Emory Upton and the Military Policy of the United States

My friend Dan Davis is a Civil War historian, and a few weekends ago he graciously let me photograph some of the objects in his home. I’ll be spreading posts on his unique family objects out over the next couple of weeks, but today’s post highlights a book from his vast collection on military and Civil War history.


Both this book and this author, Emory Upton, are one of a kind. The author is unique because of his ability to observe, his ingenuity as a commanding officer, and his passion for a more efficient military. This book, and this publication specifically (published in 1917), are unique because it set the stage for the Unites States’ changing military tactics and their implementation of these tactics at the start of World War I.

Emory Upton was born in upstate New York in 1839. As a teenager, he had hopes of becoming a soldier, but instead enrolled in Ohio’s Oberlin College at the age of 15. After a year at Oberlin, Upton fulfilled his dream, transferring to West Point after receiving a nomination from Judge Benjamin Pringle , an acquaintance as well as New York’s House representative. This push from Pringle, as well as his own desire to succeed, began Upton’s illustrious career in the army. He enrolled at West Point in 1856.


As Upton’s time at West Point was coming to a close, the war between the States was at its bursting point. Upon graduation, Upton received a command as a second-lieutenant in the Union army. He quickly rose in ranks, and led commands in several important battles including the Battle of Bull Run on July 22, 1861, the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg from December 11-15, 1862, the Battle of Chancellorsville from April 30-May 6, 1863, as well as the Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863.


His military ingenuity and expertise shone through at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse during General Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. Instead of using the normal tactics of the day, which had failed on previous days in this particular battle, Upton decided to charge a weak spot in the earthenworks at “Mule Shoe” in a column of 12 regiments, with around 5000 men, instead of in a single-line.  Instead of directing Union soldiers to charge, stop, shoot, reload, and repeat in an organized fashion, the column style of organizing regiments allowed the Union soldiers to charge the Confederates head on. This gave the Union soldiers a chance to overcome the earthenworks, enacting hand to hand combat with their bayonets, with fewer lives lost on the Union side. This tactic proved successful at first, with the Union soldiers breaking the line at the earthenworks, as well as causing heavy casualties to the Confederate troops. However, supporting troops never arrived to aid Upton and his men, forcing them to retreat. This change in tactics from previous charges helped push Upton to consider the possibility of reforming the United States’ army to include modernized tactics instead of out of date practices. After the war, Upton received a position at West Point to drill cadets.

Upton married in 1868, but Emily, his wife, was not the healthiest of individuals, and was constantly sick. She died in Nassau in 1870 of tuberculosis while Emory was stationed in Atlanta. After her death, Upton threw himself into work. He wrote profusely, taking it upon himself to convey the military lessons learned during the Civil War to others. He published a paper on infantry tactics, arguing for more responsibility to individual soldiers instead of mass volleys under the control of the commanding officer. He was contracted to tour and study military policy of Europe and Asia, after which he wrote his findings, along with analyses and suggestions for a better military. After these two articles were ignored by the Secretary of War, Upton began his work on the Military Policy of the United States since the Revolutionary War, creating a different approach to gain the Secretary of War’s approval in order to carry out Upton’s suggestions. Unfortunately for Upton, his ideas were revolutionary for the time and were heavily ridiculed. He unfortunately did not finish the manuscript of Military Policy, as he committed suicide in 1881, most likely from the affects of a brain tumor. It wasn’t until 1904, twenty-three years after Emory Upton’s death, that Elihu Root, Secretary of War from 1899-1904, discovered Upton’s suggestions in Military Policy. This occurred after the United States failed horribly in the Spanish-American War, causing the government to consider reform for it’s military.

One of the most important items about this particular copy was that it was published in 1917, during the First World War. Implementation of Upton’s suggestions had been in place for a little more than 10 years, and this war was the first test to determine it’s success. Because Upton’s form of attack at Spotsylvania Courthouse was against earthenworks, similar tactics were updated slightly or modified to work with the trenches in France and Germany. Certain aspects of Upton’s manuscript are still in place today (such as the National Guard), illustrating the long lasting and influential effects of his work.

I’ve never really been interested in military history, but after reading Emory Upton’s letters and his documents, I’ve changed my mind. It still is extremely confusing to me, with all of the specific terms and tactics, but now at least I understand where the some of the U.S.’ current policies hail from. Thank you Dan for giving me this opportunity!

If you enjoy reading about Civil War history, check out the blog Dan contributes to: Emerging Civil War, as well as his book with co-author Philip Greenwalt, Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864, out this month!

Further Reading:

Baker, Kevin. ‘Emory Upton and the Shaping of the U.S. Army.’ Weider History Group. 1 March 2012. Web. 23 November 2013 http://www.historynet.com/emory-upton-and-the-shaping-of-the-u-s-army.htm

Barry, Richard. ‘Emory Upton: Military Genius.’ New York Times 16 June 1918: 2 & 12. Web. 26 November 2013 http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F00C10FE3C5A11738DDDAF0994DE405B888DF1D3

Brown, Richard C. ‘General Emory Upton—The Army’s Mahan.’ Military Affairs 17:3 (Autumn 1953), 125-131. JSTOR. 26 November 2013 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1982669

Civil War Trust. ‘Emory Upton.’ Civil War Trust. 2013. Web. 23 November 2013 http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/emory-upton.html

Fitzpatrick, David J. ‘Emory Upton and the Citizen Soldier.’ The Journal of Military History 65: 2 (April 2001), 355-389. JSTOR. 26 November 2013 http://www.jstor.org/stable/2677164

Lunsford, Sally. ‘Emory Upton: Brilliant Innovator and Tragic Genius.’ Thoughts, Essays, and Musings on the Civil War: A Civil War Historian’s Views on Various Aspects of the American Civil War. 17 January 2012. Web. 23 November 2013 http://bobcivilwarhistory.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/emory-upton-brilliant-innovator-and-tragic-genius/

Mast, Brian. ‘Emory Upton Changes U.S. Army Tactics.’ Army Heritage and Education Center. 21 May 2010. Web. 23 November 2013 http://www.army.mil/article/3957/Emory_Upton_changes_U_S_Army_Tactics/

Michie, Peter S. The Life and Letters of Emory Upton, Colonel of the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, and Brevet Major-General, U.S. Army. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1885. Web. 23 November 2013 https://archive.org/stream/lifelettersofemo00mich#page/n16/mode/1up

Upton, Emory. Military Policy of the United States. Government Printing Office, 1912. Web. 26 November 2013 https://archive.org/stream/militarypolicyu00uptogoog#page/n7/mode/1up


1 Comment

Filed under 1910s, Books

One response to “Emory Upton and the Military Policy of the United States

  1. Pingback: New Wharf Pottery Sugar Bowl | Blue Ridge Vintage

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