Sunday, December 6, 2009

Emory Upton: Brilliant Innovator and Tragic Genius

image In the early morning hours of May 10, 1864, 12 regiments of Union soldiers from the Army of the Potomac crouched anxiously under the cover of some trees awaiting the order to assault an entrenched position occupied by Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. These Confederate trenches were heavily fortified, occupying open ground near Spotsylvania Court House and, from all appearances, this would just be another costly frontal attack in a war that had already seen far too many. However, this attack would be different. Rather than going forward in long lines, advancing steadily but slowly, while exchanging volleys with the entrenched enemy, these Union soldiers would attack in a dense, concentrated column with great speed, and each regiment would have a specific assignment once the Confederate line was breached. In a war of utterly stagnated tactics, this would be an almost visionary approach and it was the brainchild of a young 24-year old colonel named Emory Upton. Upton would go on from Spotsylvania to become one of the greatest military minds this nation has ever produced and would be, in many ways, the father of the modern U.S. Army. Still, I will wager many of you have never even heard his name.

Upton was born in 1839 on his family’s farm near Batavia, New York, the tenth child of Daniel and Electra Randall Upton. He was a deeply religious young man and, at the age of 15, he attended Oberlin College, studying under evangelist Charles Finney. Sharing a small room with a childhood friend, he worked hard, studying and laboring at part-time jobs to pay his tuition and living expenses. Upton was always polite the closest anyone remembered him coming to a profane statement was an occasional “confound it” or a determined “by jiminy.”

While his years at Oberlin were happy ones, Upton had long harbored dreams of a military career and he made those dreams known to Judge Benjamin Pringle, the Congressman from the district surrounding Batavia. In March 1856, Pringle wrote young Upton to inform him that he was being appointed to the Corps of Cadets at West Point and that he would report to the Academy the following June. Upon arrival there, Upton threw himself into the life of a cadet and later wrote his sister saying, "I am passionately attached to West Point, and would not give up my appointment here for a million dollars.” He would graduate and receive his commission as a second lieutenant in May 1861, finishing eighth in a class of 45. Normally, a newly commissioned officer would be granted furlough to visit his family, but, with the firing on Fort Sumter a month earlier, Upton was immediately sent to Washington DC to help train the thousands of raw volunteers flooding into camps outside the capital.

He was assigned to the 4th U.S. Artillery but was transferred within days to the 5th U.S. Artillery and promoted to first lieutenant. He diligently helped train new recruits and went into action with them at the Battle of First Bull Run in July, where he received the first of three wounds he would suffer during the course of the war. The Union debacle at Bull Run made a deep impression on Upton and he clearly saw what happened when inexperienced volunteers soldiers were taken into battle too quickly. This experience would be just one of the things that lead him later call for a total revision in the traditional American reliance on untrained volunteer soldiers.

As the war progressed, Upton would move to command the 121st New York Infantry Regiment, leading them at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. Here, he began to contemplate changes in the infantry tactics being used. These tactics, which were nothing but slightly modified formations from the Mexican War, were, in Upton’s eyes, both grossly ineffective and, worse, costly in terms of the lives being lost to enemy rifle fire. He also became acutely aware of the poor quality of leadership exhibited by many senior officers and their often equally poor knowledge of tactics and strategy. Worse, Upton, who was ambitious in his own way, could not garner promotion because he refused to develop purely political connections. While his talents had seen him rise to command of the 2nd Brigade of the VI Corps’ 1st Division, he was still only a colonel. Just before the start of Grant’s Overland Campaign, he wrote his sister saying,

My long-expected promotion is not forthcoming. General Meade has informed me that without political influence I will never be promoted. This consolation, however, remains, if justice has not been done, I have ever performed my duty faithfully and without regard to personal safety. The recommendation of those officers whose lives have been periled in every battle of the war have been overweighted by the baneful influence of the paltry politicians.

But it was during that very campaign that Upton came to the attention of Ulysses Grant and other senior officers. Grant had fought Lee to an unsuccessful, bloody draw in The Wilderness and tried to quickly shift his forces left to take possession of Spotsylvania Court House, drawing Lee into a fight in the open. However, the resilient Lee moved faster and, when the Army of the Potomac arrived, they found Lee blocking the way and well entrenched. Lee’s position stretched nearly 10 miles but, at its center, there was a vulnerable mule shoe-shaped salient. While this salient was well-defended by both infantry and artillery from Ewell’s Corps, it did offer an opportunity to break Lee’s line at its very center. If a breakthrough could be made, follow-on attacks might roll up Lee’s now exposed line in both directions. The VI Corps was given the assignment to achieve a breakthrough and Upton was chosen to plan and lead the attack.

image Upton was given 12 regiments to execute the assault on the morning of May 10, 1864, a total of about 5,000 men. Upton developed a plan and approach that was both intricate but simple. The idea was to follow a massive artillery barrage on the salient, striking with speed and focusing all the attacking power on a very narrow front at the left angle of the salient. To accomplish this, he organized his force into a tight column of four lines, with three regiments to a line. The men would advance at the double quick with bayonets fixed, but they would not stop to fire any volleys. In fact, only the first line would go in with their rifles loaded and capped, ready to fire. The rest of the lines, meanwhile, would have their weapons loaded, but they would not cap them, removing any temptation to stop and fire at the enemy.

In addition, each line was given a specific assignment to accomplish once the works were carried. The first line had the toughest task. The 96th Pennsylvania and 121st New York would turn right down the line and capture an artillery battery while the 5th Maine went left and enfiladed the enemy with rifle fire. The second line, meanwhile, would enter the trenches facing forward and engage any enemy counterattack from that direction. The third line would then lie down behind the second and move forward to plug any holes resulting from Confederate counterattacks, while the fourth remained at the edge of the woods as a reserve. Once the breakthrough was made, men from the II and IX Corps would attack on either side of Upton’s force in an attempt to shatter Lee’s line completely.

At 5:00 a.m., Union artillery opened fire on the salient and kept up a severe barrage for an hour. Then, at 5:50 a.m., Upton was told to ready his men and move off as soon as the artillery fire ceased. Upon his signal, Upton’s men crept quietly forward to the edge of the pine trees and awaited the command to attack. Across the field, the soldiers of Rhodes’ Division from Ewell’s Corps had no indication that anything was amiss, except for what one described as an ominous “death-like stillness” following the Federal artillery barrage. Suddenly, Upton’s column emerged from the woods to their front and began to sprint towards the Confederate trenches with a loud shout. Rhodes’ men quickly began to open fire and some of Upton’s force fell. However, the rest surged forward like an irrepressible blue wave, rapidly closing in, then rolling up and over the Southern barricades in just a few minutes.

image The first line leapt into the trenches, pealing left and right as planned, fighting with bayonets and pushing all resistance aside. While few soldiers were killed or wounded by bayonet during the Civil War, this engagement was the exception. One Georgian counted at least 56 comrades felled by Union bayonets during the vicious struggle amid the Confederate entrenchments. Upton described the fighting as follows:

…at command, the lines rose, moved noiselessly to the edge of the wood, and then, with a wild cheer and faces averted, rushed for the works. Through a terrible front and flank 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 by musket-balls. Others, seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arms length and fired downward, while others, poising their pieces vertically, hurled them down upon their enemy, pinning them to the ground. Lieutenant Johnston, of the One hundred and Twenty-first New York, received a bayonet wound through the thigh. Private O'Donnell, Ninety-sixth Pennsylvania Volunteers, was pinned to the parapet, but was rescued by his comrades. A private of the Fifth Maine, having bayoneted a rebel, was fired at by the captain, who, missing his aim, in turn shared the same fate. The brave man fell by a shot from the rebel lieutenant. The struggle lasted but a few seconds. Numbers prevailed, and, like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works, quickly putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered. Pressing forward and expanding to the right and left, the second line of intrenchments, its line of battle, and the battery fell into our hands. The column of assault had accomplished its task. The enemy's lines were completely broken and an opening had been made for the division which was to have supported on our left, but it did not arrive.

Sadly, as Upton noted, the attack achieved its initial goal, but the supporting forces were badly managed and did not attack in a coordinated fashion. Upton’s men held their position until it was obvious no help was coming. At that point, he ordered his men to withdraw. As would occur so often in the war, it had all been for nothing. Still, Grant was impressed by what he had seen, writing later:

Upton had gained an important advantage, but a lack in others of the spirit and dash possessed by him lost it to us. Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act was confirmed by the President.

As the campaign continued, Upton despaired from what he saw as a mounting toll of lost lives resulting from poor leadership. Following the horrific slaughter at Cold Harbor on June 3, he wrote his sister two letters in which he poured out his anger:

I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed. Assault after assault has been ordered upon the enemy's intrenchments, when they knew nothing about the strength or position of the enemy. Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties. I must confess that, so long as I see such incompetency, there is no grade in the army to which I aspire.

We are now at Cold Harbor, where we have been since June 1st. On that day we had a murderous engagement. I say murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy's intrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities…I am very sorry to say I have seen but little generalship during the campaign. Some of our corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not even ride along their lines; yet, without hesitancy, they will order us to attack the enemy, no matter what their position or numbers. Twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should to-day be in our ranks.

As the army moved to lay siege to Petersburg, Upton continued to rail against unprofessional officers and poor leadership. At one point, his men took a portion of the Confederate works, only to be ordered to fall back and then be asked retake them the next day. Infuriated, Upton wrote,

This morning we were marched outside of the works to support and participate in an assault upon the enemy's works. The order was countermanded in time to prevent a deliberate murder of our troops. The line we were to assault was evacuated by the enemy on the 16th, and was occupied by our troops, who fell back from them without firing a shot. It was not till the enemy had reoccupied them in stronger force than before that it was discovered that their possession was of great importance to us. Brilliant generalship that, which would abandon voluntarily a line of works, allow the enemy to take possession, and then drive them from it by a glorious charge ! This kind of stupidity has cost us already twenty thousand men. It is time that it should be stopped.

While this might be seen as an officer merely griping under the strain of combat, for Upton, far more was happening than just idle complaining. These experiences were lighting a flame inside him and one he would carry forth into the post-war years.

Before the war ended, Upton would transfer to the Western Theater, ably serving as a cavalry commander under General James Wilson, who would become Upton’s lifelong friend. With Lee and Johnston’s surrenders in April 1865, Upton was one of only a handful of officers who could claim to have fought the war in all three branches, artillery, infantry, and cavalry, and had done so with distinction in each. Wilson urged him to leave the Army and come with him into the railroad business. However, Upton declined the offer, stating that he wanted to stay in the Army where he hoped to make a career in the study of tactics, administration, and military organization. He keenly hoped to reform some of the wrongs he had witnessed during the war.

Immediately following the war, Upton wrote a comprehensive report on infantry tactics, which recommended numerous changes in Army doctrine. The report was adopted by a special board overseen by General Grant, who described its “superior merit,” noting that, for the first time, the U.S. Army had a uniquely American doctrine and not one based on a translation of a European manual.

During this period, Upton fell in love with a young woman from his native upstate New York, Emily Norwood Martin. Up to this point in his life, Upton had little time for women or courtship and Emily turned him inside out. He adored her and the two were married in early 1868. Upton took a leave of absence for a year, going to Europe with his new bride. Tragically, the marriage, while happy, was short lived. Emily died in 1870 and, in some ways, Upton never recovered from her loss.

Throwing himself into work, he moved on to a five-year assignment as Commandant of Cadets at West Point, where he also taught infantry, artillery, and cavalry tactics. At West Point, he resumed his intense study of military history and policy. With the end of the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, he proposed to travel to Paris and Berlin to see what might be learned from those two recently bloodied armies. General-in-Chief William T. Sherman agreed but offered an opportunity for an even larger study. Sherman ordered Upton to proceed on a round-the-world journey of some 18 months, first going to Asia, then India, Russia, and, finally, Europe. He was to take two other officers with him and make a comprehensive study of the different military forces he observed.

Upton left San Francisco in August 1877 and returned in December 1878. At first, he saw the task of documenting his findings daunting, indeed, but he chose to take an approach that might get the attention of military and political leaders and alert them to the need for reform in the Army:

I might as well try to capture a flock of wild pigeons as to capture my thoughts and arrange them in logical order for official use. I shall, therefore, have to go to Washington, where I shall have access to books, papers, and figures, and other notes necessary for my argument. I shall devote most of my attention to the subject of officers, and to showing our reckless extravagance in making war. When Germany fought France she put her army on a war-footing in eight days, and in eight days more she had four hundred thousand men on French territory. It took us from April, 1861, to March, 1862, to form an army of the same size at an expense of nearly eight hundred millions of dollars. We can not maintain a great army in peace, but we can provide a scheme for officering a large force in time of war, and such a scheme is deserving of study.

He finally submitted a massive 400-page report that was published image in 1878 entitled The Armies of Asia and Europe. His report used a comparative approach, comparing the relatively weak military forces of the United States to its foreign counterparts, and it concluded with 54 pages of recommendations for military reform. However, while the report generated a great deal of discussion within professional military circles, nothing came from his recommendations.

Upton decided to take a new approach by writing a detailed history of the nation’s military policies. As he completed each chapter, he sent them for review by a group composed of Colonel Henry DuPont, General Sherman, and James A. Garfield, then a member of the House of Representatives. Upton tried to demonstrate that traditional American reliance on a small professional military augmented by untrained volunteers was increasingly out of step with modern warfare. And, while the nation had no natural enemies and was guarded by the seas, he could clearly see this would not protect the nation forever. Eventually, war with a modern foreign power would come and the military policies we had employed for over a century would lead to disaster.

This new study followed on to those he made in his first book and urged reforms in both the administrative aspects of the army as well as its permanent composition. As to the former, he proposed creation of a general staff, compulsory retirement of officers at age 62, a formal system of regular evaluation and examinations to determine competence, interchangeable assignments between line and staff, and a system of advanced professional military education. These he saw as remedies for the incompetence he witnessed during the Civil War. Meanwhile, his recommendations for the Army’s composition were even more groundbreaking. He called for a standing Regular Army proportional to the size of the population with 1,000 men for every million in populace. This force would be augmented by units called “National Volunteers” who could be expanded in time of war or national crisis. Finally, there would be the state militias, which would be solely supported by the states. With this system in place, no longer would it take years to field an army capable of defending the nation.

By early 1881, Upton’s history was progressing rapidly and he had made it to the chapter on American policy at the time of the Civil War. However, that was as far as his work would go. On March 15, 1881, he committed suicide in his quarters at The Presidio in San Francisco. When one reads the words of his friends written in the years following his death, you can see that they were groping to understand why this brilliant man had taken his own life at the age of 42. While it still unclear exactly what prompted this tragedy, it appears that Upton was suffering great pain from what was almost certainly a brain tumor. However, he also seems to have been struggling with a growing depression over his lack of progress in military reform. Just two days before his death, he wrote a letter indicating his intentions in which he said, "God only knows how it will eventually end, but I trust he will lead me to sacrifice myself, rather than to perpetuate a method which might in the future cost a single man his life."

image However, his ideas did not die with him. Henry DuPont had the completed chapters of Upton’s history published as The Military Policy of the United States in 1904. The publication’s timing was almost perfect, as the War Department was moving to reform the Army at last. Upton’s book was seized upon by Secretary of War Elihu Root and almost all of his proposed reforms were finally implemented. Today, they can be seen in everything from the Army’s promotion system to the existence of the Army War College and the National Guard. Tragically, Emory Upton did not live to see his innovation and vision come to life. But he was to the Army what Alfred Thayer Mahan was to the Navy, and left us a legacy that has served our nation well.


  1. Very interesting... thanks for great info on Emory Upton and his role in changing the Army.

  2. A great American hero and abolisionist.

  3. Emory was my great great uncle.
    He was an American hero.
    More than that he was a true American patriot in every sense of the word who cared about his country and All of its people of all colors and creeds.
    His is a story that should be appreciated by all Americans. It's a story of resilience and truth.