#Reviewing Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer

Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer. David J. Fitzpatrick. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

Upon finishing David Fitzpatrick’s excellent biography of Emory Upton, a reader might wonder why there has been only one other modern biography, Stephen Ambrose’s slender and flawed Upton and the Army (1964). Upton is a marvelous subject for a biographer. His efforts to improve military professionalism, though only partly successful in his own life, guided a younger generation of reformers whose work still influences the American military today. For instance, Secretary of War Elihu Root claimed to be following the path outlined by Upton while creating the system of career-long professional education from initial functional training through staff colleges and culminating in a generalist war college.[1] Moreover, Upton’s life provides an excellent vehicle for illuminating key aspects of the middle decades of the nineteenth century: the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening; the trauma of the Civil War; the reaction to corrupt politics in the Gilded Age.

In addition to being significant and representative, Upton’s story possesses the third trait necessary for successful biography—it is packed with dramatic scenes: a spectacular charge across one of the war’s most terrible killing grounds resulting in a battlefield promotion to brigadier general; a glamorous around the world journey to study foreign armies; a mysterious suicide at the height of life. Arguably Upton’s career was no less interesting and was certainly more consequential than his well-documented contemporary George A. Custer (both were born in 1839).

Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick’s sub-title “the misunderstood reformer” is apt. In the absence of a good biography, interpretations of Upton in various histories have suffered for the lack of personal context. He has been rendered as a cut-out figure on to which others projected their enthusiasms or fears. Samuel Huntington hailed Upton as, along with William T. Sherman and Stephen B. Luce, one of the “creative core” founding a new professional ethos.[2] Yet to fit the work of Upton and these others into his argument for a specific mode of civil-military relations, Huntington offered a distorted—and sometimes factually incorrect—account of their work. More common, however, has been the negative portrayal forcefully argued by Russell Weigley, the most influential historian of the institutional history of the U.S. Army. Weigley castigated Upton for having “injected poison into American civil-military relations.”[3]

Upton dabbled in several fields—tactics, professional education, personnel policy, and military organization—but his work had a coherence because he instinctively grasped the interconnections among these disparate topics.

Due to the dominance of Weigley’s view, Fitzpatrick confesses that when he began his work on Upton, he too accepted the conventional wisdom and only aspired to make Upton “a three-dimensional figure and place his ideas in their contemporary context.” In so admirably achieving that aim, Fitzpatrick has overturned the orthodox view of Upton in such a thorough and objective manner that it will likely remain the definitive biography of Upton.

New biographies benefit from the recent scholarship, and much ink has been spilled since the 1960s. Fitzpatrick incorporates the best of a range of Civil War and Gilded Age scholarship, but this biography is particularly enriched by Salvatore G. Cilella, Jr.’s exhaustively researched history of the regiment Upton commanded from 1862-1863. The other notable new source material comes from a previously overlooked collection of letters between Upton and his wife, Emily Martin. Though the relationship of Emory and Emily did not match the personal or intellectual depth of that between Carl and Marie von Clausewitz, the Uptons’ letters do add a poignant human aspect reminiscent of Vanya Eftimova Bellinger’s excellent biography, Marie von Clausewitz.

The heart of this biography, however, is the account of Upton’s career as a military reformer from the end of the Civil War until his suicide in 1881. Upton dabbled in several fields—tactics, professional education, personnel policy, and military organization—but his work had a coherence because he instinctively grasped the interconnections among these disparate topics. For instance, tactics fit for well-trained regulars might not be suitable for a hastily trained army of volunteers. Each aspect of an army’s organization, leadership, equipment, and tactics had to fit into a coherent whole—none could be taken in isolation.

A critical factor enabling this unity was the overwhelming influence of the Civil War on Upton. He had no involvement in frontier constabulary duty, and so remained focused on what today we would call the “most dangerous” rather than the “most likely” contingency. The reader can determine whether this was a strength or weakness, but it did allow an admirable internal coherence to his reforms meant to prepare the army for a war employing large volunteer armies. Over the course of his career, Upton sought to improve tactics, military policy, education, and personnel systems. In 1878, he advanced his most ambitious proposal, a system of regional depots serving both regular and volunteer units. This system would provide some peacetime training for citizen-soldier officers and non-commissioned officers. For regular officers, Upton advocated an expanded and more rigorous system of professional schools paired with frequent rotation through assignments to prepare them for whatever role the chance of war might thrust upon them. Upton’s other great cause was the limitation of political influence on the army.

It is natural to assume influential thinkers are necessarily imaginative, but Fitzpatrick notes this was not the case with Upton. His ideas were firmly rooted in his Civil War experiences. What set Upton apart as a thinker was the critical detachment that allowed him to more objectively view the accomplishments of the Union Army than many of his peers. He knew that trained volunteers became excellent soldiers in time, but they did not start out that way. Upton’s goal was to completely avoid a repeat of muddle he experienced in the summer of 1861 as the Union army formed and fought in a slapdash manner.

Throughout Upton, Fitzpatrick offers criticism when warranted. Much of this centers upon Upton’s unfinished Military Policy of the United States, which was published posthumously in 1904 at the direction of reforming Secretary of War Elihu Root. As already noted, Upton was aware of the failings of Union generalship. His private correspondence contains criticisms of generals “not fit to be corporals,” while the recommendations for reform in his earlier report of the tour of foreign armies (1878) are an implicit criticism of high command and staff work during the war.[4] But in Military Policy, Upton muted these criticisms of regulars. He hoped the work would inspire Congress to establish a framework for the rapid mobilization of effectively integrated armies of professional and citizen-soldiers organized by the federal government. To make this case, Upton deliberately overstated the past effectiveness of regular army officers and units.

These flaws in Military Policy contributed to the later misunderstanding of Upton’s ideas. Though elsewhere in word and deed he had made clear the requirements for a successful military leader, complacent regulars could see in Military Policy “proof” of their inherent superiority. This feeling did not originate with Upton, which existed even before he came into the army. Fitzpatrick notes that as a cadet in the 1850s, Upton was socialized into this already prevalent way of thinking. Nonetheless, by providing such a comprehensive, forceful articulation of the sentiment, Upton’s work (copies of the unfinished manuscript circulated the army in the two decades before its publication) became a totem and enabler of the regulars’ sense of entitlement without instilling a corresponding sense of responsibility.

The regulars’ snobbery repulsed John MacAuley Palmer (West Point 1899), a contrarian army officer, writer, and reformer who wanted a system of universal military service. Just as Upton had fallen prey to the polemicist’s temptation of distorting oversimplification, Palmer did the same to Upton, charging that he had tried to introduce foreign, mainly German, ideas into American military policy. This claim was ironic as Upton wanted to alter the American volunteer system while Palmer’s main inspirations were the Swiss and Australian militia systems. Nonetheless, Palmer claimed Upton hated citizen-soldiers, and the idea took root.

Too often we are ignorant of the origins and take for granted many aspects of military training, education, doctrine, leadership, and organization.

Beginning in the 1950s but continuing throughout his long career, Weigley took up and expanded Palmer’s critique, adding an anti-democratic hatred of civilian authority to Upton’s alleged sins. Upton did want to reduce the power of the secretary of war, but Fitzpatrick situates these ideas within the context of the Civil War and Gilded Age; in short, the origins of Upton’s thoughts were American and far more complex than the alleged desire to replicate Prussian militarism. Nonetheless, once again, Upton’s books served as a useful and easily cited symbol for a larger, diffuse feeling far bigger than Upton. Unfortunately, in using Upton as his exemplar, Weigley erred twice. He misstated the general mood of the late-nineteenth-century army, claiming it was sunk in “Uptonian pessimism;”[5] and in his portrayal of Upton, Weigley vastly oversimplified Upton’s work.

Ambrose’s biography perpetuated the main elements of the Weigley interpretation. This is odd, for while Weigley’s subject was the entire history of the U.S. Army and so a certain lack of fidelity regarding individuals could be expected, Ambrose was a biographer. His role was to provide a full, nuanced appreciation of his subject. Unfortunately, he did not. Thankfully, David Fitzpatrick has succeeded. Too often we are ignorant of the origins and take for granted many aspects of military training, education, doctrine, leadership, and organization. By understanding the hard-experience that gave rise to these foundational aspects of the military profession, there is still plenty of opportunity to continue Upton’s work in improving it.

 J. P. Clark is an officer in the U.S. Army, a member of the Military Writers Guild, and a featured contributor to The Strategy Bridge. He is also the author of Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815-1917, two chapters of which examine the Civil War generation through Upton’s career. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Deparment of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Header Image: "Upton's Brigade at the 'Bloody Angle'" by Francis H. Schell (Wikimedia)


[1] Elihu Root, “Address at the Laying of the Corner Stone of the Army War College,” 21 February, 1903, Box 220, Root Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Washington, D.C.

[2] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1957), 230-236.

[3] Russell F. Weigley, “The Soldier, the Statesman, and the Military Historian,” Journal of Military History 63 (October 1999), 814.

[4] Emory Upton to “My Dear Sister,” 5 June 1864, in Peter S. Michie, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton (New York: Appleton, 1885), 109.

[5] Brian Linn, Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007); Edward M. Coffman, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); idem, The Regulars: The American Army, 1898-1941 (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004).