn’t anyone care? Apparently not.

  2. Meg I care about McDowell because of his relationship to Bull Run/Manassas. Also interesting is Secretary of State William Seward is buried with Upton and Keogh in Fort Hill Cemetery.

    1. I am so glad to hear that you are a McDowell fan as well. I will be searching for his living relatives beginning this summer, so any help would be appreciated. Why would I bug them? Irvin McDowell’s headstone at the Presidio–a plain, unpretentious stone such as most Civil War soldiers have–is inscribed as “Irwin McDowell.” This is on my bucket list to at least try to do something about. So is getting something put up at California’s Fort Tejon concerning Major/Doctor Jonathan Letterman. Tejon was the last place he served before being called East for the war, and there is nothing to indicate the service of this great man. Short list, but all-important to me!

  3. Big fan of both Mr. Upton and being from Michigan (Detroit) I’ve tied to read all reputable material on Mr. Custer even before I became a converted Civil War addict from a 20 year WWII addict 5 years ago. (I’ve purchased about 350 Civil War books in that time and nearly all Blue & Gray magazines so feel free to stage a intervention) Anyway I totally agree with you about Mr. Upton in terms there had to be some genius there. So many Generals, Division commanders, Brigade, Regiment, Company on both sides sensisly ordered these frontal charges without any of them until Mr. Upton came along sitting back in there cozy confiscated house’s and saying “wait, these charges really are not working and cause mass casualties should we maybe try something new?” So kudos to Mr. Upton, the personal and professional awards he reaped and especially to the untold thousands of lives he saved. His death was tragic and a great mystery. As for Mr Custor after reading so much material I want to believe otherwise but I believe his personal race with Crooks to clear the plains lead to his ego driving him and causing him to make careless, arrogant decisions. On a connected note to the pointless frontal charges of the Civil War a connection I’ve never heard anyone talk or write about its the reason I have absolutely no interest in WWI, they developed machine guns, barbed wire, tanks, planes, and had 51 years to study the American Civil War yet Infantry was used on a much bigger scale in the same way, it’s mind blowing. Only reason I read any WWI books is I read EVERYTHING Sir Churchill writes as EVERY historian should and I read the social, economic, and the Treaty the Germans were made to sign in Versailles because as all good Historians know WW2 was just a continuation of WWI

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