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
The suggestion is that Upton voiced his opinions and was rewarded with the attack. Also, that as the commander of the assault force he used his own prerogative when determining its formation. Sadly, Catton’s works are not notated very well. These statements fall within a section of the book in which Catton uses one footnote for seven full paragraphs. That notation refers to Peter S. Michie’s The Life and Letters of Emory Upton (1885). A review of this volume and the letters by Upton that are printed therein give no indication that Upton lobbied for any innovative form of attack either before or at Spotsylvania. In fact, the letter Catton used to highlight Upton’s disgust with generals ordering attacks against Confederate trenches was written on June 4, 1864, almost four weeks after he led the attack at Spotsylvania. Catton’s assumptions of Upton’s influence were not isolated. Upton’s earliest biographer also asserted that Upton had a major role in the attack’s planning.
Dr. Stephen Ambrose’s Upton and the Army, published in 1964, is the first modern biography of the influential career soldier. While relating Upton’s involvement in the Battle of Spotsylvania, Ambrose explained the difficulty and problems of linear tactics in the face of widespread use of the more accurate rifles in the hands of defenders. Ambrose made the claim that Upton wrestled with this issue and made his concerns known.
“For three years Upton had been mulling over the problems rifling presented to the offensive. He saw this as his first opportunity to make an important reform in this field of tactics where the army most needed improvement…Upton began to the advocate an attack column, mounted from close to the enemy’s works…Many other junior officers in both armies had suggested tactical changes since linear tactics were no longer satisfactory, but Upton had two advantages – he had outlined a method of attack that was simple and traditional, and he was in a position to try this idea at once. Grant and Meade listened with interest, and promised to give Upton an opportunity to test his method.” Ambrose, pp 29-30
Ambrose also claimed that once the decision to attack on May 10, 1864 had been made, Upton’s immediate superior, Brigadier General David A. Russell, presented him with the orders. These orders included a list of the regiments with which he was to make the attack. According to Ambrose:
“Russell then told Upton that he was to use the men to experiment with an attack column.” Ambrose, p 31
Like Catton, Ambrose’s citations are frustratingly thin. Three sources are listed for the section from which these statements are taken. For the claim of Upton developing new theories on attack formations, and army command listening to these ideas and acting on them, Ambrose cites George T. Stevens’ Three Years in the Sixth Corps (1866). Stevens served as surgeon of the 77th New York Infantry, one of the regiments that participated in the May 10 attack. None of the assertions Ambrose made about Upton being the proponent of the attack or its formation as an assault column is supported by Stevens. Stevens only mentions Upton as the officer in command of the force that made the attack. As for the exchange between Russell and Upton, Ambrose cites Isaac O. Best’s History of the 121st New York State Infantry (1921). The pages Ambrose cites in Best’s history actually contains the remembrance of Martin T. McMahon, former Chief of Staff for Major General Horatio G. Wright, commanding the 6th Corps. Interestingly, McMahon does not mention this exchange between Russell and Upton. McMahon does, however, provide his own take on whose idea was the attack. Although portions of McMahon’s account of this period have been called into question (see previous post here), it is worth investigation.
McMahon’s account of the Battle of Spotsylvania, specifically the events surrounding May 10, appears in Best’s regimental history as a postwar discussion the former staffer had with another member of the 121st New York. In it, McMahon placed himself at the center of many of the decisions made about the attack and paints himself as someone of influence over the planning. He also placed the decision for the attack as having occurred the night of the 9th, as opposed to the following day when army headquarters actually issued orders for an attack by both the 5th and 6th Corps.
“On the 9th of May I rode with General Wright to army headquarters. When we arrived there we found General Grant, Meade and several others, and shortly after our arrival General Meade informed General Wright that he had ordered a general attack along the whole line for 4 o’clock on the following day, and ordered him to attack on his front at the same time. But he wanted him to organize a column of assault, consisting of twelve or fifteen picked regiments from the Corps, making the attack at the point he should select, and point out to him. He would carefully reconnoiter the enemy’s line and have an engineer officer locate the most favorable point of attack. General Wright was informed that Burnside’s Corps, Mott’s division, and a portion of the Fifth Corps would cooperate with him on both his flanks, and to seize any opportunity his success might afford to crush and drive out the enemy in his front. With this order and understanding General Wright rode away to make the necessary arrangements for the attack. He selected General Russell to take general charge of the entire movement, and at his chief of staff’s suggestion chose Emory Upton, then colonel of the 121st New York Volunteer Infantry, commanding the Second Brigade of the First Division, to lead the assaulting column. After selecting twelve regiments from different brigades and divisions of the Corps, he ordered his chief of staff to send for Colonel Upton to report to him early in the morning for orders and instructions.” Best, pp 134-135
McMahon, as related by Best, stated that the idea of the attack, and its formation in a column, originated at Army of the Potomac Headquarters, possibly with General Meade himself. Upton is not mentioned at all in relationship to the conception or development of the attack. It is also of note that Upton, in his official report, makes no mention of whose idea the attack was, only that “an assault was determined upon.”
Much has been made of the idea that the assault column utilized by Upton was revolutionary, but such tactics were not new. Assault columns appeared on battlefields long before the American Civil, and in his 2015 study Civil War Infantry Tactics, historian Earl Hess shows that columns of attack had even been utilized in a number of battles preceding Spotsylvania. The 6th Corps, in fact, used a column formation in its attack on Marye’s Heights the previous year in Fredericksburg. Even at Spotsylvania, and even on May 10, Upton’s was not the only column to attack the Confederate lines. Hours before Upton’s attack, the Union 2nd Corps brigades of Brigadier General Hobart Ward and Colonel Samuel S. Carroll went forward across the Laurel Hill fields in columns. Like Upton, Ward’s column temporarily breached the Confederate earthworks but lacked the support to take full advantage of its gains. The formations and attacks were similar to Upton’s, but they have been overshadowed and overlooked as the 6th Corps attack reached legendary status.
It’s worth noting that within the last year two new sources on Upton have been published. The first is a new biography by David Fitzpatrick, who does not perpetuate the idea that Upton developed and lobbied for a change in tactics leading up to Spotsylvania. Fitzpatrick also does not credit Upton with the idea and concept of the May 10, 1864 assault. Additionally, Salvatore Cilella has edited a much expanded collection of Upton’s letters. The letters span 1857 to 1881 and are divided into two volumes. Upton’s writings before Spotsylvania don’t mention the development of innovative tactics or a desire to implement changes on the battlefield.
No substantial evidence has been found to support the idea that Upton was the brains behind the 6th Corps’ attack on May 10, 1864. There is no supported evidence to suggest that he had been an advocate for assault columns or that he had lobbied army command for such an attack at Spotsylvania. There isn’t any evidence that Upton had any influence with Meade or Grant, even if he did believe that such tactics warranted attention. If it wasn’t Upton who conceived the idea of an assault column, who was behind the formation? McMahon, as related by Best, suggested that the plan developed with Meade or at least at army headquarters. Considering the use of assault columns that same afternoon at Laurel Hill, might the tactical order have come from army headquarters? Given the 6th Corps’ use of a column of attack at 2nd Fredericksburg, could the idea for May 10 have originated within that command? Could it have been Wright’s idea? The career engineer turned infantry commander? Whoever came up with the plan, it does not appear to have originated with Upton.
Up next: the architects of the attack.
Eric J. Mink
Sources consulted: Adam Badeau, Military History of General U.S. Grant , Volume II (NY: D. Appleton and Company, 1885); Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (NY: The Century Company, 1897); Merlin E. Sumner, ed., The Diary of Cyrus B. Comstock (Dayton, Ohio: Morningside Press, 1987); James H. Wilson, The Life of John Rawlins (NY: The Neale Publishing Company, 1916); Sylvanus Cadwallader, Three Years with Grant (NY: Alfred Knopf, 1955); Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume II (NY: Charles L. Webster and Company, 1886); David Lowe, Meade’s Army: The Private Notebooks of Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2007); George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913); Thomas W. Hyde, Following the Greek Cross (NY: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894); Charles A. Whittier, memoir, ts in FRSP Bound Volume 266; Edward K. Russell, letters, ts in FRSP Bound Volume 405; Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox (NY: Doubleday and Company, 1954); David A. Russell, letters, ts in FRSP Bound Volume 160; Peter S. Michie, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885); Stephen E. Ambrose, Upton and the Army (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1964); George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps (Albany, NY: S.R. gray, 1866); Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry (Chicago: W.S. Conley Co., 1921); Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr. Upton’s Regulars: The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War (Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2009); Earl J. Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University press, 2015); David J. Fitzpatrick, Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017); Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr., ed., Correspondence of Major General Emory Upton, Volume I, 1857-1875 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2017)