Upton’s Attack (May 10, 1864)

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

Emory Upton (Library of Congress).

On May 10, 1864, Emory Upton led a famous charge against a portion of the Confederate lines outside Spotsylvania. Here’s an adaptation of my account of the fighting, taken from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg. The book is available via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and at quality bookstores.

Lee’s defensive line here above Spotsylvania had one very distinctive characteristic: there was a large bulge in his line. Because of its shape, this protrusion, or salient, became known as the Mule Shoe. Such salients were usually weak spots in a defensive line because attackers could strike them from different angles. On the west side of the big Mule Shoe salient was a smaller bulge, called Doles’s Salient after the Confederate general whose brigade defended it. This is the spot where Upton intended to make his attack.

The war had entered a new phase. Early in the war, when Lee had resorted to defensive measures, people had derided him as the “King of Spades.” No more. By the time of Mine Run, the Army of the Potomac had come to understand the futility of attacking a well-dug-in position. “With the formidable rifles now in use, a single line of veteran soldiers, behind a three-foot breastwork of earth and rails or a stone fence, can drive back and almost destroy three similar lines approaching to attack them,” noted one Union captain. “Give either our army or the rebels twenty-four hours’ notice of an approaching attack, and they will select a good position, and throw up intrenchments, which it is folly for any but overwhelmingly superior numbers to attempt to carry.”

The defensive works here had proven equally resistant to attack, but Upton thought he could breach them. He was determined to leave the field either “a live brigadier general or a dead colonel.” Upton planned to make a rapid and concentrated assault at a single spot, and Doles’s Salient seemed to offer the perfect opportunity.

Upton, a severe-looking young man with roundish face, high cheekbones, a mustache, and a trim beard, looks fierce and resolute in his photograph. Born in New York, Upton attended Ohio’s Oberlin College before he entered West Point. In 1859 he fought a duel with a fellow cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes, a South Carolinian who had declared that Upton, an ardent abolitionist, had slept with black students at integrated (and co-educational) Oberlin. The two cadets fought with swords one evening in an upstairs room at the barracks. Upton received a cut on the face but emerged with his honor intact. He graduated from West Point in May 1861; just over two months later he fired the first gun at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Upton’s brigade had participated in the successful charge at Rappahannock Station the previous fall, so that may have influenced his thinking here. His plan was to have his men rush the enemy in a narrow column without stopping to fire. Once they broke through the enemy’s works, they would swing left and right to widen the breach and wait for reinforcements. He had twelve hand-picked regiments, about five thousand  men. The regiments are listed on the monument here. They came from Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Vermont, and New York.On hearing the command “Forward,” one man with the 121st Pennsylvania remembered, “I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind.” He knew the terrible odds against him. So did all the others. “I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death.” The men charged across the two hundred yards or so that separated them from the enemy. They saw puffs of smoke appear from behind the log breastworks–each one an announcement of potential death or dismemberment. Men began to fall. The orders, though, prohibited stopping for any reason–not even to fire and certainly not to help a wounded comrade.

Upton’s men dashed through the hail of Confederate lead until they reached the enemy’s line. They tore down the abatis–tangled tree limbs and branches thrown down as a barrier–and clambered over the log breastworks. The rebels on the other side waited, guns cocked, to fire bullets through the first heads that appeared over the works. Union attackers tumbled down dead.“Others seeing the fate of their comrades, held their pieces at arm’s length and fired downwards, while others, poising theirs vertically, hurled them down upon the enemy, pinning them to the ground,” Upton reported. His men poured over the enemy breastworks. “The enemy’s lines were completely broken,” said Upton, “and an opening had been made for the division that was to have supported, but it did not arrive.”

That supporting division belonged to the II Corps’ Gershom Mott, but because of confusing orders and limited manpower (and, rumor had it, because Mott was drunk), his attack proved ineffectual. Down to the right, Warren, eager to show his fighting spirit, had already made his attack. Even farther down the line a brigade of Hancock’s II Corps under Brig. Gen. J. Hobart Ward made another temporary break in the Confederate line before being driven back. On the far Union left Burnside made a feeble advance that accomplished nothing. Upton’s men killed and captured more than a thousand enemy soldiers, but they lost nearly as many. Lacking support, they were finally forced to withdraw, past the spot where monument to them stands today, and into the sheltering woods.

Grant gave Upton his promotion to brigadier general, and Upton’s attack gave Grant an idea. If something like that could almost work with five thousand men, what would happen if he tried it with four times that number? Why not attack the Mule Shoe with the entire II Corps?

Adapted from Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg by Tom Huntington, pp. 272-4. Copyright © 2013 by Stackpole Books.

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