Emory Upton’s improvised charge at Spotsylvania on May 10, 1864 changed not only the course of the Civil War but also how warfare is conducted. The customary infantry assault of the era used a wide battle line advancing slowly, firing at the enemy as it moved forward. The traditional two line attack, known as “Close Order”, when employed across an open field, left the attacking column vulnerable to artillery; sustaining high casualties in the attack led to reduced effectiveness at the focus of the attack. Not only were there be far fewer men reaching the earthworks, but even if the entrenchments were breached, too few men would cause the attack to be ineffective; it could not break the line or hold it during a counterattack.
As Upton looked out over the field he had been ordered to charge across, he improvised a new plan. The idea was to form his regiments in a three by four column formation, not stop to fire across the field, and charge straight ahead. But exactly how did this strategy change military tactics?
Major General Emory Upton. Library of Congress.
Upton’s innovation came to him while doing reconnaissance of the Confederate position with a young engineer, Lt. Ranald MacKenzie. MacKenzie, had been dispatched to select a location for which Upton’s regiments would hit the Confederate line. Earlier in the day, Union infantrymen had carried a portion of the Confederate skirmish line that fronted a Georgia brigade under Brig. Gen. George Doles. Doles had failed to reestablish the line, thus allowing MacKenzie and Upton to get a full view of the enemy position. Upton and MacKenzie saw that on their right was a sharp swale, which partially shielded them from a battery of Richmond Howitzers positioned within Doles’ line. The swale, along with a ridge to their front, would provide ample cover for the attacking Federals as they moved across the open field.
Based on this reconnaissance, Upton devised a tactic wherein columns of massed infantry would swiftly assault a small part of the enemy line. By focusing the attack, a stronger force could be brought to bear. Moreover, the charge would be made without pausing to shoot rifles. By advancing rapidly, the massive attack in waves might overwhelm the defenders and attain a breakthrough.
Upton would lead group of 12 selected regiments, about 5,000 men, in four battle lines, three regiments across, against an identified weak point on the west side of the Mule Shoe. The salient is now called Doles’s Salient, for Brig. Gen. George P. Doles’s Georgian troops who were defending that sector.
Realizing that advances in musketry had made obsolete the centuries-old infantry tactic of having troops attack in a long line, firing—and being slaughtered—as they went, he chose a different approach. Upton decided that his brigade would rush the enemy fortifications in columns, without slowing to stop and fire. The idea was to reach the enemy as quickly as possible.
The attacks at Spotsylvania May 10, 1864 & how Upton’s plan at coordination failed.
The particular bit of genius in Upton’s plan was this: Rather than send all of his men in one large charge (e.g., Pickett’s Charge), or en echelon (e.g., Hood and Longstreet on day 2 at Gettysburg), or in waves (e.g., Fredericksburg), Upton planned for one massive charge with substantial support behind. By design, the attacking column would move forward, penetrate the Rebel line and hold the ground long enough for additional troops to move up and exploit the breach. By running across the open field without pausing to fire and reload, they would reach the defensive line before the Confederates could fire more than a couple of shots. Once the lead units had created an initial breakthrough, the lines behind would widen the breach and spread out on each side. Support from Gershom Mott’s division was crucial to support the breakthrough.
Upton ordered the artillery bombardment of the line to prepare for the attack. He readied his men to charge 200 yards across an open field. And then something he hadn’t planned for happened.
Earlier, the V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren appealed to George Meade to make his attack at 4 p.m, an hour ahead of schedule. Warren’s attack was beaten back and in turn, Upton’s attack time was pushed from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. In a massive oversight, no one informed Gershom Mott, Upton’s support for the attack. Thinking that he was advancing in conjunction with Upton, Mott went forward against the tip of the Mule Shoe Salient and like Warren, was repulsed. No one informed Upton of Mott’s failed attempt. At 6:10 p.m. on May 10, 1864, Upton’s men stepped off.
Upton’s forces reached the line and overpowered the defenders. This strategy succeeded. Upton’s attack carried the first two lines of advanced rifle pits, but became bogged down within the main Confederate position. Hand to hand combat ensued, by attacks with bayonet and rifle butt. It became impossible to maintain command within any of the attacking units. Then they waited for the reinforcements to attack. As the map shows, Mott was supposed to attack in support, but his too early start meant another piecemeal attack.
Ultimately, they were overpowered and had to retreat because these reserves had to come from elsewhere on the field. The Confederates, led by Generals Lee and Ewell, were faster with their reinforcements. The counterattack succeeded in causing Upton to retreat, but it was clear that had his support group charged with him, he would have held the position.
Upton had succeeded in figuring out how to successfully advance against entrenchments through a combination of smart thinking and good fortune. He was promoted to brigadier general that evening. The concept of the linear infantry attack was dead.
Grant recognized the partial success of Upton’s innovative assault. He surmised that the failure resulted from the lack of support. He judged that the same tactics employing a larger group, such as an entire corps, with a larger support group, might be successful. Two days later, General Hancock led just such an attack at the Bloody Angle.
Upton wrote an infantry manual after the war codifying his principle, and became commandant at West Point. Upton’s concept of focused attacks prefigured the tactics used in the trench warfare of World War I. He was way ahead of his time.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.