On this day in 1881 Colonel Emory Upton ended his life with a revolver in his San Francisco office. The commander of the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, he was forty-one. During the Civil War he reached the rank of brevet major general by age twenty-five. His long-time commander called Upton “incontestably the best tactician of either army,” and, by the time of his death, “the most accomplished soldier in our service.” 

And yet, in our Army, Emory Upton is largely forgotten.

The anniversary of his death gives occasion to remember him. His valor in battle, which awed those who served alongside him, is reason alone. But the life of Emory Upton also commands our attention as enduring proof of other precepts: that soldiering and writing go hand in hand, that there is no tension between loyalty and disciplined criticism, and that in the final account, however deferred the gratification, the writing of such criticism is hard work worth doing.

Upton’s Courage

Well before he won fame for his physical courage on the battlefields of the Civil War, a young Emory Upton showed equal courage of a moral sort. He was a fierce abolitionist. When he arrived at West Point in 1856 the campus was rife with secessionist tensions. Upton did not tame his abolitionist views and professed unmitigated loyalty to the Union, and so rankled southern classmates. When tension worsened after the raid at Harpers Ferry, a classmate insulted Upton publicly for his views. Rather than back down, Upton dueled the classmate, and emerged much bloodied but upright to the awaiting corps. His second called out: “If there are any more of you down there who want anything, come right up.”

Upton’s moral courage at West Point foreshadowed his valor in battle. In late 1863, while still just twenty-four, he personally led treacherous charges to seize Confederate positions at Rappahannock Station. At Spotsylvania he led a still more perilous night-time charge over two hundred open yards against prepared Confederate positions, using only his bayonet for stealth. Upton’s three-regiment column succeeded in taking an enemy salient known as the “Muleshoe” (and later as the “Bloody Angle”), but had to withdraw when supporting attacks faltered. General Ulysses S. Grant recognized Upton’s bravery by promoting him to brevet brigadier general at age twenty-five. Upton would vindicate Grant’s faith for the rest of the war, which Upton all but finished by brilliantly leading the capture of Columbus, Georgia, the Civil War’s last major engagement.

Upton’s Writing

Upton’s bravery, be it in West Point’s Cadet Area or at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, awed many. But it was his writing that made his legacy. For the nearly three decades between the Civil War and his death, he wrote continuously. He rewrote the Army’s infantry doctrine. He authored America’s first comprehensive study of the world’s modern militaries for the War Department. He all but finished a comprehensive and consequential critique of Army force structure. Lastly, he left behind a vast body of letters with family and colleagues in which one can clearly see the mind of a great reformer take shape.

While still in his twenties, Upton was driven to write about the Army. Flaws in politics, policy, strategy, and tactics he believed were killing men under his command at a scale the country had never seen before. Rage alone, however understandable, did not for Upton suffice. His long-time commanding officer, James Harris Wilson, observed that “Upton’s mind was not content at this period to confine itself to the mere condemnation of details. It was incessantly occupied in trying to work out correct solutions for all the military problems then engaging the army’s attention.” This occupation persisted after the war ended. Having felt with his own flesh and seen in the sacrifice of his men the shortcomings of inherited tactics, Upton set about after the Civil War writing new tactical manuals to account for a changing battlefield. A board chaired by General Ulysses Grant approved the adoption of these manuals in 1867.

Nearly a decade later the War Department dispatched Upton on a world tour with a small staff to study foreign militaries and report back on lessons learned. In 1876, he returned from that seventeen-month journey and immediately threw himself into the report. In the final product, titled The Armies of Asia and Europe, he argued for new systems of education, promotion, and recruitment that would better ready the country for a major war.

Upton did not stop there. Because The Armies of Asia and Europe was an official report, Upton tamed his criticisms and narrowed his scope to honor the War Department’s intent. He at the same time began work on a more comprehensive critique, in which he intended to “expose the vices” of the Army, not just on technical questions but on ones of “folly and immorality.” Doing so he anticipated would “disappoint many people” but he was willing to undertake that risk to accomplish what seemed to be his life’s work. Declining health and his death prevented Upton from finishing it, but while still in draft it reached many, and the War Department itself published an edited version in 1904 as The Military Policy of the United States.

Upton’s Influence

A notion that moves us to write, rather than just gripe, is that by doing so we might change the world for the better. Here again Upton’s example is instructive. His writing on his Army’s many faults and possible remedies influenced generations of legislators, cabinet members, and officers. The pace and levels at which this influence operated is worth reviewing.

An early instance of the influence Upton wielded by writing is in infantry doctrine. The aforementioned 1867 manual on infantry tactics is credited with all but inventing the modern American infantry squad, and for nearly twenty-five years was the Army’s infantry manual of record.

Another example of Upton’s influence might be found in what became known as the Burnside Committee, which convened in 1878 under Senator Ambrose Burnside to consider military reform. General William Tecumseh Sherman, then the commanding general of the Army, directed the attention of Senator Burnside to Upton’s The Armies of Asia and Europe. The resultant Burnside Bill reflected the sorts of changes to personnel policy Upton favored, but it fell short of his hopes. Either way, the bill died a procedural death in January 1879 and never became law.

The death of the Burnside Bill, Upton’s frustrations with promotion in a stagnant postwar Army, and his own apparent inability to finish his masterwork, the more comprehensive critique that would be published posthumously twenty-three years later, wore on him. Matters were made worse by his declining health, driven likely in part by an undiagnosed tumor pressing upon his brain with neurological consequences. On March 15, 1881, while in command of an artillery regiment in San Francisco, Emory Upton sat down to write his sister as he had done countless times before. He ended the letter abruptly with a farewell: “I don’t feel like writing anymore. Only let me feel that I have your love and sympathy.” Upton shortly after wrote a two-sentence resignation addressed to the adjutant general and ended his life with his revolver. He died having never seen the reforms for which he argued.

But reform did come. Beginning in 1901, a series of four laws reshaped the Army more comprehensively than any reforms since. These laws have come to be known as the Root Reforms, named for the secretary of war who stewarded their passage, Elihu Root. Though not Upton’s prescriptions exactly, they were, in the words of one biographer, undeniably “Uptonian.” Root clearly thought so as well. He had sought Upton’s writings while contemplating the reforms. In 1903, he told an audience that “were Upton living today, still upon the active list of the army, he would see all of the great reforms for which he contended substantially secured.”

Senator Henry du Pont, who received chapters the work that would ultimately be published as The Military Policy of the United States from Upton, would heavily influence a 1914 law establishing a standby policy for volunteer forces should the United States join a world war. In 1915 Secretary of War Lindley Garrison forwarded a vision for a large “continental army,” which he described as “the unquestioned evolution of General Upton’s mind.” Such developments led one scholar to call Emory Upton “the Army’s Mahan,” comparing his influence to the outsize impact the much-revered Alfred Thayer Mahan had on the shape of the US Navy. One hundred years after Upton’s death, a young Major Andrew Bacevich wrote that “to a greater extent than any other officer since his time, Upton has determined the way our Army thinks. . . . Even those who took issue with Upton did so on the terms that he had established.”

Upton’s Lessons

Upton’s loyalty to—and ferocious focus on fixing—the Army is beyond doubt. A eulogist and close friend from Upton’s time as commandant of cadets at West Point put it so: “Never would he stoop a hair’s breadth to any man or any power to gain an end. . . . His method of self-advancement was to serve his country with devoted and uncalculating loyalty, and to perform the duties of his station with scrupulous fidelity.” That Upton could at once show such loyalty to the Army and advocate sweeping reforms of it reminds us that there is no tension between martial loyalty and written, responsible criticism.

A second lesson from Upton’s example is that bitterness does not excuse one from the imperative to improve his or her institutions. Having seen extraordinary suffering of his soldiers on the battlefield, and having concluded that “our military policy is a crime against life, a crime against property, and a crime against liberty,” he nonetheless plunged ahead with his work, rather than withdraw, though his injuries and achievements in war would justify such a recusal.

Lastly, Emory Upton’s life reminds us that the gratification that comes from writing is not always immediate. It is one of the great tragedies of his story that in the days before he died he regarded his writing to be a failure. We live in an era when if a work is not met instantly with great praise or online virality some assume it to be meaningless. Perhaps one way to honor Emory Upton is to recall that the ungratifying but meaningful work of disciplined criticism in the final account is what changes the Army.

Theo Lipsky is a captain in the United States Army and a founding member of the Harding Project to renew professional military writing.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.