From Eric Mink:
In a previous post, found here, I looked at the sources of the long accepted story that Union Colonel Emory Upton received a battlefield promotion following his May 10, 1864 attack at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Also, I considered the efforts made before the battle to secure for Upton the promotion to the rank of brigadier general. In this post, I will examine the timeline and circumstances surrounding that promotion.
The attack for which Upton has gained much notoriety occurred in the early evening of May 10. He led twelve regiments, organized in an assault column, across open ground and briefly penetrated the strong Confederate entrenchments along the western face of the “Mule Shoe” line. Although ultimately forced to withdraw, Upton’s success has been credited with giving Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant the idea for a larger attack two days later. Grant later wrote that he immediately promoted Upton to the rank of brigadier general for leading this May 10 attack. Grant claimed he received this authority before leaving Washington, D.C. two months earlier, but contrary to this assertion he does not appear to have had the liberty to make battlefield promotions on the night of May 10. In fact, he did not receive that latitude until six days later.
In a dispatch dated May 15, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote Grant: “If you deem it expedient to promote any officer on the field for gallant conduct, you are authorized to do so provisionally, and your appointment will be sanctioned by the President and sent to the Senate.” This message did not reach Grant until the following day. Two things about it are important. Until it reached his hands on May 16, Grant did not have the leeway to make battlefield promotions, and once he did have that authority, the promotions still needed to be confirmed by the Senate. So, Grant did not have the authority to promote Upton on the battlefield six days earlier.
This is not to say that Grant did not recognize Upton. The lieutenant general did recommend the young colonel for promotion. It’s likely, however, that the recommendation actually originated with Army of the Potomac commander Major General George Meade. On May 12, while the battle raged along the Confederate “Mule Shoe,” Stanton fired off messages to both Grant and Meade in which he urged the two generals to forward nominations for promotions. To Grant, Stanton wrote” “Please furnish me with any nomination you desire to have.” To Meade, Stanton pleaded “The sad casualties that have befallen the officers of your army leave many vacancies to be filled, and if you will send me the names of the persons you desire to have appointed to the rank of brigadier, their nominations will be immediately sent to the Senate.” The following day, Meade sent a message to Grant’s headquarters in which he recommended certain officers for promotion. The dispatch requested Brigadier Generals Horatio G. Wright and John Gibbon receive promotions to the rank of major general. Colonels Samuel Carroll, Emory Upton, and William McCandless were recommended for the rank of brigadier general. Meade simply stated that the men deserved promotions “for distinguished services in the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court-House.” This same list of names appears in a dispatch from Grant to Edwin Stanton, also dated May 13, suggesting that Grant simply endorsed the recommendations made by Meade. Grant requested the promotions “to be made for gallant and distinguished services in the last eight days’ battles.” No specifics actions or reasons were provided for any of the men. Stanton replied the following day informing Grant that “The brigadiers in volunteer service you name shall be appointed.” The appointments still required confirmation by the Senate and that took time.
The War Department filed Upton’s nomination on May 16. The official justification read: “For gallant and distinguished services in the eight days battles in the old Wilderness and at Spottsylvania Court House, Va.” It is interesting that the recommendation did not call out the May 10 attack specifically, but cited him for his service throughout the campaign up to that point. Once confirmed by the Senate, the promotion took effect from May 12, 1864, not the day of his lone attack against the Confederate entrenchments, but the day during which Upton, his brigade and most of the army struggled against the “Bloody Angle” and the “Mule Shoe.” It’s possible that in the immediate wake of the fighting, Meade and Grant did not necessarily recognize Upton’s independent command and action on May 10 as significant or worthy of recognition to the extent it has come to be viewed today.
Confirmation took another twelve days, occurring on May 28. Upton, who had waited so long for promotion to the rank of brigadier general, was forced to wait even longer for notification. He learned of the Senate’s confirmation not through official army channels but by reading an announcement in a newspaper. “I first saw my promotion in the papers on June 1st,” he informed his sister. Still he had yet to be officially informed of his promotion. Three weeks later, on June 22, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman, Meade’s aide-de-camp, noted in his journal that when he encountered Upton that day the latter asked “if his Commission as Brigadier had got along yet.” For whatever reason, the War Department waited until June 27 to send notices to those officers promoted and confirmed on May 28. As a result, Upton finally received his confirmation on July 1, 1864, just three days short of a full year since he had taken command of his brigade and assumed the duties of a brigadier general.
So, the records show that Grant erred in his claim that he promoted Upton on the field of battle following his May 10 attack at Spotsylvania Court House. Contrary to what he wrote, Grant did not have authority to promote officers until May 16. On that date, the recommendation for Upton had already been submitted and was in the process of being filed by the War Department. Grant wrote his memoirs at the end of his life, racing to finish them before he succumbed to cancer in 1885. Grant’s error in claiming to have promoted Upton on the battlefield might well be a result of the fog of time, an ailing mind, simply an honest mistake or some other reason. It is likely that this error influenced others when they put pen to paper to record their memories. The stories surrounding Upton’s Spotsylvania promotion, as told by Beckwith and Best appear to be misinformed if not patently false. The two historians of Upton’s regiment wrote their reminiscences around the turn of the century and may well have been influenced by Grant’s erroneous statement.
Does it make a difference if the anecdotal evidence surrounding Upton’s promotion is not supported by official documents? Upton received his brigadier star at the recommendation of Meade and Grant, so does it really matter whether Grant promoted him on the field or if it went through the traditional process of War Department review? Part of our traditional interpretation is that Upton’s success in breaching the Confederate defenses on May 10 so impressed Grant and Meade that they recognized Upton’s tactical skill and rewarded him on the spot. But as we have seen, Upton did not receive such a promotion. In fact, no Union officer during the Overland Campaign received a battlefield promotion to brigadier general. Had Grant actually conferred such prestige upon Upton it would have been a tremendous acknowledgement that he and his May 10 action was exceptional, above anything that anyone else of his rank had achieved. As it is, Grant and Meade bundled Upton’s promotion along with recommendations for other officers and forwarded them to Secretary of War Stanton. The justification for his promotion did not even mention the May 10 attack, but instead referenced his performance over the course of the campaign to that point, the same reason given for the other officers named in the same dispatch. There is no indication of special recognition for May 10, nor a suggestion that what Upton accomplished on that day was worthy of singular attention. It’s quite possible that his promotion was inevitable, considering the efforts to gain him a brigadier’s star prior to the spring campaign. Perhaps Stanton’s May 12 request merely provided the opportunity to elevate Upton in rank. Remove the cachet of a battlefield promotion and does the spotlight on Upton dims just a little? Does it change our interpretation of Upton, May 10 and how the Union high command viewed Upton and his accomplishment in its immediate aftermath?
“Upton’s Attack” is one of the storied actions during the two-week Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Like so many studied engagements, lore has taken root and it requires a more detailed examination of available sources to determine if they stand up to the facts. It can be good to revisit traditional interpretations. Had a visitor not asked a simple question, we might still consider May 10, 1864 as the day Upton got his star. A future post will look at Upton’s May 10 attack itself, seeking to sort facts from lore.
* It’s worth noting that Joshua Chamberlain was the first officer to receive a battlefield promotion from Grant. He received a promotion to brigadier general on June 20, 1864 for his actions two days earlier when he led his brigade against the defenses of Petersburg, during which he was grievously wounded.
Eric J. Mink
Much thanks to Brooks Simpson for answering some questions and providing thoughts on Grant’s memoirs and official correspondence. Also, thanks to Bob Krick and Beth Parnicza for allowing me to bounce my own thoughts and ideas off them.
Sources consulted: Stephen E. Ambrose, Upton and the Army (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964); Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry (Chicago: W.S. Conley Co., 1921); Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1885); David W. Lowe, ed. Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007); Peter S. Michie, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885); Record Group 94: Letters Received by the Appointment, Commission and Personal Branch, Adjutant General’s Office, 1871-1894 (M1395), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; War Department, Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume XXXVI, Part 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1891)