Book Review: Till Death Do Us Part: The Letters of Emory and Emily Upton

Salvatore G. Cilella Jr., ed.
Till Death Do Us Part: The Letters of Emory and Emily Upton 1868-1870
University of Oklahoma Press, 2020
$26.95 paperback

If there was ever a perfect storm for suicide, the life of Major General Emory Upton was it. Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr.’s Till Death Do Us Part tells readers the sad story of General Upton and his short, unfortunate, but passionate marriage to Emily Norwood Martin. Through this collection of letters, the private lives of husband and wife are brought to light. The result is an abounding sadness. Yet, as brilliant and accomplished as General Upton was, his devotion to Emily impacts readers in such a way that her death within two years from tuberculosis hits hard.

Few missives from the couple have been published. Still, author Cilella diligently set aside the general’s letters to his wife as he concentrated on his two other books, Correspondence of Major General Emory Upton and Upton’s Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the American Civil War. Cilella’s editorial notes explain that Emily’s letters to Emory did not survive, but the letters she wrote to her parents and other relatives did. They show readers a sensitive, devout young lady deeply in love with her husband and enjoying her European honeymoon as much as possible for one often bedbound. Soon after their return from Europe, Emory returned to active duty, and Emily, with her sister Nelly, sailed to Key West and Nassau, seeking a better climate for Emily’s health. As a result, the couple was separated for months. Collectively, these letters form a poignant love story of Emory’s love for his new wife and her returned affection. Unfortunately, Emily’s battles with health issues marred their short marriage.

Much has been written about Major General Emory Upton. He served in all three branches of the U. S. military during his time in service and was lauded as a hero at the end of the Civil War. He remained in the army and wrote a book on military tactics based on his travels to Europe and discussions with many internationally famous military officers. Yet, it was evident from his letters to Emily and her family that the welfare of his wife was never far from his concern. The most heart-rending part of the book is that the reader knows Emily’s death is imminent.

Little has been written about the role of an officer’s spouse during the mid-1800s, but just as it exists now, it did then. Emily was eager to begin her life as Emory’s helpmate. They collaborated via letters to create a home in which she might entertain, and each purchase is lovingly described. General Upton even procured a carriage and team of horses for her, although she never saw them. Unfortunately, following her husband in his postings was not meant to be. On the advice of friends, she and Emory chose Nassau and Key West as places where Emily might stay for extended periods to help her recover her breathing. Unknowingly, they decided on probably the worst places in the world, known for their high heat and humidity. Although they saw each other briefly in the spring of 1869, Emily died far away from her husband on March 29, 1870. Emory was heartbroken but continued his military career.

The following eleven years were indeed not ones of joy for the unfortunate officer: he was unable to return to Nassau for his wife’s interment. The guilt he must have felt wracked his body

and soul. He was given some time off to work on his book of tactics, but this proved to be no respite. Somehow Upton had gotten an idea in his mind that the tactics book was flawed. Anyone using it was sure to sacrifice soldiers. There seems to be no truth to this charge, simply a comment that somehow grew legs. Nevertheless, Upton was convinced that his years of work on the book were in vain, if not outright dangerous.

Further complicating matters was the development of a sinus tumor for which treatment was both painful and ineffective. According to author Cilella, the tumor was not cancerous but close enough to his frontal lobe, severely affecting Upton’s attitudes and behavior. Just days before Upton’s manservant found the general’s body lying on the bed, gun nearby, a strange conversation was recalled. Speaking to a friend, Upton had complained about his commanding officer Irvin McDowell, his duties at California’s Presidio, and his ongoing concern about the potentially lethal error in his tactics manual. He ended his rant with the words, “I have been in trouble for the last four or five days.” This struck listeners as very strange, for Emory Upton was rarely negative about his life in any way. This time, he had despaired that he was “ruined.” Upton committed suicide at forty-one, eleven years after losing his beloved Emily.

Salvatore Cilella’s Till Death Do Us Part offers the engaging and very poignant story of General Emory Upton and his wife, two unfortunate lovers in the years following the Civil War. Without this last chapter, no study of Upton’s military career is complete, which gives readers a better understanding of American Victorian gender roles and marital relations. This book is worthy of a place beside the battle studies.

1 Response to Book Review: Till Death Do Us Part: The Letters of Emory and Emily Upton

  1. I had always wondered about the circumstances of Emory’s suicide. The loss of his wife and the tumor must have sent him into some stages of deep depression. Can’t properly post-diagnose these things, but the case is convincing. Especially with his attitude toward his book. I’ll have to add this to my TBR list.

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