American general and military strategist Emory Upton (1839–1881) commanded Union Army forces during the U.S. Civil War at several major flashpoints. Military historians cite Upton's role by crediting him with devising tactics for infantry warfare that enabled success amid the forested thickets, swamps, and underdeveloped territories across the American South.
Fresh out of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point at the start of the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), Emory Upton was just 20 years old when he became an active-duty officer with the Union Army. Upton's battlefield heroics made him a legendary figure among veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic, as Union Army survivors then were known, and he was one of the few Northerners to attain distinction as an artillery officer, infantry leader, and cavalry commander during the War between the States. He also produced a distinguished body of written work before his death in 1881 at age 41, arguing for the establishment of a standing army comprised of committed volunteers trained by career officers. Upton's militia “would rely heavily on individual responsibility, aimed marksmanship and unit morale,” explained Kevin Baker in the journal Military History. “It was a shift in tactics that seemed tailor-made for a free people, and it would lay the foundation for the modern American soldier, able to adjust and fight effectively on any terrain in the world.”
Born on August 27, 1839, Upton was the grandson of a Vermont man who had fought on the side of the rebel colonists during the American Revolutionary War. That soldier's daughter, Electra Fifield Upton, reared an impressive 13 children to adulthood on a farm in Genesee County, New York, with her husband Daniel Upton, a New Hampshire native. Their tenth child and sixth son was raised in the Methodist faith of his siblings, and his zeal for military pursuits was kindled upon reading a biography of one of France's greatest figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, at an impressionable age.
The fact that Upton attended Oberlin College identified him as a potential radical thinker when he arrived at West Point in June of 1856; Oberlin was strongly linked with the abolitionist cause, the women's suffrage movement, and other highly inflammatory topics of intense public discourse in the pre–Civil War years. When a cadet from South Carolina made disparaging remarks implying that Oberlin's coeducational policies enabled interracial dating for young men like Upton, the two men crossed blades in a duel, according to a widely repeated story. South Carolina was at the time a slave state, and human bondage was firmly tied to the South's economic fortunes. There was a widening chasm between those who supported Southern states' rights and those who—predominantly living in New England and a region of New York State settled by families such as Upton's—viewed it as morally unconscionable for Americans to allow slavery to continue.
The conflict regarding slavery helped contribute to the U.S. Civil War, which began in April of 1861. Three weeks later, on May 6, Upton graduated, eighth out of 34 cadets in his class. Like the next group of 45 West Pointers, who completed their senior year in June, Upton immediately entered the U.S. Armed Forces as a commissioned officer. That year's graduating class was rife with men who began as teenaged cadets and wound up commanding entire divisions committed to full-scale military assault against one another to either preserve the Union or establish the separate Confederate States of America. Within this unique generation, Upton merited his own chapter in a 1999 nonfiction work by Ralph Kirshner, The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point, and its subtitle heralds him as “The Class Genius.”
Upton's record of service with the Union Army was a remarkable one. He began as a second lieutenant with the 4th U.S. Artillery and was promoted just days later to first lieutenant. Less than three months after graduating from West Point, he was wounded in the First Battle of Bull Run in Prince William County, Virginia. Here he earned the attention of his superior officers due to his fierce commitment to remain engaged in battle even after being shot in his left arm and having his horse slain from under him by Confederate fire. After he recovered, Upton took part in the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia as a battery commander in the Union Army's attempt to take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. In September of 1862 he commanded an artillery brigade during the Battle of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Maryland.
Upton proved himself a talented officer in the artillery, the division that entered battle equipped with cannons and other technologically advanced weaponry. He then made the unusual move of accepting a post with an infantry unit, a separate division that recruited from “regular” citizens. This unit, the 121st New York Volunteer Infantry, was hastily formed in the first year of the war and drew recruits from the Otsego, New York, area. The unit became known as Upton's Regulars and gained renown for their performance as part of the larger Army of the Potomac. Upton led the 121st New York during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December of 1862 as well as during the protracted agony of the Battle of Gettysburg during the following summer. In the latter battle, the Union Army successfully ousted Confederate forces that had crossed the line into Pennsylvania.
In November of 1863, Upton earned a promotion to brevet major for his role in seizing a vital winter supply point for the Confederates over the Rappahannock River in northern Virginia. After regrouping with other units under the command of Union Army leader General Ulysses S. Grant, he again demonstrated superior leadership skills and decisive thinking in battle during the Overland Campaign undertaken in May of 1864. During the first week of that month, Grant's force engaged in the infamous two-daylong Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia.
Upton's most enduring contribution to the timeline of Union Army victories over its Confederate foes came a week later, amid another two-day clash known as the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. His strategy to attack a Confederate stronghold in a wave of columns rather than the typical linear charge prompted his commanders to send a cable to President Abraham Lincoln recommending that Upton be promoted to the rank of brigadier general after the first night of fighting ended on May 10, 1864. Lincoln telegraphed his assent.
Upton was promoted once again in the field during the Third Battle of Winchester in September of 1864. This time, he was hit by Confederate fire, injuring his thigh close to the femoral artery; he insisted upon remaining in the field and directed the movements of the regiments from his stretcher until he lost consciousness. He was made a Union Army colonel on September 19, 1864, and a month later, as he recuperated, advanced to the rank of major general in the volunteer force.
When his medical leave ended, Upton traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to head a new mission as part of the Cavalry Corps of the Union Army. Serving under Major General James Harrison Wilson, he devised strategies to ensure a complete rout of Confederate forces as the war drew to a close with an assured Union victory. He participated in the Battle of Selma in Alabama in early April; two weeks later, following the Battle of Columbus in Georgia, his units secured an enormous cache of arms and ammunition as well as 1,500 prisoners of war. It was Upton's unit that arrested the Confederacy's vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, at his plantation in Taliaferro County, Georgia.
On May 8, 1865, Upton and his cavalry soldiers retook the federal arsenal in Augusta, Georgia, in one of the final acts of the war. After supervising the triumphant ceremony during which the Confederate standard was removed from the flagpole and the Stars and Stripes run up to fly once again, he delivered a rousing speech to his men. “Majestically, triumphantly she rises!,” Upton enthused, according to Peter S. Michie's 1885 biography, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton. In closing, Upton referred to the Union volunteers' imminent return to their civilian lives by saying that “The parting of the troops from their trusted commanders shows depth of feeling and devotion possible only among men who love liberty and fight to maintain it.”
Upton was dispatched to a U.S. military fort at Denver, Colorado, after the war, and in November of 1867, he married Emily Norwood Martin of Otsego, New York. The couple traveled to Europe, and while in Italy Emily contracted tuberculosis. She died two years later, in 1870, in the Bahamas. Now widowed, Upton retreated to a quiet job as commandant of cadets at West Point and revised an earlier edition of his textbook Infantry Tactics: Double and Single Rank.
In 1875, Upton left West Point and embarked upon an ambitious world tour with two other reform-minded military officials. Their journey began in Japan and included an overland sortie following the tall posts of the Anglo-Indian Telegraph Company across remote parts of Eurasia. Upton spent an extended period of time in Russia, Germany, and France, where he met with military officials and compiled a long list of reforms he envisioned for the U.S. Department of War.
Upton completed his magnum opus, The Armies of Europe and Asia, in 1878. One of his fellow civil-war heroes, Rhode Island politician Ambrose Burnside, attempted to secure enough Senate support for a proposed military-reform bill based on Upton's ideas, but that effort failed in 1879. A year later Upton was sent to California to serve as commander of the 4th U.S. Artillery based at the Presidio of San Francisco. On March 15, 1881, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at the Bay Area landmark. His second major tract on warcraft, The Military Policy of the United States from 1775, was published 23 years later in 1904, after his friend and fellow West Point cadet Henry A. DuPont completed the manuscript.
Upton was one of the highest-ranking U.S. military officers to die by his own hand while still in uniform but not under the stress of combat-related psychological strain. His suicide prompted the consternation of many peers and subordinates dating back to his days at West Point, all who attested to his fastidious character, robust physical health, and overall conscientious disposition over the years, especially in battle. A physician in Philadelphia who was close to Upton reported that he had been suffering from excruciating headaches in recent years and posited that the general was suffering from a brain tumor or cancer of the sinus cavity.
Upton bequeathed his estate to his family and in his will made provisions for the education of his nephews. One of them was a namesake born in 1865, who went on to found the Upton Machine Company in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This later became the Whirlpool Corporation, one of the giants of American appliance manufacturing in the 20th century. Among Upton's other descendants is Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue model and actress Kate Upton.
Ambrose, Stephen E., Upton and the Army, 1964, paperback edition, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Fitzpatrick, David J., Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer, University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.
Kirshner, Ralph, The Class of 1861: Custer, Ames, and Their Classmates after West Point, Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.
Michie, Peter S., The Life and Letters of Emory Upton, D. Appleton & Company, 1885.
Military History, May 2012, Kevin Baker, “Emory Upton and the Shaping of the U.S. Army,” pp. 38–45.□