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Upton and the Army by Stephen E Ambrose

Book Review by Dave Bradley

This is quite a short book with only about 160 pages of actual reading material. Nonetheless, I found it very thought-provoking.

The author gives us a brief account of Upton's childhood and youth before going on in more detail about his time at Westpoint. From an early age Upton chafed at the painfully slow pace of promotion. Old soldiers never retired, they just carried on until they died. Upton was always a thinker and never one of those people who just accepted that this is how things are done and so they must remain.

During the Civil War he resented the way promotion was achieved more through political connections than proven ability. During the Overland Campaign in 1864 he demonstrated his innovative skills by getting his men to drop the tactic of stopping to fire whilst attacking and thereby giving the enemy more time to prepare. Instead, just move forward as swiftly as possible and only fire at the forwardmost point.

After the war he stayed on in the army. Other than religious conviction, his whole life revolved around the military. He continued to be a reformer and felt the army needed to rid itself of its hidebound ways. More professionalism, less political interference, mandatory retirement age and better training and tactics were required.

He went to various countries to study how they organised their armed forces. He was particularly impressed by the Prussians and General Von Moltke. Ironically, although Upton very much favoured younger generals as he felt they had much more vigour and aggression than older ones, Von Moltke, who was in his mid-sixties when the Prussians fought the Danes in 1864 and 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, was an exception to the rules and Upton admired him very much.

The big problem Upton faced was that the army was no longer considered very important by the general public or the politicians. The Civil War and Reconstruction were over, the Indian wars were mostly over and there wasn't perceived to be much of a foreign threat. Upton felt he was out on a limb with no real support, his failure to get his reforms accepted made him feel a failure. In addition, his dear wife had died ten years before and he still missed her. On top of all that he suffered from very severe and frequent headaches.

On 15th March 1881 Emory Upton committed suicide by shooting himself with a pistol. What a sad end but what an interesting book.

October 2023


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