Emory Upton – A Compressed Biography

Jul 19, 2016
Spotsylvania Virginia
Emory Upton - A Compressed Biography

“if there are anymore of you down there that want anything, come right up”​

Approximately twenty-five miles south of Lake Ontario and thirty miles east of Buffalo, nestled in preteen upper central New York sits the town of Batavia. It was there on the 27 day of August 1839 that Daniel and Electra Randall Upton welcomed their sixth son and tenth child into the world. Emory grew up in a Reformed Methodist family, and his early Christian teachings remained with him throughout his life. He never smoked, drank, or cursed; he seldom smiled nor carried on an unnecessary conversation and he prayed frequently.

At age fifteen he enrolled into Oberlin College in Ohio and studied under Presbyterian evangelist Charles G. Finney. At the time of his enrollment, Oberlin was one of the few gender and ethnically integrated schools of higher education in America. But, his new life as a student wasn’t his ultimate goal, however. His primary fascination, from an early age, was with the military. After reading a book on Napoleon, he knew he wanted to be a military officer. Following his second year of higher education, the seventeen-year-old student was accepted as a cadet at the US Military Academy, West Point in 1856.

As our nation became more divided during the late 1850s, cadets from both north and south begin aiming insults at one another. Historian Thomas Fleming wrote that many of the southern cadets hurled insults at Upton. One of those was Cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina. When Cadet Gibbes insulted Cadet Emory Upton, accusing him of “enjoying the Negro coeds at Oberlin”, Upton demanded an apology. When Gibbes declined, the northern Upton challenged Gibbes to a duel. “They struggled it out with swords in a darkened cadet barracks room cleared of furniture, while half the corps packed the nearby halls and stairs. The bigger Gibbes gave Upton a terrific beating but the real climax, according to Ohioan, Morris Schaff, came when Upton’s roommate, Pennsylvanian John Rogers, came to the top of the stairs with eyes glaring like a panther and said “if there are anymore of you down there that want anything, come right up”, Schaff recalled. During the ensuing melee Upton suffered a cut to the face. He graduated eighth in his class of forty-five cadets on May 6, 1861.

(Emory Upton Wikipedia)
By First Bull Run, first Lieutenant Upton distinguished himself by refusing to leave the field after having a horse shot from under him and suffering wounds to his side and arm while commanding his artillery at the opposing army during action at Blackburn’s Ford. Gaining the attention of superiors for his heroic actions, he was given a battery during the Peninsula campaign, then a brigade at Antietam. After recognizing faulty fuses at the latter engagement, Upton effectively substituted solid shot with lethal effectiveness. By October ‘62, he had secured an appointment as colonel of the 121st​ New York Regiment, rather than accept orders (and safety), as an instructor at West Point. He led that regiment, known as Upton’s Regulars, at Fredericksburg two months later as a part of Franklin’s push through Slaughter Pen Farm and the southern defenses beyond. He was given command of the 2nd​ Brigade, 1st​ Division of the VI Corps at Gettysburg where he was held in reserve. By the start of the Bristoe campaign Upton was cited for gallantly at Rappahannock Station in November ‘63 and was given a brevet promotion to major in the regular army.
At the commencement of the Overland Campaign in May ‘64, Upton’s brigade saw action in the Wilderness and his Corps was the second to reach the frontline at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 8. It was here he would make his most memorable military contribution.

“no man was to stop and succor or assist a wounded comrade”​

What Upton lacked in social graces, he more than made up with his brilliant military mind. On the morning of May 10, 1864, Upton was summoned to the VI Corps Chief of Staff, General Martin McMahon to receive approval to an earlier request he submitted. Up to this point in the war, offensive attacks were performed as in the Napoleonic wars. Troops were stages in a long line, with only two ranks deep and marched forward toward the foe, likened to a wave crashing against a beach. In a time prior to firearms rifling, and sometimes misfires from flint, it was a suitable form of attack. But with newer, riffled weapons, with faster loading techniques, and the mini ball, it was now a failed approach.
At the battles of Second Fredericksburg and at Rappahannock Station, Upton had taken part in a revolutionary mode of attack. Instead of lining troops up in a long shallow line, they were lined up narrow and deep and rushed forward. At Spotsylvania, Colonel Upton hoped to refine his new approach.
The terrain at Upton’s position was ideal for his testing. His point on the Spotsylvania battlefield placed him closer to the enemy than any other Union position elsewhere on the field. There was a farm road running from the Scott family house, through his position and it dropped down in a slop just before it reached scattered pines and 200 yards of open field, and the confederate line. It would allow him a capability to position his troops just a few hundred yards from the enemy with the protection of the terrain, all affording ideal elements for a surprise attack.
NPS hiking trail following Upton’s route. This trail intersects with traces of the original war time road used by Upton.
Remnants of original road used by Upton
The southern line at Upton’s proposed point of attack was defended by a 29-year-old Georgian. Brigadier General George Dole, whose line bulged out into a small bubble, just west of the Mule Shoe Salient. The Georgians had fortified their position with abatis in front and surrounded by heavy logs, underneath which were loopholes for musketry. Dole was flanked on the right by the famed Stonewall Brigade and on the left by Brigadier General Junius Danial’s North Carolinians.
As Upton drew his men together just prior to the assault, he called his division commanders together to explain the plan. He made each repeat it up the line. Colonel Upton’s new command consisted of twelve regiments, including his own 121st​ New York. He aligned them three regiments wide and four deeps. Convinced Lee was shifting his men to fill gaps in his defenses, Upton’s plan called for something the Union army seldom successfully accomplished, two other coordinated diversionary attacks, to draw the enemy away from his front at the time of the assault. The men in the front ranks were permitted to load their weapon but were forbidden to place caps on their rifles. He did not want them to stop, fire and reload. They were to move swiftly, and “kick in the door”, to allow the two waves behind them to overwhelm the enemy, fan out and take control. From the commencement of the charge until the works were carried, he later remembered, “no man was to stop and succor or assist a wounded comrade”. The final wave was to be held in reserve until needed or to cover a retreat.
“the Green Mountain Boys was up, and they refused to budge a single hair from the field they had wrestled from the enemy”​

The plan got off to a bad start. General Gouverneur Warren, reeling from a horrible performance the day before was anxious to prove his competence. He informed Headquarters that he saw a break in the line to his front and set his V Corps in motion a full 90 minutes early. Meanwhile the undersized II Corps Division of Gershom Motts, supporting Upton’s left was on schedule while Upton ran late due to unanticipated difficulty getting his large body of troops down the narrow farm road and into position.
Wrights men were once again mowed down just as they had been in earlier attempts. A crossfire JEB Stuart had constructed two days prior overwhelmed Wright’s attempt just as they crossed the open field to their front. When Motts division came into the open field, they performed admirably, but their attack alerted the Confederate line and the southern artillery overpowered the minuscule division. Even though the supporting cast performed poorly, in one instance and ineffective on the other, the stage was set.
With his men in position and ready to step up a small slope, through scattered pines and into an open field; “I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind……I looked about in the faces of the boys around me and they told the tale of expected death. Pulling my cap down over my eyes, I stepped out……” Corporal Clinton Beckwith, 121 NY Volunteers. At 6:30 PM, Upton’s men eventually burst from the tree line.
Wilber Fisk of the 1 Vermont recalled the scene of the first wave; “{we} rushed ahead across an open field, to the enemy’s works, while we cheered as lustily as we could to heighten the effect, and help create a panic along the enemy. How terribly the bullets swept the plane and rattled like hailstorm among the trees over our heads. The boys could not be restrained in their wild excitement and without waiting for orders, (for I certainly heard no order to halt, and I know of no one that did) they rushed in after the other brigade, and we drove the enemy from his first line of works.”
Modern day photo of where Upton’s men stepped out of woods looking toward southern defenses just short of the tree line in the background
“Quick as lightening a sheet of flame burst from the Rebel line, and the leaden hail swept the ground over which the column was advancing while the canaster from the artillery came crashing through our ranks at every step” remembered Private Robert Westbrook, 49 Pennsylvania. Another Pennsylvanian recalled, “Many a poor fellow fell pierced with rebel bullets before we reached their rifle pits. But when we got there, we let them have it.”
Upton’s first wave “kicked the door in” with perfection, swinging to the right they swept the enemy from two rows of trenches and captured the guns of the Richmond Howitzers. To the left their tide overwhelmed the enemy for 200 years until stopped by the Stonewall Brigade. Then over the top came the second wave, creating a reserve line at the works as they pushed the salient further inward. Upton described the fight at the top of the works “Here occurred a deadly hand to hand conflict. The enemy setting in their pits with rifles loaded and bayonets fixed, ready to impale the first to leap over, absolutely refused to yield his ground. The first of our men who tried to surmount the works fell pierced through the head with a musket ball. Others seeing the fate of their comrades held their pieces at arm’s length and fixed downward while others poised their pieces vertically, hurled them down upon the enemy, pinning them to the ground. “
Inward rode Confederate Second Corps Commander, Richard Ewell, “don’t run boys, in five minutes I will have enough men here to eat up every damned one of them” he yelled. True to his word, the southerners came flowing in like a mighty wind crashing into Upton, forcing the federals back and sealing the breach. With his third line in the works, Upton rode back to find his reserves. They had moved up to the works and although the enemy was pouring led in on them, they did not yield. One newspaper correspondent recounted “the Green Mountain Boys was up, and they refused to budge a single hair from the field they had wrestled from the enemy”.
Upton’s Corps Commander, Hereto Wright seeing the success went to Grant for support. “Pile the men into the breach” Grant demanded. But it was a futile decision to make such a coordinated effort on such a large scale. Upton did an admirable job with his offensive, but his men failed to hold their position due to lack of support and confusion once inside the enemy defenses.
Following the Union withdrawal, a southern band moved to a ridge along the line and struck up Nearer My God to Thee. As the sound faded, not to be outdone, a Federal band countered with the Dead March. The southern band responded with Bonnie Blue Flag. The Union countered with Francis Scott Key’s The Star Spangled Banner. A moment of silence and the Confederates responded with Home Sweet Home. All was quiet, and I would speculate there was many a moist eye on either side of the field.
Grant recognizing the importance of such an innovative offense, decided to hurl two entire Corps in a similar manner two days later. Like Upton, it met initial success, but poor planning and dismal coordination from two other Corps commanders produced the same result.
As Grants army moved closer to Richmond, Upton’s brigade suffered heavy losses at Cold Harbor on June 1st​. and by late June they took part in the siege at Petersburg. During that campaign, the VI Corps, which Upton’s brigade was assigned, were detached, and ordered with Sheridan to rid the Shenandoah Valley of Jubal Early. There, at Grants command to “clear that Valley and make sure no Rebel would live there again”, Sheridan then put in motion malicious warfare, where they lived off the land, burning and killing anything and all commodities they didn’t take.
During the third battle of Winchester, Upton assumed command of the 1 Division, VI Corps when his commanding officer was killed. During that same battle, he was severely wounded in the thigh but refused to be removed from the fight until the battle was over. He was carried on a stretcher for the duration of the battle, giving orders and positioning his troops. His courage and tenacity during that action was rewarded by a promotion to colonel in the regular army in September ‘64 and Major General of volunteers a month later.

“[ I] would like to commute the rest of life for just six months of such service”​

Once his health had improved, from the thigh wound, Upton became a cavalry commander under General James H. Wilson, where he led the 4th Division of Cavalry Corps in Mississippi. Combining his talents with Wilson, and 12,000 cavalrymen armed with the new Spencer breechloading carbine, they developed a new strike force that would eventually evolve into a mobile infantry by riding into battle then deploying as infantry. Wilson and Upton often added their own sporadic innovations which struck terror in the southern heartland. Under Wilson, he was awarded another promotion to brigadier general in the regular army and major general in the volunteer army in March for his action at the Battle of Selma. By May ‘65, Upton was ordered to arrest Vice President Alexander Stephens and eventually, Jefferson Davis was placed in his custody. Following his tour with the cavalry, Upton confided he “would like to commute the rest of life for just six months of such service” for once more he had found a new way around a frontal assault in that branch of service. His latest assignment in Mississippi also completed a round of service in each of the three army fields of training, artillery, infantry, and cavalry.
Following the war, Upton saw various assignments in the Army he loved, but due to peace, was unable to advance his interest in military strategies. His new assignments of protecting civilians from Indians in one remote duty station after another did not set will with the man who cherished fighting. Upton’s escape from the mundane service in the west was to fight battles on paper by write military manuals, with revolutionary tactics for future use by the army. His new 1867 manual, Infantry Tactics, formed a new method that relied on heavy skirmishers, who would advance on the enemy in large numbers, clearing the path for an overwhelming assault by large companies of reserves. His thoughts expanded on his success at Spotsylvania, but relying on individual responsibility, marksmanship and moral, giving the soldier the advantage of the landscape being fought over. His new ideas of swiftness would lay the foundation for modern warfare and a new assignment to teach at West Point.

Emily Upton (find a grave Nikiti Barlow)

His new manual provided annual royalties of $1,000 and a life changing event in the young solders’ life. He got married. Emily Norwood Martin seemed a perfect fit for the handsome young solder. She was born on November 26, 1846 in Utica NY. The kind, gentle and highly religious young lady was the sister of famed writer Edward S. Martin and the sixth of eleven children born to successful attorney and journalist E.T. Throop and mercantile heiress Comeila Williams Martin. Following their marriage, the young couple set out for their honeymoon in France and Italy. It was during that travel that Emily came down with a lung infection, causing her health to decline. On March 29, 1870, she died in Nassau, Bahamas leaving her widower with no children.

With Emily’s passing, Upton passionately through himself into his work. After returning to West Point, supervising discipline, and administration, while expanding infantry tactics to fit artillery and cavalry, the young officer was not satisfied. The Army during peacetime was smaller and he felt a need to expand his bounding energy.

In the fall of 1876, Sherman sent Upton on a world tour to study other countries military. He travelled to China, Japan, India, Persia, Italy, France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. He produced a detail report on each country, examining their military schools, officer training, tactics, administration, recruitment, munitions, equipment, hospitals, camps, barracks, pay, morale, and other general items. Within one year, he completed and submitted a 370-page book on his findings, The Armies of Europe and Asia, including recommendations for reorganizing and improving Americas military.

He would spend the remainder of his life advocating for a large standing Army, modeled somewhat after Germany’s. Their government drafted and recruited soldiers for three to five-year periods, after which they would spend four years in the active reserve and called up every six months for several weeks of training and maneuvering. In the event of war, a trained army could be mobilized effectively and quickly. The system had permitted Germany and Prussia to route every European force they faced.

“lead me to sacrifice myself rather than to perpetuate a method which might in the future cost a single man his life”​

After completing his latest work, he became superintend at Fortress Monroe, the army’s postgraduate artillery school where he set out to win his reforms. He realized the mistakes and correct decisions of both the federal and confederate government during the civil war and he know it would be futile to argue for a large army in peacetime. What he wanted was a small full time, trained force of about 25,000 men with a trained reserve of 140,000 volunteers. But he was never able to acquire needed political and military support to implement such an idea during a time of harmony.

By this point in his life, he had begun to lose his zeal, possibly due to his physical conditions. He begin to suffer violent headaches and consulted a Philadelphia specialist, who diagnosed a sinus condition. He treated Upton by an electrical wire inserted against the mucous membrane sending a shock to his nasal passages. His condition was later speculated to be a tumor in his face or brain, but nevertheless, the headaches continued.

In 1881 after returning to the rank of Colonel, Upton was transferred to the Presidio of San Francisco as commander of the 4th​ US Artillery. The headaches continued and his actions and words became erratic. He began to forget things and sometimes became confused and questioned his own works.

On March 14, 1881, he wrote his sister of his hope that God would “lead me to sacrifice myself rather than to perpetuate a method which might in the future cost a single man his life.” He then wrote his resignation, picked up his pistol and shot himself in the head while setting at his desk. He was 41 years old. His remains rest at Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn NY.

Graves of Emory and Emily Upton – Courtesy of Find A Grave; Andrew R. Pulsifer



Ambrose, Stephen E. Upton and the Army. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.

Cassidy, Robert M. "Prophets or Praetorians? The Uptonian Paradox and the Powell Corollary." Parameters magazine (U.S. Army War College). Autumn 2003.

Eicher, John H., and David J. Eicher. Civil War High Commands. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Fitzpatrick, David J. Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer (U of Oklahoma Press, 2017). xviii, 325 pp.

Hoffsommer, Robert D. "Emory Upton." In Historical Times Illustrated History of the Civil War, edited by Patricia L. Faust. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Morris, James M. "Emory Upton." In Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History, edited by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

North, Safford E., ed. Biographies of Genesee County, New York, Boston History Company, 1899.

Brookhaven National Laboratory history article on Camp Upton

Holland Land Office Museum (Batavia, New York) biography

American History Illustrated, August 1971 " This Monotonous Life" by Stephen Ambrose

Mackoeski Chris and White Kristopher D., A Season of Slaughter (The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse May 8 -21, 1864; Savas Beatie Publishing 2013.



2nd Lieutenant
Aug 3, 2019
Thanks for posting this well-written summary. One minor point about the May 10 assault. The general concept of a 3 X 4 alignment may have originally been Wright's idea but Upton's real innovation was the assignment of different missions to each of the four lines to exploit the breach. Another indication of his brilliance is that only a few days before 3rd Winchester he was already experimenting with the unit of fours that would later become embedded in his 1867/1873 revision of infantry tactics. Reading what he wrote about his trip around the globe is like having an 1876 tour guide. He covers literally every aspect of the numerous and varied nations/cultures he visited. Personally impressive to me is his detailed description at the beginning of his trip of the formation in Yosemite we in the rock climbing hobby know as "El Cap" (if you saw the movie "Free Solo", the route Alex Honnold soloed is on El Cap).


2nd Lieutenant
Aug 3, 2019
Thank you Belfourd, for the kind critique. I suspect he’s wife’s passing pressed him into his brilliant post war affairs
@Woods-walker: I would not be surprised if that played a role. Upton was a persistent "thinker" from a very young age and losing his wife may have tightened his focus even more. One ironic aspect of his career is that he was (erroneously IMHO) thought by some to be contemptuous of the American volunteer. That is directly refuted by the way he built and led the 121st NY. He was a tough disciplinarian but his letters also show his respect for those under his command.