Upton’s Attack at Spotsylvania: Giving Credit (Part 1)


Brigadier General Emory Upton.

From Eric Mink:

A previous two-part post (beginning here) took a look at the promotion of Emory Upton to the rank of brigadier general following his actions near Spotsylvania Court House. The legend of Upton and his May 10, 1864 attack goes beyond the recognition he received in the form of elevation of rank. The 6th Corps’ assault that afternoon has universally become known as “Upton’s Attack” and historians and battlefield guides have gone so far as to credit Upton with nearly every aspect of the attack’s planning. But just how much involvement did Upton really have in the conception and development of the assault that bears his name?

Assault Column – Whose Idea?

A commonly held interpretation surrounding the May 10, 1864 attack of the 6th Corps is that Colonel Upton developed the idea of attacking in a compact assault column – in other words, a reduction of the attacking formation’s front and stacking its regiments to create depth and power from behind. As the “Upton as lobbyist” interpretation goes, the young colonel had for some time recognized the folly of using linear formations for attacks against strong defensive positions and therefore advocated for the use of the assault column. This traditional interpretation implies that his views were so well-known, even to Army of the Potomac Headquarters, that on May 10 Generals George G. Meade and Ulysses S. Grant gave Upton the chance to prove himself. Although this interpretation establishes Upton as an easy protagonist in the attack story, it’s difficult to trace the origins of the storyline. A look through the writings of staff officers at the headquarters of both the Army of the Potomac and the 6th Corps fails to uncover any mention of Upton’s opinions on the matter. Postwar accounts of the fight by participants also don’t indicate that Upton had any influence on the decisions surrounding May 10. The first mention of Upton as a lobbyist for the assault column that could be located is in Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, the third volume in the author’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy and the recipient of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Catton introduced Upton with a brief biographical sketch, in which he quotes a letter from the young colonel to his sister. The letter is critical of Union generalship and what Upton perceived as incompetency in ordering assaults against an entrenched enemy. This, along with a description of Upton’s successful November 1863 attack against a Confederate fortification at Rappahannock Station, helped set up the decision on May 10. On the Confederate position at the “Mule Shoe” of Spotsylvania, Catton wrote:

“Upton, in short, felt that he knew how to break through those Rebel entrenchments, and he spoke up about it, and on the afternoon of May 10 they gave him twelve picked infantry regiments, his own 121st New York among them, and told him to go ahead.” Catton, p 112

Furthermore, Catton inferred that not only did the idea of the attack originate with Upton, but the compact formation was also his idea.

“The obvious fact here – at least it was obvious to Upton – was that an assaulting column’s only hope was to get a solid mass of riflemen right on the parapet as quickly as possible…So Upton formed his men in four lines, three regiments side by side in each line…” Catton, p 113

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Armament of the Army of the Potomac and the 9th Army Corps at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House


114th Penn Brandy Station4

From Eric Mink:

The Union Army that crossed the Rapidan River in early May 1864 was a much different force than the army that made the same crossing a year earlier. Ulysses S. Grant’s force consisted of the Army of the Potomac, three army corps under George Meade, and an attached fourth corps under Ambrose Burnside. Gone were the 11th and 12th Army Corps, sent west the previous fall, and the 1st and 3rd Army Corps, abolished a couple months prior to the opening of the spring campaign. Another difference between the Army of the Potomac that fought at Chancellorsville and the Union force that opened the Overland Campaign was the improvements made in weapons they carried.

Commencing with the fourth quarter of 1862, the United States Army’s Ordnance Department compiled quarterly returns for all ordnance and ordnance stores on hand, as submitted by companies, regiments and batteries. These summary statements provide a good look at the armament of the armies in the field and the weaponry carried by their regiments and batteries. Based upon the companies that reported in the first quarter of 1863, the Army of the Potomac that fought at Chancellorsville was well-armed with 78% of its infantry weapons types that were considered first class, while second class weapons comprised 12% and the remaining 10% fell in the lower third class. A year later, the force that Grant wielded in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County had improved armament with first class weapons constituting 88% of the long arms among infantry companies and the third class weapons represented a mere 4% among the foot soldiers. This change was apparent in the continued decrease in use of the smooth-bored muskets. A third of those muskets remaining among Grant’s men were in the hands of the Pennsylvania Reserves, whose term of service was up a month into the campaign. Grant’s force also appears to have been much less reliant on imported weapons than Joseph Hooker’s army the previous year. Only a quarter of the guns carried by Grant’s men came from outside the United States, while imported muskets and rifled muskets had made up 44% of the weapons reported under Hookers command. The Springfield Rifled Musket, model 1855, 1861, 1863 remained the prominent type in early 1864 with 63% of the Union soldiers at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House equipped with that trusty gun, and the imported British Enfield Rifled Musket came in a distant second 21%.

Assessing the weaponry assigned to the cavalry regiments is a bit more difficult. Unfortunately, the ordnance returns for many of the cavalry regiments and companies were not compiled or are missing. The compiled returns are arranged by service arm and then alphabetically by state and then finally numerically by regiment or battery. For the 1st quarter of 1863, the compiled returns for cavalry regiments only exist for regiments from Arkansas through Indiana, as well as the Regular Army. That excludes 80% of the cavalry regiments with the Army of the Potomac and the 9th Army Corps. Among the artillery, 294 guns were reported with the 3-inch gun, nicknamed the “Ordnance Rifle,” as the most prevalent type and the Model 1857, Light 12-pounder Gun-Howitzer, nicknamed the “Napoleon,” coming in a close second. Minus the missing information on the cavalry, the returns reveal a marked improvement in weaponry over the previous spring and a reduction in reliance upon foreign imports.

Click  here to retrieve the document.

The attached statistics come from: Record Group 156: Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance – “Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Army Organizations, 1862-1867, 1870-1876.” (Microcopy 1281, Rolls 1, 3 and 6). National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Eric J. Mink

Armament of the Army of the Potomac During the Chancellorsville Campaign


110th pennsylvania

From Eric Mink:

The winter of 1862-1863 saw the United States’ Army of the Potomac restructure, refit, reform and emerge from its winter camps a stronger, confident and more effective fighting force. Army commander Joseph Hooker instituted numerous reforms that raised morale and also worked to improve the army’s efficiency of command and control. He abolished the grand divisions, an unwieldy and unnecessary additional level of command instituted by his predecessor Ambrose Burnside. Hooker brought all of the cavalry brigades together into their own mounted corps under a single officer, not scattered among the various infantry corps as had been the army’s tradition. The 9th Army Corps left the army for another theater of the war, but the loss of that command was replaced with the addition of the 11th and 12th Army Corps’ following the army’s defeat at Fredericksburg. Another area where the Army of the Potomac improved during the winter months was its armament. Between the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Chancellorsville Campaign, the army made nominal gains in better, more dependable and accurate weapons.

Commencing with the fourth quarter of 1862, ending December 31, the United States Army’s Ordnance Department compiled quarterly returns for all ordnance and ordnance stores on hand, as submitted by companies, regiments and batteries. These summary statements provide a good look at the armament of the armies in the field and the weaponry carried by their regiments and batteries. The fourth quarter 1862 returns for the Army of the Potomac how that infantry regiments were pretty well armed with the majority of the long arms carried classified as 1st Class weapons, dominated by the Springfield Rifled Muskets, model 1855, 1861, National Armory and contract and the British Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket. In the artillery, the most common gun with the army’s batteries was the Model 1857, Light 12-pounder Gun-Howitzer, nicknamed the “Napoleon,” while the New Model 1859 Sharps Carbine was found in the hands of most of the army’s horsemen. In the first three months of 1863, a slight improvement is evident in the weapons carried by the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.

The months following the Battle of Fredericksburg allowed for regiments to replace losses in both men and equipment. A look at the returns suggests that some regiments also improved the quality of their weapons. For instance, the 24th New Jersey Infantry reported on its fourth quarter 1862 return that all of its companies carried the 2nd class imported “Belgian or Vincennes Rifles, sabre bayonet. Calibre .69 to .71,” but on the returns for the 1st quarter of 1863 the regiment had upgraded to the 1st Class British Enfields. Overall in the army, the 1st quarter of 1863 saw an improvement from 74% to 78% of all infantry weapons being classified as 1st Class. The returns also show the continued reliance on imported weapons, as they constituted 44% of the long arms in the army, an increase of 6% from the previous quarterly returns. In the artillery, the 3-inch wrought iron field rifle, commonly referred to as the “Ordnance Rifle,” emerged as the most common gun found among the army’s batteries. The Sharp’s carbine still dominated the cavalry’s armament.

Click here to retrieve the document.

The attached statistics come from: Record Group 156: Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance – “Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Army Organizations, 1862-1867, 1870-1876.” (Microcopy 1281, Rolls 1, 2 and 4). National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Eric J. Mink

Armament of the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg


2nd US Artillery

From Eric Mink:

The following post and attached transcript originally appeared in 2008 on the website for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. After numerous updates and upgrades to that site, this information got lost and eventually bumped. By posting it here on the park’s blog, it will hopefully remain available and accessible.

In the spring of 1861, volunteers rushed to join companies and regiments forming throughout the north. Equipping the thousands of men who responded to President Abraham Lincoln’s call was no easy task. There were only two Federal arsenals at that time: one in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the other in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. On April 18, Virginia troops seized Harpers Ferry and removed the surviving weapons and machinery kept there. That left only the Springfield Arsenal to produce weapons for the growing forces of the United States.

The inventory of weapons on hand in the United States Ordnance Department revealed 437,000 muskets and rifles, 4,000 carbines, and 27,000 pistols. Of that number, only 40,000 of the muskets and rifles were of recent manufacture, the vast majority being older models and styles. This was an adequate supply should the conflict be a short one, but as the war dragged into the fall of 1861, and more men flocked to the army, it quickly became apparent that the demand far outreached the supply.

Federal authorities turned to both contractors and foreign sources to meet the demand. Firms such as Colt Patent Firearms Company and U.S. Providence Tool Company received government contracts to produce the most modern style of gun available, the Model 1861 Springfield Rifled Musket. Government buyers also traveled to Europe, where they competed not only with individual states but with Confederate purchasing agents, who also hoped to secure available arms. These foreign weapons were a mixed bag, with rusty, antiquated long arms often arriving in U.S. ports, as well as accurate more modern models. Imported in high numbers, and coveted by many who received them, were the British Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket and the 1854 Austrian Lorenz Rifled Musket.

For the cavalry, breech-loading technology offered a distinct advantage. Horsemen could load quickly and while on the move without fumbling with the cumbersome muzzleloaders. The most popular of these weapons was the New Model 1859 Sharps Carbine, manufactured by the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Large numbers of these carbines were purchased and it became the standard weapon for the Union cavalry during the war. Other breechloaders, such as the Merrill Carbine, Gallagher Percussion Carbine, and the Burnside Percussion Carbine supplemented the need for arms to supply mounted forces of the army.

Union foundries worked overtime to supply the armies with cannons for the artillery batteries. The Model 1857, Light 12-pounder Gun-Howitzer, nicknamed the “Napoleon,” was the most prevalent and popular type of gun during the first years of the war. It was light enough to be moved quickly around the battlefield and versatile enough to fire different types of ammunition. Later inventions surpassed the Napoleon, being lighter and having greater ranges. The Model 1861 3-inch wrought iron field rifle, commonly referred to as the “Ordnance Rifle,” was a dependable gun and a prized among artillerists. The Parrott Gun, first designed in 1860, also saw extensive service with the field batteries. It came in various sizes, but the most prevalent found on the battlefield were the 10 and 20-pounder models. With its reinforcing band around the breech of the gun, the Parrott was able to throw a shell 1,900 yards, surpassing both the Napoleon and the Ordnance Rifle.

Despite Northern production and imports, it wasn’t until 1863 that the government was capable of supplying first class weapons to outfit nearly the entire army. By the December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg, however, the Army of the Potomac still displayed a wide variety of issued ordnance. Some consistency existed within companies, but within regiments weapons of various makes and calibers were commonplace. For example, the 46th New York Infantry reported that within its ten companies it had eight different types of long arms of at least four different calibers. This surely made supplying ammunition difficult.

The attached document contains a breakdown by regiment of the type and number of weapons carried by companies, regiments, and batteries in the hands of the Army of the Potomac around the time of the Battle of Fredericksburg. This information is based on returns submitted to the Ordnance Department for the final quarter of 1862, ending December 31, 1862. The returns show that for the infantry regiments, the most common weapons carried were the Springfield Rifled Muskets, model 1855, 1861, National Armory and contract. Imported weapons made up 39% of the infantry’s armament, while only 11% of the guns were of the older smoothbore variety. Among cavalrymen, the Sharps rifled carbine was the most prevalent, while among artillerymen the Napoleon proved most common.

Click here to retrieve the document.

The attached statistics come from: Record Group 156: Records of the Office of the Chief of Ordnance – “Summary Statements of Quarterly Returns of Ordnance and Ordnance Stores on Hand in Regular and Volunteer Army Organizations, 1862-1867, 1870-1876.” (Microcopy 1281, Rolls 1, 2 and 4). National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

Eric J. Mink

Variable pricing for the dead


From Hennessy:

The Union winter encampment in Stafford in early 1863 teemed with life, but produced death on a daily, rhythmic basis. And death attracted entrepreneurs, intent on serving and capitalizing upon the desires of both the living and the dead. At least two embalmers worked within the Army of the Potomac that winter. They provided a full range of “vertically integrated” services (as we would say today), from caskets to the “disinfection” of long-buried bodies prior to shipment, to embalming of the recently dead. While it’s easy to scoff or flinch at such services, the embalmers filled a demand newly possible: sending the dead home to families for proper burials in their hometowns.

embalming shack Fredericksburg LOC

The improvised embalming shed of Doctor William J. Bunnell, “near Fredericksburg,” though precisely where is not known (certainly in Stafford County).  Note the canvas intended apparently intended to turn a porch into a work space. The note on the back of this stereo card images says, “Here the bodies of the dead that were to be sent North to their friends were embalmed. More than a hundred bodies were sometimes brought here in one day. During the first battle of Fredericksburg…several hundred bodies were here at one time to be embalmed.” The latter claim seems highly exaggerated, as a small percentage of the dead from Fredericksburg were recovered, and a still smaller percentage of those were transported home for burial.

I recently came across a letter written by a member of the 35th New York infantry on March 10, 1863 that touched on the subject.

Each train carries away from here one or more dead bodies. Any of these have been disinterred from localities where they were placed after the great fight; and after being put through what is called the “disinfecting process,” they are transportable. Many of those who die from day to day are embalmed soon after death, and are thus rendered suitable for examination and burial at home, perhaps a thousand miles away. Dr. Burr, one of the chief embalmers for the army, is a very pleasant gentleman, and always takes pleasure in explaining his process. The force pipe, in his process, is introduced to the heart of the subject, and a powerful pump injects the preserving fluid through all the arteries. In cold weather there is no trouble in beautifully preserving the subject, but in warm season the failures are about one in ten. His price for privates is $50, including coffin, and for officers $100.*

Burr embalming

Dr. Richard Burr, the embalmer mentioned in the New Yorker’s letter, demonstrating his method of embalming by injecting chemicals through the heart. In 1864, Burr was accused of embalming a soldier without permission, then refusing to release the body until the family paid the required fee.

Embalming involved the use of toxic chemicals that would prompt evacuations and the activation of HAZMAT units today.  I’m not sure what the process of “disinfection” of long-buried bodies entailed (perhaps some of you do), but I suspect it’s a wash of the same chemicals used for embalming. Additional thoughts are welcome.

*The letter appeared in the March 17, 1869 issue of the [Watertown] Northern New York Journal.

Remembrance Walk–Reflections in the National Cemetery (final words)


From Hennessy:  On this, the day after the anniversary of the the burials on the Bloody Plain at Fredericksburg, we give you the last of six stops on the Remembrance Walk.  If you wish to read the entire series, you can start here.  I presented these words on one of the lower terraces, not far from the entrance to the cemetery.

* * * * * * *

We have walked from the Bloody Plain to this place, this hill, unattainable to Union soldiers in December 1862, but later the resting place of hundreds of them.

The brutality and harshness of what took place on the bloody plain is vividly demonstrated here:  Of the nearly 1,000 bodies of Union soldiers recovered from the Bloody Plain after the war and reburied here, only TWO could be identified and re-interred in a marked grave.  Only two.  At Fredericksburg, the soldier’s nightmare of being buried and unknown on a plot of land far away was far too often a reality.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery.2238This National Cemetery, with its tidy rows, terraces, and beautiful landscape, is the nation’s attempt to remedy the horror and chaos of the battlefield and instead to accord dignity to those who fell.  It’s a reflection of a nation’s effort to soothe its battered, even disbelieving soul in the aftermath of a carnage few would have imagined years before.

The orderliness of the place allows us to contemplate those who fell as people, not casualties.

Of all our public spaces, none is more personal than a cemetery. In 1892, the sister of Major William C. Morgan, killed at North Anna, traveled from Maine to visit her brother’s grave here (grave #3615, on the right, seven rows beyond the Humphreys Monument).  She wrote to her sister that night.

 ….  my heart beat so I could hardly speak at the thought that I was so near the spot where the remains of my darling brother was buried…  …..   I wish my dear sister, that you could see it,   it is one of the most beautiful spots I ever saw,   at the head of the grave there is a beautiful Japonica tree which shades it,   I was pretty well overcome, and the tears dropped fast  I felt and know that he was beside me,  I knelt down on the grave and sobbed.

Because of the distances involved and the expense of travelling in the decades after the Civil War, most families could not visit–and indeed most graves here have likely never been visited by family, or indeed anyone.  That fact adds significance to your presence today. You are doing what so many mothers and wives and sisters and sons and daughters could not do. You have come here to remember.  The soldiers buried here asked nothing more than to be remembered.

Fredericksburg National Cemetery entrance.3084But this place is more than simply the collection of individual stories; it is more than the sum total of our personal musings over the tragic fates of fathers, sons, husbands, and families (every one of them was a tragedy).

This place is a testimony to the immensity of this war of ours. And it inevitably begs the question, why?  Why were these men willing to give their lives to seize or defend a ridge top or river crossing?  For what cause did they pay this immense cost—to suffer in what was unquestionably America’s most costly human tragedy?

I have spent most of my life reading the letters and diaries of these men and men like them.  I cannot escape the conclusion: the soldiers of this war had a deep understanding of the evolving nature and purpose of the war.  They understood well why they fought. And most of them committed to the effort with their whole being.  As evidence: Charles Engle of the 137th New York.

In June 1863 Charles Engle received a letter from his wife Charlotte.  Continue reading

Remembrance Walk, Stop 5: Civilians and War


From Hennessy:  [For stops 1-4, click here, here, here, and here.]

As we walked the Sunken Road last weekend, we stopped in front of the Innis house–a home that bears as many visible scars from battle as any house in America.  Becca Jameson shared the following.

* * * * * * * *

Here, in front of this battle-ravaged house, scarred inside and out, and near a house once famous, now gone, we remember….

….the civilians, their town, their world, and how war changed them all.

Home is our great refuge—a place of safety, of comfort.

Capricious, unpredictable war threatens both.

Refugees return to their shattered home.1253

A family in their shattered Fredericksburg home.

No town in American suffered longer or more variously than did Fredericksburg.  For two years, the town or surrounding landscape were successively occupied, bombarded, looted, marched through, and fought upon.

Few buildings were spared in the bombardment of December 11, 1862—155 years ago tomorrow and the battle that followed.  Some, like the Innis house, still bear the scars.

Many civilians fled, but perhaps 800 or so remained behind, huddled in basements, watching with a mixture of fear and curiosity.  Most of those who fled would stay away for years.  Even in the spring of 1865, fewer than half the white population of Fredericksburg was in their homes.

We know certainly that two civilians died during the bombardment on December 11. We know too that during the chaos of that day one baby was born, in a grocer’s house on Prince Edward Street. He would ever-after be known as “Shell-Baby.”

fighting-in-fredericksburg streets harpers weekly

Street fighting on Caroline Street

The bombardment and street fighting ushered the Union army into the town—eventually 30,000 men in the streets. They quickly found their way into empty houses and homes, and a quest for food and warmth soon turned to evil frolic, as Union soldiers looted.  Soldiers turned households inside out like old socks, filling streets and sidewalks with everything from pianos and featherbeds to dresses and children’s toys.

The victimized residents soon became famous as the “Fredericksburg sufferers.”  Outrage at the fate of Fredericksburg’s residents prompted probably the biggest relief effort in the nation’s history up to that time.  From across the South and from within Lee’s army came donations as recompense—eventually as much as $250,000 (the equivalent of about $4.5 million today).

* * * * * * *

Dramatic though the bombardment and looting were, they caused damage that could be repaired, losses that could be recovered.

By far the most dramatic effect of the Civil War on this community came in human form: the end of slavery.

closeup-from-slaves-come-in-image

A slave family within Union lines, likely in Stafford County

Fully half the population of the Fredericksburg region endured slavery.  Continue reading