I’m not sure I would have liked Emory Upton.
By all accounts, Upton was intense, ambitious and many times intolerant of others who were not zealous as he was in all things.
Just a few days ago, the dedication of a historic marker at the Upton Farm outside of Batavia, NY for the first time identified the place where Emory Upton was born, grew up, and returned to time again throughout his short life.
When I arrived in Genesee County, about a decade ago to take up my duties as a professor of history at Genesee Community College, I vaguely knew who Upton was – only bits and pieces picked up, fleetingly, in Bruce Catton’s books or Shelby Foote’s famous Narrative. But it soon became clear to me that I had better find out more about Upton because it was not long before I was being asked about him. And as any professional historian will tell you, if you have the title historian or professor of history on your business card, the public expects that you know everything.
Emory Upton was a local boy turned hero and the folks of Batavia took pride in their general. They even had erected a life-size statue in his honor in front of the county court house. Not many could tell you why he was famous or what exploits caused him to be cast in bronze, but that was no matter – that is why they had you – the historian – to remind them now and again.
Whenever I want to get to know a historical figure, there are a few steps I always take. First, review the secondary literature – usually biographies and accounts of the major battles (for Civil Warriors). Whenever possible, I turn to the primary literature, depending upon how deep of knowledge I am after and if I need to write about that person. These steps are typically the starting points for any scholar.
But I have two more things that I must do to satisfy my own curiosity: I walk the ground and visit the grave.
By walking the ground I mean that I literally tread in their footsteps. I want to stand where they stood. I want to look upon the same landscape (as much as possible). In the case of Emory Upton, I wanted to go to the Spotsylvania Battlefield, where he earned the straps of a brigadier general for suggesting new tactics that he hoped would break the Confederate line along the Mule Shoe salient.
Upton’s attacks, of course, failed ultimately but showed his tactics might work under the right conditions. In any event, Upton earned the admiration of many of his superiors – including Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.
I am not sure that I really learned anything new during my visit – but I certainly felt something looking out from the woods where Upton’s men gathered. And maybe that was the point. The books can only tell you so much. There is nothing like standing on the ground where something historic happened. I have never been able to explain the feeling better than Anthropologist Keith Basso does in a book that I have come to deeply respect – Wisdom Sits in Places:
“In many instances, awareness of place is brief and unselfconscious, a fleeting moment (a flash of recognition, a trace of memory) that is swiftly replaced by awareness of something else. But now and again, and sometimes without apparent cause, awareness is seized – arrested – and the place on which it settles becomes an object of spontaneous reflection and resonating sentiment. It is at times such as these, when individuals step back from the flow of everyday experience and attend self-consciously to places – when, we may say, they pause to actively sense them – that their relationships to geographical space are most richly lived and surely felt. For it is on these occasions of focused thought and quickened emotion that places are encountered most directly, experienced most robustly, and…most fully brought into being. Sensing places, men and women become sharply aware of the complex attachments that link them to features of the physical world. Sensing places, they dwell, as it were, on aspects of dwelling…The experience of sensing places, then, is thus both thoroughly reciprocal and incorrigibly dynamic.” (Basso, Keith A. Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 106-107.)
This ability to feel something at a particular place is not always predictable. In fact, the sensations I experienced at Spotsylvania I have only felt in a handful of places – Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh mainly. And in places where I expected it, there was no unusual feeling – Vicksburg, Cold Harbor, Petersburg and Appomattox Court House. But, the feeling was strong as I gazed at the Mule Shoe and I felt closer to Upton as a result.
The final step I usually take when I want to get to know someone is to visit their grave. Much to the consternation of Upton fans in Batavia, the general’s bones lie in Auburn, NY – the home town of his wife, Emily Martin.
I don’t suppose I actually learn much about someone by visiting their grave, since they do not (usually) choose the type of tombstone, words on the stone or the grave art, but I get a sense of their mortality – and a reminder of my own. And so the trip to Fort Hill Cemetery was necessary.
It is worth noting that William Henry Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, is also buried at Fort Hill.
The reflection that I may not have liked Emory Upton, had I met him, is fairly moot. I am pretty sure I would have respected him. I do now at any rate. And as I gazed upon the newly unveiled historic marker, I felt that Upton deserved the honor…and that it was way overdue.