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November 23, 2021

Why Emory Upton Matters

By Kurt Allemeier

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Only 21 at the start of the Civil War, Emory Upton’s exploits in battle, including at Antietam and The Wilderness made him a hero, but his post-war writings earned him the title “Father of the Modern United States Army.”

In the introduction of Peter Michie’s 1885 book, “The Life and Letters of Emory Upton,” James Harrison Wilson, who commanded Upton in the cavalry at the close of the Civil War, called him “incontestably the best tactician of either army.”

Michie further described Upton as an “untiring, faithful, and methodical student of his profession.”

Upton's recommendations for making the U.S. Army a professional, standing army weren’t put into place until after the Spanish-American War when the need for an army to protect foreign interests was finally recognized.

Along with his Civil War accomplishments and significant military writings, Upton served as the 19th Commandant of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he previously graduated in 1861. A Colt Single Action Army revolver presented to Upton when he was commandant (1870-1875) is available on the first day of Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Firearms Auction, Dec. 3-5.

A close-up view of Emory Upton's Colt Single Action Army revolver that is available with its presentation case and cartridge box.

Time at War

As an artillery lieutenant in 1861, Upton aimed the first shot at the First Battle of Bull Run and fought valiantly despite being wounded and having his horse shot out from under him.

Commanding an artillery brigade the following year at the Battle of Antietam, his unit broke up an impending Confederate charge of an exposed portion of the Union line. His troopers quickly moved rifled cannons into place but their shells proved ineffective, so cannons firing solid shot were switched to greater effect. His unit’s lethal efficiency was praised by commanders after the battle.

Antietam is the bloodiest day in American history, with 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of savage combat. Upton shared his observations with his sister in a letter: “The infantry fighting was terrible. I do not believe there has been harder fighting this century than that between Hooker and the rebels in the morning. I have heard of the `dead lying in heaps’ but never saw it till at this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”

A Union burial detail after the Battle of Antietam. Major General Emory Upton described the battle's aftermath: "I have heard of the `dead lying in heaps’ but never saw it till at this battle. Whole ranks fell together.”

In 1863, as commander of the New York 121st Infantry and now a colonel, Upton’s unit served as reinforcement near Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, arriving on the second day of the decisive three-day battle after a 16-hour, 32-mile march.

Portrait of Major General Emory Upton on the New York 121st Infantry Memorial at the Battle of Gettysburg.

In a letter to his sister, dated July 4, 1863, Upton wrote: “Lee’s attack yesterday was imposing and sublime. For about ten minutes I watched the contest, when it seemed that the weight of a hair would have turned the scales. Our men fought most gallantly. The rebels began to give way, and soon retreated in utter confusion.”

Tactics Recognized

In an engagement during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864, Upton moved his brigade forward in compact columns without stopping to fire, overwhelming and breaking through the enemy line. Despite the success, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time so the attack was withdrawn.

Upton reported to the adjutant general on his unit’s action over several days during the Battle of the Wilderness. He wrote briefly of the success of the assault at Spotsylvania and how it ultimately broke down: “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.”

Major General Emory Upton's brigade fighting at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864.

He added further in his report: “Our officers and men accomplished all that could be expected of brave men; they went forward with perfect confidence, fought with unflinching courage, and retired only upon the receipt of a written order after having expended the ammunition of their dead and wounded comrades.”

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant recognized the effectiveness of what Upton did and used the tactic in an assault with an entire corps two days later. The tactic was used similarly against the trenches of World War I.

Major General Emory Upton's Colt Single Action Army revolver

Throughout the war, commanding generals like Joseph Bartlett, John Sedwick, and George Meade praised Upton for his unit’s discipline, deliberate study ahead of an assault, his consideration of all contingencies, gallantry, daring, and success, Michie wrote.

In May 1864 he received promotion to brigadier general. That fall, Upton was severely wounded at the Third Battle of Winchester but refused to leave the battlefield, ordering his troops from a stretcher. Following recuperation and promotion to brevet major general that fall, he ended the war leading a cavalry division in Wilson’s raid through Alabama and Georgia, capturing Columbus, Ga.

Upton was a rare officer to lead artillery, infantry and cavalry units of the Army.

Closeup engraving of Major General Emory Upton's Colt Single Action Army revolver

R.E. Fenton, who served as New York governor and at the time was a U.S. senator, wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1870 about Upton and his Civil War heroics, requesting the New York native be promoted to the rank and command he deserved.

“The troops under the immediate command of General Upton have captured twenty colors, thirty-nine guns, and over six thousand prisoners, as appears from the official reports,” Fenton wrote. “He has been three times wounded, and has had a number of horses killed under him. I earnestly desire that his meritorious and patriotic services, extending through the entire war, may receive proper recognition by conferring as high rank and important command as may seem justly his due.”

Putting Tactics to Paper

Upton formulated his tactical ideas as the war raged around him. In peacetime, Upton was assigned to command the district of Colorado. It was at this time that he put his thoughts to paper and by 1866 was ready to present them to the Secretary of War and a board of general officers.

The Civil War Soldier's Monument in Denver, Colo., where Major General Emory Upton was posted and put his tactical ideas to paper following the Civil War.

“Early in his career as a regimental commander, and while in active service, he became convinced that certain improvements could be devised for the more rapid formation of troops from line into column and from column into line,” Michie wrote in his biography. “(Upton) believed in the value of the unit of four men as comrades in battle, and made it the basis of his new system. He discarded what was known as “inversions” by having no fixed right or left, these directions being the actual right or left of the given formation. He simplified his commands and greatly abbreviated the subject-matter of his text.”

At the time of the Civil War, authorized U.S. Army infantry tactics were based on French tactics that were 15-30 years old. Upton’s tactics recognized new military technologies and relied on individual responsibility, marksmanship, and unit morale that allowed for improvisation.

Major General Emory Upton

In February 1867, Grant wrote to Secretary Stanton, recommending adoption of Upton’s infantry tactics.

“I concur fully with the Board, and recommend the immediate adoption of “Upton’s Infantry Tactics, Double and Single Rank” as the text-book for the Military Academy and the standard tactics for the armies of the United States,” Grant wrote. “I have seen the system applied to company and battalion drills, and am fully satisfied of its superior merits and adaptability to our service; besides, it is no translation, but a purely American work.”

Grant’s endorsement didn’t mean final approval. Upton’s tactics had to be considered further and received consideration by two review boards before being adopted.

The Colt Single Action revolvers of Union Major General Emory Upton and Confederate Capt. William Gustine Conner are available in the Dec. 3-5 Premier Firearms Auction at Rock Island Auction Company. Both men were at the pivotal battle of the U.S. Civil War, with Conner being killed in a cavalry action.

Lessons from Abroad

After his tenure at West Point ended in 1875, Upton was tasked with touring Asia and Europe to observe the operations of various armies. He reported that when Germany took military action it was able to ramp up faster and lose fewer soldiers with a regular standing army led by professional officers. That led to shorter actions at less expense.

As superintendent of the Artillery School of Practice at Fort Monroe, Va., Upton noted that the current military system in the United States relied on raw troops and officers who received their military training and education under fire. That translated to longer and more expensive military actions with more casualties.

The backstrap of the presentation Colt Single Action revolver given to Major General Emory Upton.

Upton recommended nationalizing the army and having a professional class of officers that would be rotated to various commands. He also favored an apparatus for drafting men for military service. Upton recognized that because of the United States’ relative geographic isolation that a large standing army wasn’t necessary. He proposed a regular army of 25,000 and a trained reserve of 140,000 national volunteers.

“The organization of national volunteers would give us in time of peace a regular army, a reserve, and the militia, and would enable us in time of war to prosecute our campaigns with vigor and economy, and with that regard for human life which becomes a free people,” Upton wrote in a report to his superiors on what he learned.

Military Policy

His last writing effort, “The Military Policy of the United States from 1775,” advocated for a regular nationalized army with professional officers as well as for advanced military education and an improved promotions system.

Major General Emory Upton's Colt Single Action Army revolver in its case. It was presented to him when he was Commandant of Cadets at West Point.

He used both historic references combined with his experiences from the Civil War and his international observations as he made his case. In letters home during the war, Upton was often critical of generals and their leadership as well as weak discipline in many state militia units.

He reflected on how the lack of a professional standing army at the start of the Civil War led to early defeats for the Union despite an advantage in personnel and resources. Upton also blamed Secretary of War Stanton’s interference for contributing to those early Union losses in 1862 and touched on how similar issues occurred during the War of 1812. Upton’s military policy was clearly defined by the Constitution and the chain of command for civilian leadership, and that the president was clearly the commander-in-chief.

The cartridge box is very fine with a bright label with clear markings, some open seams on the lid, and mild wear and is extremely valuable in its own right.

Upton wrote that in the War of 1812, state militias totaling 50,000 troops defended against 800 British regulars and their Native American allies in what was then the northwest of the country. At the same time, a small British force captured and destroyed the public buildings of Washington, D.C. despite sizeable militias nearby.

Upton shared his manuscript with several military acquaintances, among them U.S. Rep. James Garfield, who would be elected president in 1880.

“Your plan for a national army, modeled somewhat on the German plan of a regular active force, Landwehr and Landstürm, is excellent, and I hope you will work it out so fully in its details that we can embody it in a bill to be introduced into Congress,” Garfield wrote to Upton in 1878.

A Tragic Death

In 1881, now a colonel of artillery stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, Upton was suffering. He experienced excruciating headaches and complained that it fogged his decision-making and memory.

Revising his tactics and lobbying now-President Garfield on army reforms stalled as Upton’s health deteriorated. On March 13, he wrote to his sister: “It has seemed to me that I must give up my system and lose my military reputation. 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.”

The following day, he wrote a brief note to the Adjutant-General resigning his commission then fatally shot himself. He was 41. Later, it was believed that Upton suffered from a brain tumor that caused the headaches and affected his mental faculties and memory.

Posthumous Reforms Achieved

Upton died with “Military Policy of the United States” unedited and unpublished. Henry DuPont acquired a copy of the manuscript and shared it privately with military acquaintances who met with its ideas favorably.

The manuscript received more attention when Secretary of War Elihu Root considered reforms of the army in 1904 after the Spanish-American War. During that conflict, the United States fielded a poorly trained and poorly supplied army of militias and volunteers against Spain despite gaining territories like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Major General Emory Upton's ideas on modernizing the U.S. Army gained momentum after the Spanish-American War, nearly 15 years after his death.

Among the reforms Root instituted, based on Upton’s writings, were creating the National Guard and the Reserve Militia and putting their training, organization, and equipment in line with the regular army. He called for the creation of the Army War College to further educate officers. Root created a general staff that would be responsible for strategic planning. Officers would be rotated between staff positions and line positions while the promotion system would be merit-based.

His Revolver

Upton was presented with this factory-cased Colt Single Action Army revolver when he served as Commandant of Cadets at West Point. Another revolver within three digits of this gun was presented by the factory to a West Point administrator. The revolver itself retains 98 percent of the extremely deluxe special order high-polish blue finish on the barrel, ejector housing, backstrap and trigger-guard. The gun was handled very little and has an excellent, untouched appearance and is mechanically excellent as well.

Major General Emory Upton's "absolutely stunning early Colt Single Action Army presented by the most famous handgun maker in the world to one of the most important figures in American Military history."

A Piece of History

His life tragically cut short, Upton should be a towering figure in Civil War and U.S. military history but is often overlooked. That is an injustice. Upton’s bravery and innovation on the battlefield as well as his dedication to creating a modern army and protecting the American soldier should be heralded and lauded like his Colt revolver that is up for auction.

Upton’s revolver is an artifact of a significant figure in United States history with his writings reflected in the modern army of the 20th century and today. Its owner’s youthful Civil War exploits made him a hero and as an immense military thinker, his post-war writings were remarkably influential. His Colt revolver is likened to “a piece of fine jewelry," but most importantly is a link to tremendous 19th-century military history. It is available at Rock Island Auction Company’s Premier Firearms Auction, Dec. 3-5.


The Life and Letters of Emory Upton, Peter Michie, 1885

Emory Upton and the Shaping of the U.S. Army, Kevin Baker,

The Many Faces of Reform: Military Progressivism in the U.S. Army, 1866-1916, Jason Patrick Clark, 2009w23`

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