Union Generals Week: Emory Upton

Emory Upton (August 27, 1839 – March 15, 1881) was a United States Army General and brilliant military strategist. He rose to prominence for his role in leading the Union infantry to attack entrenched positions successfully at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House during the Civil War. He also excelled at artillery and cavalry assignments.

His important work, The Military Policy of the United States, analyzed American military policies and practices and presented the first systematic examination of America’s military history. Published posthumously in 1904, the volume had a tremendous effect on the U.S. Army.

As a Cadet at West Point

Upton was born on a farm near Batavia, New York, the tenth child and sixth son of Daniel and Electra Randall Upton. He studied under famous evangelist Charles G. Finney at Oberlin College for two years before being admitted to the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1856.

While at West Point Upton fought a duel with fellow Cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina over some offensive remarks Gibbes made about Upton’s friendly relationships with African-American girls at Oberlin College. The two cadets fought with swords in a darkened room in the West Point barracks and Upton recieved a cut on his face.

He was one of two classes graduated early in May of 1861 to help organize the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War.

His life and work was chronicled by a West Point classmate of his in The Life and Letters of Emory Upton: Colonel of the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, and Brevet Major-General, U.S. Army by Peter S. Michie, Professor U.S. Military Academy.

This work is one of the books included in Accessible Archive’s Civil War Collection.


The subject of the following memoir was widely known by reputation in the military profession, and the story of his life would, at least to military men, have been a matter of passing interest. The tragic circumstances of his death seemed to demand some explanation in harmony with his established reputation and character. At the earnest solicitation of his nearest relatives, the author, although conscious of his own deficiencies, undertook the task of compiling a brief record of General Upton’s life for his family and immediate personal friends.

In overstepping the limits at first proposed for the work, and in extending its circulation to the general public, the author has been guided by two considerations: First, the hope that the lessons drawn from General Upton’s life might be valuable to the youths who may hereafter enter the military profession, brought about a modification of its original plan, and necessitated the omission of much that was of purely family interest; second, Upton’s valuable researches into the military policy of his country, and the essential influence which his conclusions will have upon its future military organizations, seemed to warrant the wider publicity which is now attempted.

CHAPTER III. Active Service as a Subaltern

Emory Upton, 1865

The great body of volunteers assembled at Washington in the spring of 1861, in obedience to the call of the President, although inspired by patriotic enthusiasm, was without discipline or military knowledge, save the little they had individually acquired by their service in the militia. To remedy these defects became, then, a matter of pressing necessity before the troops could with confidence be sent into the field. The War Department, doubtless with this end in view, ordered the graduation of the two upper classes of the Military Academy, in order to utilize the services of these carefully trained and thoroughly disciplined young men in drilling the various regiments of volunteers.

Upton’s class was graduated on the 6th of May, and had completed all but a month of their five years’ cadet service. They were in every way qualified for the responsible duties to which they were at once assigned. Imperative orders directed their immediate presence in Washington. Delaying but a few hours in New York to procure their arms and equipments for active service, many of them still in their cadet uniform, they hurried on to Washington, and were at once absorbed in the performance of the duty assigned them.

Coming as they did fresh from the Military Academy, accustomed to strict disciplinary principles, having a practical as well as a theoretical knowledge of military science, and with a high sense of honor, they were peculiarly fortunate in being at once associated with those patriotic men who formed the first levy of our volunteer army.

Emory Upton on 121st New York Infantry Regiment monument at Gettysbur

They could not help being ennobled by intimate association with the men who, in the highest spirit of self-sacrifice, had given up every worldly interest, as well as family and home, and who stood ready to yield life itself in order that the Union might be preserved.

The influence of such men upon these active and high-spirited young regulars can never be wholly understood, except in the light of the remarkable success that the latter attained by the hearty cooperation of the former; and the regular army of to-day shows that the patriotic and devoted sacrifice of our volunteer soldiery has had an absorbing influence upon its present temper and discipline.

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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