West Point Cadets who fought for the Union: Custer, Upton

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Military Academies of the United States

George Armstrong CusterJohn Pelham and Tom Rosser had many Northern friends among their West Point classmates. Two of them were George Custer and Emory Upton. One was a famous cavalry leader,  the other was a tactical genius who revolutionized infantry warfare.

George Armstrong Custer was born in 1839 and raised in Michigan and Ohio. He was admitted to West Point in 1858, where he graduated last in his class. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Custer was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Union Army.

Custer developed a strong reputation during the Civil War. He fought in the first major engagement, the First Battle of Bull Run. Initially, he served as a staff officer but he soon became a line officer. Three days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, General Alfred Pleasonton promoted Custer from captain to brigadier general of volunteers. Despite having no direct command experience, he became one of the youngest generals in the Union Army at age 23.

Custer established a reputation as an aggressive cavalry brigade commander willing to take personal risks by leading his Michigan Brigade into battle, such as the mounted charges at Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field at the Battle of Gettysburg.

At East Cavalry Field, hours of charges and hand-to-hand combat ensued. Custer led a mounted charge of the 1st Michigan Cavalry, breaking the back of the Confederate assault. Custer’s brigade lost 257 men at Gettysburg, the highest loss of any Union cavalry brigade. “I challenge the annals of warfare to produce a more brilliant or successful charge of cavalry”, Custer wrote in his report

Custer was eventually promoted to the temporary rank (brevet) of major general and promoted major general of Volunteers. (At war’s end, he reverted to his permanent rank of captain.) At the conclusion of the Appomattox Campaign, in which he and his troops played a decisive role, Custer was present at General Robert E. Lee’s surrender.

Of course, we all know about Custer’s Last Stand. He led his regiment into the valley of the Little Bighorn River. Cuter divided his regiment into three battalions: one led by himself, one led by Major Marcus Reno, and one by Captain Frederick Benteen. Captain Thomas M. McDougall and Company B were with the pack train.

Benteen was sent south and west, to cut off any attempted escape by the Indians, Reno was sent north to charge the southern end of the encampment, and Custer rode north, hidden to the east of the encampment by bluffs, and planning to circle around and attack from the north.

Unfortunately for the cavalry they were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat with heavy casualties. In the opening action of the attack Reno lost a quarter of his command. Initially, Custer had 208 officers and men under his command, with an additional 142 under Reno, just over 100 under Benteen, 50 soldiers with Captain McDougall’s rearguard, and 84 soldiers under 1st Lieutenant Edward Gustave Mathey with the pack train. The Lakota-Cheyenne coalition may have fielded over 1800 warriors.

Eventually, Custer’s remaining troopers were surrounded and killed. All of the men under his immediate command were killed. Their bodies were stripped and desecrated. Eventually, Custer’s body was returned to West Point for final interment.

The other Northerner who distinguished himself was Emory Upton. He was born on a farm near Batavia, New York. Upton entered West Point in 1856. Upton soon became a dedicated abolitionist who fought a dual with fellow Cadet Wade Hampton Gibbes of South Carolina over some offensive remarks about Upton’s alleged relationships with African-American girls at Oberlin College.

Upton was commissioned a second lieutenant of artillery at the start of the war. In the First Battle of Bull Run, July Emory Upton21, 1861, he was wounded in the arm and left side during the action at Blackburn’s Ford, although he did not leave the field.

He commanded his battery in the VI Corps Artillery Reserve through the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days Battles. In the Maryland Campaign, including the battles at Crampton’s Gap at South Mountain and the Battle of Antietam, he commanded the artillery brigade for the 1st Division, VI Corps.

Upton was appointed colonel of the 121st New York on October 23, 1862. He led the regiment at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December and commanded the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, of the VI Corps, starting at the Battle of Gettysburg. In the Bristoe Campaign, Upton was cited for gallant service at Rappahannock Station in November 1863 and was given a brevet promotion to major in the regular army.

Emory Upton greatest contribution to Union tactical warfare took place at the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania. Upton devised a tactic wherein columns of massed infantry would swiftly assault a small part of the enemy line, without pausing to trade fire, and in doing so attempt to overwhelm the defenders and achieve a breakthrough.

The standard infantry assault employed a wide battle line advancing more slowly, firing at the enemy as it moved forward. On May 10, 1864, Upton led twelve regiments in such an assault against the salient. His tactics worked and his command penetrated to the center of the Mule Shoe, but they were left unsupported and forced to withdraw in the face of enemy artillery and mounting reinforcements. Upton was wounded in the attack, but was promoted to brigadier general on May 12.

The VI Corps, of which Upton’s brigade was part, was detached from the Army of the Potomac and sent to deal with Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early’s threat to Washington and in the subsequent Valley Campaigns of 1864. At the Third Battle of Winchester, he assumed command of the 1st Division, VI Corps, when its commander fell mortally wounded. Upton himself was severely wounded in the thigh soon after, but refused to be removed from the field until the battle was over. He was carried on a stretcher for the duration of the battle, directing his troops.

After returning from medical leave, Upton finished the war as a cavalry commander, completing his mastery of all three combat arms. Under the command of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, he led the 4th Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Military Division of the Mississippi.The division saw action during Wilson’s Raid and the Battle of Selma.

On April 16, 1865, the division made a night assault upon the Confederate works in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia, capturing a large amount of arms, ammunition, stores, and 1,500 prisoners, and burning the “cottonclad” ramming ship, CSS Muscogee. This occurred a week after the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia, and was the last large-scale engagement during the war.

A few weeks later, in May 1865, Upton was ordered to arrest Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, and a little later Jefferson Davis was placed in his custody. He was given a brevet promotion to brigadier general in the regular army for his actions at Selma and major general in the regular army, both on March 13, 1865.

After the conclusion of the war Upton to West Point where he eventually became the commandant of cadets at the United States Military Academy. He also taught infantry, artillery, and cavalry tactics.

In 1881, Upton, having returned to the rank of colonel in 1880, was in command of 4th U.S. Artillery at the Presidio of San Francisco. He suffered greatly from headaches, possibly caused by a brain tumor, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. He is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, New York

Emory Upton is considered one of the most influential young reformers of the United States Army in the 19th century, arguably in U.S. history. He has been called the U.S. Army’s counterpart to United States Navy reformer and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. Although his books on tactics and on Asian and European armies were considered influential, his greatest impact was a work he called The Military Policy of the United States from 1775. He worked for years on the paper, but it was incomplete at the time of his death in 1881.


Series Navigation<< 1861 Confederate West Point Graduates: John Pelham and Thomas RosserBorder State Cadets at West Point >>

Leave a Reply