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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Upton's Attack at Spotsylvania

Emory Upton looms large in my book, both for his tactical excellence during the American Civil War, and the influence he holds in the American Army after the Civil War's close.  Because I end my book in 1865, I only give a cursory treatment of Upton's role as an important post-Civil War reformer, but I do talk more extensively about the innovative assault he conducted on May 10 at Spotsylvania.  Upton massed his sized force of roughly five thousand me in a powerful column four lines deep, with three regiments in each line, and he made preparations for the attack normally not taken during the Civil War.  These included having only lead regiments cap their muskets, to discourage premature firing--many Civil War assaults failed because troops halted their crucial (and frequently un-restartable) offensive momentum to open fire, leading to firefights where they were at a severe disadvantage--actually giving his subordinates clear objectives to complete during the assault, conducting a proper reconnaissance of the position, etc.  For me, Upton's attack is a useful example of how infantry assaults, even against strong fortified positions, could succeed on a local tactical level, but how even the most successful ones would still become strategically barren due to failures of coordination at the division and corp levels of organization.  In Upton's, case, due to poor staffwork and general confusion, his local success went unsupported and unexploited.

The photo in this post comes from a recent trip I took to Spotsylvania in preparation for the regular staff ride I do for midshipmen there, and I'd like to make a plug for visiting that battlefield, which is something of a hidden gem, even in comparison to the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields that are part of the same larger NPS complex.  The battle is itself an important part of the Overland Campaign, but enough of it is preserved in a compact enough space that you can get a strong sense of the flow of the battle in a one-day visit--something which is not really the case in my opinion at Gettysburg.  And while Gettysburg remains the most famous of Civil War battles, Spotsylvania from my perspective is more interesting, because of its important role in the larger campaign where Grant and Lee duel, and which leads to the eventual demise of the Confederacy. Also, I like taking midshipmen there in large part because I feel many will go or have gone to Gettysburg on their own initiative, and I'd rather take them to a less well-known field.  But I think that also applies to the larger Civil War public, which naturally gravitates to the dramatic ground in Pennsylvania.

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