Recently, National Park Service ranger Eric Mink at the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania Battlefield Park, posted a blog https://npsfrsp.wordpress.com/ regarding Major General Emory Upton’s promotion after the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The blog was prompted by a visitor’s question, which noted that a monument dedicated in 2002 to the Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery at Cold Harbor, recorded Upton as a Colonel. Upton had led the ill-fated attack on the Salient at Spotsylvania on May 10, 1864. Based on Upton’s exploit, two days later, General Grant ordered an all out assault on the salient that rivaled in savagery all preceding battles. It provoked an eighteen hour melee in an unrelenting rainstorm producing a bloody, muddy quagmire. How was it that Upton was still a colonel two weeks later when we have it on the authority of two reliable witnesses that Upton was promoted on the field May 11, the next day?
The most prominent authority was U. S. Grant. Writing in his memoirs in 1885 he asserted that he had authority to make battlefield promotions:
“Upton brought his prisoners with him, but the guns he had captured he was obliged to abandon. Upton had gained an important advantage, but a lack in others of the spirit and dash possessed by him lost it to us. Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act was confirmed by the President. Upton had been badly wounded in this fight.”
On May 13, Grant recorded a lull in the fighting and contradicted his assertion that he promoted Upton in the field. Taking advantage of the inaction, Grant recorded that he “wrote to Washington recommending Sherman and Meade for promotion” along with Hancock, Wright, Gibbon and Humphreys and “Upton and Carroll to be Brigadiers. Upton had already been named as such, but the appointment had to be confirmed by the Senate on the nomination of the President.” Grant included a copy of his letter to Stanton dated the 13th as documentation of his actions that day. It is interesting that he singled Upton out as “already…named.” Stanton replied via telegram the next day. He reported that Wright, Humphreys, Schofield, and Wilson had been nominated and confirmed two days earlier. “The Brigadiers you name shall be appointed.” On May 15, Stanton telegraphed Grant: “There are eight vacancies for Brigadier Generals. If you deem it expedient to promote any officer on the field for gallant conduct you are authorized to do so provisionally and your appointment will be sanctioned by the President and sent to the Senate.”
In addition, General Meade wrote to Washington on the 13th presenting officers for immediate promotion for their “distinguished services in the battles of the ‘Wilderness’ and ‘Spotsylvania CH’” including Upton.
A second source for the saga of Upton’s promotion to Brigadier comes to us in a convoluted way. It substantiates Grant’s claim of battlefield authority, but because the narrative was written after 1885, it may rely on Grant’s Memoirs and not an eyewitness. On the other hand, the account is so richly detailed, that it compels the reader to admit some authenticity.
The account comes from Brevet Major General Martin T. McMahon, a Medal of Honor winner and aide-de-camp to General George McClellan during the war. After the war, McMahon became a lawyer and New York City’s corporate counsel. He served as U. S. Minister to Paraguay from 1868 to 1869. After serving various private and public offices, McMahon became a member of the New York Assembly in 1891 and then the State Senate from 1892 to 1895. In 1896, he was elected Judge of the Court of General Sessions which a held until his death in 1906. In 1893, McMahon introduced a bill into the New York State Senate establishing a three-man commission to cooperate with the United States Monument Commission to lay out Chickamauga Park and mark the disposition of New York troops. His narrative of Upton’s battlefield promotion reached the public through Isaac O. Best’s Upton’s Regulars: History of the 121st New York Volunteers published in 1921, sixty years after the war began.
Best wrote his history using several sources, but he relied heavily on one source—the memoirs of Dewitt Clinton Beckwith, a private in Company B, 121st NY. Best, writing in his foreword cited regimental records, regimental and brigade commander reports, diaries of several books already published covering the same events. Beckwith gave Best “permission to quote ad libitum from” his “memoir/diary/account.”
Beckwith’s memoirs appeared in serial form in the Mohawk Democrat (Mohawk, NY) beginning on July 5, 1893 and concluding July 4, 1894. The publisher and Beckwith sounded the same refrain. Beckwith recounted that he had been asked on many occasions “ to write a story, giving army experiences from my own standpoint, and having at various times read different histories of the later war, and reminiscences of comrades, published in many various” sources which seemed “so different from my own and seemed so unnatural, strained and stilted, that I have concluded to write in all its stages, as experienced by myself.”
The “memoir,” thirty years after the fact was based almost primarily on Beckwith’s memory. During the war he kept a diary but as he affirmed in his pension petition, he left his bible and diary along with his knapsack and blanket in preparation of an assault at Mine Run in December 1863. When the ill-advised attack was cancelled, Beckwith returned to his camp “we found our knapsacks and blankets had been overhauled and my Bible and papers were missing.” 
Included in Beckwith’s narrative, which Best used virtually verbatim, was Beckwith’s encounter with McMahon. Best did not explain how Beckwith knew or interacted with McMahon, nor did Beckwith. Beckwith wrote: “Since the war I have had the pleasure upon many occasions to meet the gallant soldier, who was chief of Gen. Wright’s staff at the time the assault at Spottsylvania, under Gen. Upton, was made, and the following account of the inception, organization and execution of the battle is from his own lips, and was told me by him recently, and in answer to some inquiries I had been making of him…”
At first it seems implausible that a private in Upton’s regiment, who had been reduced to the ranks after being promoted to corporal, i. e., Beckwith; would know or have the occasion to speak with a former Brevet Major General and later Medal of Honor winner; McMahon. The connection came through politics and the New York Monuments Commission. Beckwith and McMahon were both loyal Democrats, a rarity after the war in the north. Beckwith had made a name for himself as a building contractor earning several state construction contracts. McMahon had introduced civil war military monument legislation in 1893. At the same time, New York State Governor Roswell P. Flower appointed Beckwith to the commission and gave him an honorary title of “colonel.” Eventually Beckwith would be the Chairman of the Commission overseeing monuments to New York Troops at Antietam and General Wadsworth at Gettysburg. His obituary called Civil War veteran Beckwith “ a dominant power in Herkimer County politics and of considerable prominence in Democratic political circles” in the state.
Beckwith went into considerable detail with McMahon’s narrative. Half way through his weekly columns, in January 1894, Beckwith began the saga of Upton’s attack on the Salient, May 10, 1864. He devoted his entire January 31 column to McMahon’s version of how Upton won his star, which Best copied word for word in his History of the 121st (pp. 138-140). McMahon was certain that Upton received his star the following morning, May 11 and in one particular statement declared that Upton “cut off his eagles and we got some thread and had the stars sewed on his shoulder, and he rode directly to his command to show them his preferment.” Were Beckwith and McMahon influenced by Grant’s memoirs? Undoubtedly. Beckwith admitted as such: “General Grant, in his memoirs, mentions its commander (Upton) and it (the 121st NY Volunteers), an honor great because no other regiment was mentioned.”
The documentary evidence convincingly refutes the assertions made by Grant that he promoted Upton on the battlefield and McMahon’s that Upton’s impromptu act of cutting off his eagles and replacing them with his stars actually happened. Grant’s is probably closer to what actually happened. He probably did promise Upton he would promote him, but did he have the authority to do so before he left Washington? It would not be out of the realm of possibility that Stanton or Lincoln told Grant that he would have as much leeway in control of his command as possible without interference from Washington.
The two issues—battlefield authority and the actual conferring of the promotion on Upton, demand re-statement here for context and continuity. Eric Mink has ably demonstrated the chain of evidence in his blog mentioned above. Several private and military individuals lobbied for Upton’s promotion. In April 1864 Upton told his sister Maria “General Meade has informed me that without ‘political’ influence, I will never be promoted. Although the rank of a general may never be conferred on me, yet I hope to leave my friends abundant proof that I earned the honor, but that it was unjustly withheld.”
Upton claimed that he first saw his promotion in a letter to Maria:
“Headquarters, 2nd Brigade, June 7, 1864
My dear sister Maria,
Your letters of May 29th and June 30 are received.
I first saw my promotion in the papers on June 1st. I was very glad; for, two hours after, as I wrote you, we went into action.
I am disposed to think that it will be better in the end for me to have received my promotion at this late date. The reasons for my promotion are gratifying to any soldier.
It will be entered upon the records of the War Department that I was promoted for “gallant and distinguished services” a record that will help me through life, and one of which you will be far more proud than had it been conferred simply for political reasons.
Ames and Kilpatrick rank me, but today I would not exchange my reputation for theirs and I am sure that I have more friends for it is contrary to the instincts of all regular officers to seek promotion through political influence.”
As Mink has convincingly shown, the Senate in executive session, approved Upton’s promotion dated May 28, 1864 effective May 12, “for gallant and distinguished services in the eight days battles in the Old Wilderness and at Spottsylvania Court House”, not for the attack on the Salient. Upton wrote to Maria on June 4 that “I have been constantly in command of the 2nd Brigade. The officers of the 1st Brigade have petitioned to have me made a Brigadier General and assigned to that Brigade, but it was not done.”
By mid-July, Upton had still not received his promotion. In a letter of apology, Samuel Fletcher Chalfin, the Assistant AG, wrote on July 15, 1864: “I have the honor to inform you that in consequence of the delay, at the War Office, in forwarding your commission as Brigadier General, the Secretary of War has directed that you be credited with acceptance as of June 19, 1864, the date at which the commission would probably have reached you by due course of mail.” Upton’s commission is dated June 9, 1864. Mysteriously, Upton signed and dated his Oath of Office for the rank of Brigadier, July 1, 1864. Writing in 1885, Grant’s erstwhile confidant, Adam Badeau published his three volume military history of Grant and hewed the party line. After Spotsylvania, Badeau wrote: “Next day (May 11), he (Upton) was named a brigadier-general, having won his spurs on the field.” And then a few pages later: “the day after the battle, Grant nominated Wright, Gibbon, and Humphreys, major-generals, and Carroll and Upton, brigadiers.”
What of the comment that Upton made makeshift stars and paraded around to let his troops see it? There is no evidence that it happened. If it had, surely one of the men in the regiment or the brigade would have written about it. Remarkably, the two witnesses who were closest to Upton never mentioned it. Isaac O. Best, the author of the 121st’s history, never served with the regiment when he was transferred from the 16th New York in May 1863. He was immediately detailed to clerical duty in the office of Adjutant General of the 2nd Brigade. Upton was made commander of the 2nd two months later. Best bragged that the “position gave him the advantage of a close observer—for all the orders from the higher authorities and all the reports of the brigade and regimental commanders passed under his hand, and he was able to estimate more fully the character of the services rendered, and the estimation in which those services were held by the superior officers.” 
Upton’s adjutant though most of the war, Francis W. Morse, writing in his memoirs in 1866 cites the official promotion order honoring Upton for his “meritorious and gallant conduct during the battles of the Wilderness and for the Battle of Spottsylvania Court House, on the 12th of May 1864.” There is no mention of the assault on the Salient. In a letter to Major Henry Galpin of the 121st NY dated May 30, he refers to Upton as a Colonel.  Upton’s promotion was mentioned by John Lovejoy of the 121st as early as May 17, but not for his heroics on the 10th at the Salient: “Our Colonel was promoted to General for saving the battle on the 12th.” On May 30, Commander of Company I, John Kidder convalescing in an Annapolis hospital, explaining to his wife the attack on the salient, referred to Upton as “General.” On June 7, Captain James Cronkite, acting commander of Company I, referred to Upton as “colonel.”
Daniel Holt, surgeon in the 121st, a man who commented on practically everything, referred to Upton as early as May 14th and again on June 1st as “General” in letters to his wife. The Reverend John R. Adams, the 121st’s chaplain wrote his wife on June 9 describing the overland campaign: “General Sedgwick, he was killed—a noble officer, and a great favorite in the army. Wright is his successor, and Colonel Upton is made brigadier.” John Hartwell, a sergeant in the 121st told his wife on May 16 that the regiment was being relieved after a long slog. “In the afternoon had Brigade Inspection by Gen. Upton. He was very pleasant to us and found no fault but tried to encourage all.” Two weeks later, at Cold Harbor on June 1, Hartwell reported that the “enemy were driven out of their breastworks from a charge made by Gen. Upton with the first Division.” And again on June 23: “I went with 10 men to guard Gen. Upton’s HQuarters.”
The Fifth Maine was a part of Upton’s Brigade and two of its members recorded the events of the day. One supports McMahon’s narrative, the other makes no mention of Upton’s promotion. Company E’s Corporal William Holmes Morse’s diary is most revealing. His entry for May 16, 1864 reads: “Colonel Upton makes his appearance with a star on his shoulder. He has had command of our brigade for some time, and is now sure enough a brigadier general.” Unfortunately, Morse took the shorthand original diaries and transcribed them into a ledger book. The author/editor of the published “diaries” William Caynor admits in his introduction that Morse “was constantly perfecting his experiences through time in order to publish his diary.” As he transcribed the original diaries, Morse “continued to integrate more experiences to his diary” that were obviously not in the original. Morse died in 1900 so he potentially had access to Grant’s, Badeau’s and possibly even McMahon’s version in Beckwith’s narrative of the 121st NY. The latter is extremely likely since the 121st and the 5th Maine formed a strong camaraderie during the war, a relationship they continued in the post war years. 
The Reverend George Bicknell, official historian of the 5th Maine in Upton’s 2nd Brigade makes no mention of Upton’s charge on the salient. He wrote of the “brilliant results of the charges of the Second Corps on the morning of the twelfth,” when “General Upton sent orders to the regimental commanders to impart the glorious news to the boys who were then on the march to aid in establishing a new line.” Bicknell’s history was published in 1871 and he was undoubtedly unconcerned about Upton’s rank.
What then, are we to make of the story of Upton’s promotion? Grant probably did not have “official” authority to make battlefield promotions until May 13—three days after the charge on the salient. When he wrote his memoirs in the early 1880’s, he did remember Upton as he singled him out in his narrative. Why remains a mystery. Why didn’t close associates Francis Morse and Isaac Best make note of it? As for McMahon’s elaborate, detailed account; he probably did promise Upton a promotion, as Wright and Meade probably did, but his story of the new stars replacing the colonel’s eagles and Upton showing them off to his men, is just not true. Questions remain as to why he shared the story with Beckwith; did he ever relate the story to anyone else; what were his motives; did he ever leave an account in his own hand; if so, has it survived?
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs, New York: Charles Webster Co., II, 224-225. Hereafter Grant, Memoirs.
 Grant, Memoirs, 234-235.
The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Mississippi State: Mississippi State University, Vol. 10, January 1-May 31, 1864, 435-436. Hereafter, Grant Papers.
Grant Papers, 436.
Grant Papers, 437.
The New York Times, April 22 and 25, 1906. Hereafter NYT.
NYT, April 10, 1893. The following year, McMahon introduced a bill to establish a monument to Baron Steuben in Steuben County at the cost of $25,000. NYT, February 8, 1894.
Isaac O. Best, History of the 121st New York State Infantry, Chicago: James H. Smith, 1921. Hereafter, Best, 121st.
Best, 121st, v-vi.
Dewitt Clinton Beckwith, “Three Years With the Colors of a Fighting Regiment in the Army of the Potomac, By a Private Soldier,” Mohawk Democrat, July 5, 1893. Hereafter Beckwith, Colors.
National Archives Building, RG 94, Pension Records. Affidavit, May 12, 1913. Hereafter NAB.
Beckwith, Colors, January 24, 1894.
Beckwith Obituary, Herkimer Telegram-Record, February 9, 1926 and Herkimer Telegram-Record, September 14, 1920. Wadsworth’s statue was dedicated October 6, 1914.
Beckwith Obituary, Herkimer Telegram-Record, February 9, 1926.
Beckwith, Colors, January 31, 1894 and Best, 121st, 139.
Beckwith, Colors, June 27, 1894.
Holland Land Office Museum, Batavia New York, Letter to Maria, April 10, 1864. Hereafter HLOM.
HLOM. Also in Peter S. Michie, The Life and Letters of Emory Upton, Colonel of the Fourth Regiment of Artillery, and Brevet Major-general, U. S. Army, New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1885, 116. Michie heavily redacted this letter leaving out references to Adelbert Ames and Judson Kilpatrick, Upton’s classmates at West Point. Hereafter HLOM and Michie, Upton.
In Executive Session, Official Copy of Confirmation to Accompany General Upton’s Commission. S. F. Chalfin Asst. Adjt. General.
HLOM. Michie chose to use only one paragraph of Upton’s original letter. Michie, Upton, 108. The family provided Michie with their heavily edited and abbreviated transcript. The original in the HLOM is complete. Wilson included a portion of this letter in his Recollections, 447-448.
War Department Letter, S. F. Chalfin to Upton, July 15, 1864.
Cover Form/Letter to Upton from S. F. Chalfin, Asst. Adjutant General dated June 9, 1864.
Adam Badeau, Military History of Ulysses S. Grant from April1861 to April 1865, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1885, 165 and 185-186. Hereafter, Badeau, Grant.
Best, 121st, v.
Francis W. Morse, Personal experiences in the War of the Great Rebellion from December 1862 to July 1865. Albany: Printed but not published, 1866, 88.
Letter Morse to Henry Galpin enclosed in letter of John Kidder, Captain Company I, 121st NY to his wife, May 20. New York State Historical Association, 121st Collection. Hereafter NYSHA, 121st.
John Lovejoy to his mother, May 17, 1864. NYSHA, 121st.
Cronkite to his wife, May 30, 1864, Kidder Papers, NYSHA, 121st.
James Cronkite to John Kidder, June 7, 1864, Kidder Papers. NYSHA, 121st.
Dr. Daniel Holt to his wife, Sunday May 14th and Wednesday June 1st, 1864. “Copy of Letters Written by Daniel M. Holt Assistant Surgeon 121st Regiment N. Y. Vols., 2s Brigade, 1st Div. 6th Corps, Army of the Potomac, to his Wife, While in the Service of the United States, From September 1st, 1862 to October 17th, 1864 at which time he was discharged the Service because of Physical Disability.” In Herkimer County Historical Society Collections, 1867.
Letter of John Ripley Adams to his wife, June 9, 1864. Adams, Memorial and Letters of Rev. John R. Adams Chaplain of the Fifth Maine and the One Hundred and Twenty-First New York Regiments During The War of Rebellion, Serving From the Beginning to its Close. Cambridge: University Press. Privately printed, 1890, 153.
John F. L. to his wife, May 16, June 1, and June 23, 1864 in Hartwell, John F. L, To My beloved Wife and Boy at Home: The Letters and Diaries of Orderly Sergeant John F. L. Hartwell. Edited by Ann Hartwell Britton and Thomas J. Reed. Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson, 1997, 229, 235, 242.
William L. Caynor, Sr., Without a Scratch: Diary of William Holmes Morse, Color Bearer of the 5th Maine Infantry, William L. Caynor, Sr., 2007, 236.
George W. Bicknell, History of the Fifth Regiment Maine Volunteers. Portland: Hall L. Davis, 1871, 321-322.