Emory Upton Before the Attack on Spotsylvania

Civil War

Emory Upton Before the Attack on Spotsylvania

Emory Upton may have considered himself a failure, but he was only 24 years old when he led the attack against the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania in May 1864.

Emory Upton may have considered himself a failure, but he was only 24 years old when he led the attack against the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania in May 1864.

by Joseph E. Lowry

Emory Upton was 24 years old when he led the attack against the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania in May 1864. He was born in northwestern New York to parents who imbued in him discipline, religion, and abolitionism, traits that would remain with him the rest of his life. At a fairly early age, Upton knew that he wanted to be a soldier. Pursuing that dream led him to the United States Military Academy at West Point, after a brief attendance at Oberlin College in Ohio. He arrived at the Hudson River campus in June 1856.

While not a gifted student, Emory Upton worked hard at his studies, drawing upon the discipline taught him by his parents and his desire to succeed as a soldier. His upbringing left no doubt as to which side Upton would choose in the coming war. His class graduated in May 1861, a month earlier than scheduled, and Upton stood eighth in his class of 45. This entitled him to his choice of service branch. He selected the artillery.

The Battle of Antietam, Bull Run and South Mountain

Upton was initially sent to the 4th U.S. Artillery, but he was promoted to first lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Artillery eight days after his initial appointment. Prior to Spotsylvania, he participated in the First Battle of Bull Run, one of the first major battles in Virginia, and was wounded in the fighting. After recovering, he participated in the Peninsul and Antietam campaigns, winning more recognition and promotion for his efforts in leading his artillery brigade at South Mountain.

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He chafed at the slow rate of promotion in the Regular Army, and when the opportunity presented itself he accepted appointment as colonel of the 121st New York State Infantry, the previous commander having resigned to run for Congress. Despite his relative youth, Emory Upton’s new troops soon came to appreciate their commander. While he was strict and drilled them regularly, he also made sure that they received improved rations and equipment. The troops admired him so much that they soon called themselves “Upton’s Regulars.” Even hard-to-please Maj. Gen. George Meade was impressed by the regiment’s military capabilities.

“Little Generalship”

Emory Upton did not have much use for most of the generals in the Union Army. As the Overland Campaign ground on, he commented, “I have seen but little generalship during this campaign. Some of our Corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. I must confess that, so long as I see such incompetency, there is no grade in the army to which I do not aspire.” His ambition and abilities led him to propose the risky tactic that was successfully used at the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania. Throughout the remainder of the war, Upton continued to distinguish himself, being wounded again at the Battle of Winchester during the Valley Campaign.

After the war Upton stayed in the Army, trying to reform the military he so dearly loved. He penned several works on military matters. One in particular, Infantry Tactics, would have profound effects on the Army’s organization and method of fighting.

A Sad End to a Brilliant Tactician

As time went on, Upton developed what his doctor called “chronic catarrh,” a mysterious ailment that brought on terrific head pain and eventually affected his thinking and overall outlook on life. Treatment provided little relief. Added to his physical discomfort was Upton’s failure to convince the powers-that-be to adopt his reforms. The combination led to a deep depression.

Finally, Upton could stand it no longer. On the night of March 15, 1881, he wrote out his resignation from the Army he loved and shot himself. The manner of his death shocked and dismayed all who knew him, and many could not accept that a man of his high moral character could do such a thing.

Emory Upton may have felt himself a failure, but his ideas on tactics and Army organization bore fruit that remain to this day. He could not have wanted a more fitting epitaph.

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