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Emory Upton: Misunderstood Reformer, by David J. Fitzpatrick

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017. Pp. xvi, 326. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., . $39.95. ISBN: 0806157208.

The Military Thinker Behind the Modern U.S Army 

Greatly influenced his experiences in the Civil War, Emory Upton (1839-1881), a brilliant tactician, thought deeply about American defense policy and proposed a series of reforms which were largely rejected in his lifetime. In this work, Prof. Fitzpatrick (Washtenaw CC) argues that Upton’s ideas have been seriously misunderstood.

Fitzpatrick opens with a rather long discussion of Upton’s early life and Civil War experiences, follows this with an account of his peacetime service, which included a tour as Commandant of Cadets at West Point, a period during which he began to formulate his ideas about military reform, which were strengthened by a tour of military institutions in several countries in Asia and Europe. This led him to write “The Military Policy of the United States from 1775”, which was incomplete at his death. Not formally published until 1912, this circulated widely in the Army and in some political circles, and formed the foundation of the debate over his proposals

Fitzpatrick argues that Upton’s opponents saw – and continue to see – his proposals as favoring an anti-democratic “Prussianization” of U.S. military policy. That is, the establishment of a rigidly hierarchical general staff system and a mass conscription-based army.

Fitzpatrick’s case is that Upton did draw upon some Prussian ideas, but reminds us that at the time Prussia and the later German Empire were generally perceived as a very progressive state, practicing universal manhood suffrage and many other innovative ideas. He argues that Upton opposed the establishment of a distinct staff corps, in favor of providing staff training to all officers. These staff officers would remain in their arms of the service, spending much of their careers in troop command, rotating into staff positions from time to time, thus avoiding the rise of a staff caste. Fitzpatrick also argues, rather cogently, that Upton’s supposed hostility to the militia was not because he wanted to replace citizen soldiers with a larger standing army, but rather that the militia system needed reform, as in its existing state it was ill-suited to preparing the nation for emergencies.

Fitzpatrick concludes by pointing out that most of Upton’s ideas were adopted during the so-called “Root Reforms” of the Army during first years of the Twentieth Century. These establish a staff training system that turned out officers who spent most of their time with the troops, while the Dick Act in 1903, turned the militia into the National Guard, which has proven a valuable asset ever since. Naturally Fitzpatrick covers these developments – and many less well known ones, in considerable detail, and offers interesting commentary on the personalities and opinions of many of the people involved in the debate over Upton’s proposal.

A volume in the University of Oklahoma “Campaigns and Commanders" Series, Emory Upton is an insightful, thought provoking review of Upton’s concepts, and an important read for anyone interested in the evolution of American military policy.


Note: Emory Upton is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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