Book Review: “Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer”

Book Review by Emerging Civil War’s Derek Maxfield


In the small Upstate New York city of Batavia, there are no historic heroes bigger than Emory Upton.  You need look no farther than the larger than life statue honoring him and soldiers of the Civil War that sits strategically by the county courthouse at the split of two major highways.  Yet, few can tell you more than that he was a Civil War general.  A new biography by Dr. David Fitzpatrick, Professor of History at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, seeks to bring the life of Upton to a new generation.

Prior to 2016, the last biography of Upton was written by Stephen E. Ambrose, Upton and the Army, published in 1964, so Upton was overdue for a new look and, according to Fitzpatrick, a reappraisal because for too long the critical view of Upton has dominated the scholarship; “the Weigley-Ambrose appraisal of Upton and of his influence remains prominent into the early twenty-first century.” Russell Weigley, a respected military historian, called Upton a “militaristic zealot” who “proposed a military system…which even he scarcely expected to work in the American context.”  The Ambrose biography, Fitzpatrick contends, “builds a biography based largely on Weigley’s critique.”(4-5)

Although he did not set out to challenge Weigley or Ambrose, Fitzpatrick discovered, much to his surprise, that far from denigrating the volunteer soldier or “that Upton had been a militarist and had held anti-democratic proclivities,” instead he had “been their advocate” and was greatly “concerned about the threat to republicanism posed by a politicized army…”  While Weigley found a “Uptonian pessimism”…[that] pervaded the U.S. Army in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” Fitzpatrick found “little pessimism…Uptonian or otherwise.”(4-6)

As the title of the book suggests, Fitzpatrick is mainly concerned with Upton the reformer.  Anyone looking for a Civil War book may be disappointed to find that Upton’s Civil War career is over by page eighty-three.  This is unfortunate given Upton fascinating career that spanned service in the infantry, artillery and cavalry.

As commander of the 121st NY Infantry, Upton is well known for his iron discipline, but Fitzpatrick demonstrates that “he also developed a system of rewards for those who performed their duties well.”(37)  The colonel even held out the possibility that those who showed merit might be promoted to lieutenant.  On the other side of that coin, Upton had a disregard for incompetent officers who he had no problem disciplining or cashiering.

Developing a theme that would recur throughout Upton’s career, Fitzpatrick illustrates the beginnings of Upton’s disgust with politicians who sought to interfere with the army.  According to the author, “Upton resisted politicians’ efforts to influence promotions in his regiment.” In fact, the colonel had developed a system of examinations which he used to ensure “the highest state of discipline and efficiency…”  Merit alone would determine fitness for promotion in “Upton’s Regulars.” (38)

Undoubtedly, one of the characteristics that Upton exhibited in his Civil War career was ambition.  When he determined that he was more fit for a brigadier general’s rank, he worked tirelessly to gain the star on his shoulders – even if it meant he needed to secure the cooperation of a politician.  This distasteful effort began shortly after Maj. Gen. George Meade, then commander of the Army of the Potomac, admitted “he would never receive his much-desired and well-deserved promotion without the intervention of a prominent politician.”  “This judgement,” Fitzpatrick argued, “reinforced the New Yorker’s already pronounced distrust of the role political influence played in the commissioning and promotion processes.”(50)

Of course, Upton’s most famous tactical exploit was at the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864, when his brigade would launch an unorthodox attack on the Muleshoe salient.  That and an enlarged version of it later were tactical successes but strategic failures.  Still, they proved the wisdom of Upton’s tactical vision and earned him a battlefield promotion to brigadier general from Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.  This episode led Fitzpatrick to observe that “Upton had experienced a remarkable metamorphosis…At the start of the war he had been willing to serve his nation in any manner required; by 1864 he was in search of personal glory.  These two desires were not mutually exclusive.”(66) Ambitious though he became, Upton was clearly right that he was better suited to command than many others.

As if there was any doubt of Upton’s capacity, at the Battle of Opequon Creek, Upton and his brigade saved the day when a Confederate counterattack threatened to break a hole in the Union lines.  “For the third time in less than a year,” Fitzpatrick observed, “Upton had proven that he had few equals in the entire Union army in the realm of tactical leadership.”(70)  Unfortunately for Upton and Sheridan’s army, the general would be grievously wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester and would leave the war to recover in Batavia.

The final chapter of Upton’s war career featured command of a cavalry division in the west under Maj. Gen. James Wilson, who had admired Upton’s conduct in the Shenandoah.  Diving into Alabama in March 1865, the objective was the destruction of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s force and rebel industries supporting the war effort.  Stunningly successful, as few could boast they bested Forrest, Wilson’s corps captured Selma, scattered Forrest’s command, paraded through the streets of Montgomery, and seized Columbus, Georgia, before word reached them that Lee and Johnston had surrendered their armies.

The war’s end was bittersweet for Upton.  He had attained great success and considerable renown, but the carnage of war haunted him.  “Unlike Charles Royster,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “who argues that the war’s destructiveness and violence were the inevitable outcome of the developments in mid-nineteenth-century American society, Upton had come to believe that politicians, some of whom were traitors, and inept generals were responsible for the length of the war and its attendant death and devastation.”(83)

Upton’s career as a reformer took a new turn in the summer of 1865, partially as the result of encouragement by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, when he undertook the task of rewriting the U.S. Army tactics manual.  Upton appeared before an army board in the summer of 1866 where he presented his findings and demonstrated his tactics using the Corps of Cadets at West Point.  The result was unanimous endorsement by the board and subsequent approval by Gen. Grant.  Upton’s Infantry Tactics, Double and Single Rank, Adapted to American Topography and Improved Firearms was now the official tactics manual of the U.S. Army.

The five years following the war’s end were crowded with frustration and sorrow for Upton as he bounced from post to post and getting nowhere fast.  The high point and later the low point of the period were Upton’s courtship and marriage to Emily Martin in Feb. 1868.  In addition to companionship, though this would be frequently interrupted by tours of duty and Emily’s need to recuperate in milder climates, the marriage would bring religion squarely into his life.  According to Fitzpatrick, “Religion remained important to their relationship even as the couple was apart.  Upton seems to have realized that Emily had married him, at least in part, to bring him back to godliness.”(102-103) When Emily died in March 1870, Upton was crushed.  At about the same moment, Upton had been appointed Commandant of Cadets at West Point.  This at least might open an avenue to rejuvenate his career.

After a rocky tenure at West Point and a seventeen month mission to study militaries around the world, Upton set out to reform the U.S. military.  According to Fitzpatrick, “His ideas reflected lessons he had learned during and after the Civil War, and they represented an effort to adapt the German system to American realities.” While Germany had mandatory service, Upton based his recommendations on what he called “National Volunteers” which was more appropriate to “serve and preserve democratic-republican institutions.”(182)

Upton’s resultant work, The Armies of Asia and Europe and Military Policy of the United States, both would come in for much criticism over the years.  Fitzpatrick is sensitive to criticism of Upton’s work and takes great pains to answer the many critiques.  In answer to those that would claim that Upton’s recommendations were inadequate to the wars of the twentieth century, Fitzpatrick argues that Upton’s work needs to be understood in context.

Upton’s proposals for the reform of the means by which the army expanded its organization in time of war, of its bureau system, of the relationship between the secretary of war and the commanding general, and of the officer promotion and education systems all were efforts to apply the lessons of America’s previous conflicts as well as what he learned from his observations of other nations’ armies. (206)

The reforms suggested by Upton for the military were nonetheless also political.  And, after all, it would be a matter of political will to make the necessary changes in the face of entrenched interests.  Rolled into a long complex bill – the so-called Burnside Bill – the reforms met defeat.  Although disappointed, Upton’s skepticism and distrust of politicians had prepared him and he had expected the worst.  That did not stop him, however, from continuing to advocate for particular reforms such as a compulsory retirement requirement for officers.

Finally in the summer of 1880 Upton was promoted to colonel.  But with the promotion came a transfer to San Francisco to command the Fourth U.S. Field Artillery at the Presidio.  Upton, however, was beginning to suffer the effects of the illness that would lead to his demise and he sought leave to delay his departure for California.  Upton’s brief tenure in San Francisco was marked by worries about his Tactics and growing unmanageable pain in his head.  Sometime during the night – probably early March 14th – Upton ended his life using a Colt revolver.

There has been much speculation about why Upton committed suicide.  Some have suggested his frustrated career ambitions, the death of Emily, his growing belief in the failure of his Tactics and the defeat of the Burnside Bill.  But, as Fitzpatrick argues, “Upton’s family appears to have been correct in attributing his actions to the pain from his “nasal catarrh.””

Following the discussion of the reasons for Upton’s suicide, Fitzpatrick dedicates the remaining pages to a spirited defense of Upton and his suggested reforms, concluding that Upton has been much maligned and misunderstood.  “Portrayed as anti-democratic and Prussian-like,” Fitzpatrick wrote, “Upton believed himself to be the defender of republicanism and molded his reforms to accomplish that mission.”(257)

All in all, Fitzpatrick’s biography of Upton is a good read, well researched and compelling.  There is little doubt that Upton is under-appreciated and made important contributions both on the battlefield and in writing.  Some might find that they would prefer more about the war and less about the post war politics, but such was Upton’s life.  Ironically, he might have preferred that too.


David Fitzpatrick, Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer

Harper Perennial; Reprint edition. Paperback edition: 704 pages.

Paperback: 704 pages

Endnotes, Bibliography, Index.

1 Response to Book Review: “Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer”

  1. Good review. I actually thought that Upton’s Civil War experience was adequately covered for a biography of a soldier whose post-war career was so important. If anyone needs to delve deeply into that experience, Cilella’s excellent regimental history is the place to go. One also needs to keep in mind that there appears to be very little in his papers regarding Upton’s experiences as a battery commander.

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