How effective was Emory Upton's tactic of dealing with Confederate trenches?

Sep 2013
909
Chattanooga, TN
A lot of what I write in this post about trench warfare applied also during World War 1 and other wars before and after World War 1. For the purposes of this post, I am only going into trench warfare during the Civil War since that is all that this post is about.

During the American Civil War, stationary troops in trenches with open ground in front of the trenches held an enormous tactical advantage over any infantry troops attacking them. The stationary troops in trenches would have the advantage of most of their bodies being protected by the dirt/mud/rocks in front of them and behind them. Furthermore, if enemy troops charged them to attack them, the stationary troops could load, aim, and fire their muskets the entire time that the charging troops were charging them, while the charging troops could not load, aim, and fire their muskets while they were running. You cannot effectively load, aim, and fire an ACW musket while you are marching or running.

During the course of the American Civil War, Confederate troops learned more and more about how to effectively defend strategically important ground by digging trenches and make the converging fields of fire upon the areas of ground that a charging enemy would be most likely to use. Union General Emory Upton devised a tactic to neutralize the tactical disadvantage of attacking Confederate troops in trenches. Upton's tactic was for Union troops to form in a long column and sprint towards Confederate trenches in a column, and then once the Union troops reached the Confederate trenches, Upton's tactic called for the Union troops to jump in the trenches and split both ways in the trenches and fight the Confederate troops with the bayonet, hand to hand combat, and to use the muskets as a club. Upton's tactic was most famously used at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse was probably the first time Upton's tactic was used. I wonder why I have never heard of Upton's tactic being used at any battle other than Spotsylvania Courthouse.

Was Upton's tactic used against Confederate trenches at any battle other than Spotsylvania Courthouse? For instance, there was a lot of trench warfare at the Battle of Petersburg. Was Upton's tactic used against Confederate trenches at Petersburg?

How effective was Upton's tactic against Confederate trenches at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse?

After the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, did the Union adopt Upton's tactic for the rest of the war whenever the Union fought Confederate troops in trenches?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,741
Dispargum
At the Battle of the Crater, at Petersburg, the attack plan called for a charge into the crater and followed by a flanking attack down the trench line going off to either side. The flanking attacks did not occur because so many things went wrong in the crater attack, but this does sound a little like the Upton tactics you describe.
 
Sep 2013
909
Chattanooga, TN
I agree with you that there is some small similarity between the Crater and Upton's tactic. However, when you dig a tunnel and explode a bomb in the tunnel in order to enter Confederate trenches, I still think of that as something largely distinct from Upton's tactic of running towards Confederate trenches in a column.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,741
Dispargum
I should have mentioned before - the original crater attack plan did include charging the crater in a column then turning left and right to attack down the trench line in each direction.
 

M9Powell

Ad Honorem
Oct 2014
4,456
appalacian Mtns
Doesn't sound so great to me. 2 flaws.
1. Who goes first?
2. A 58 caliber minie ball will penetrate several human bodies, so why line them up?
 

Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,483
South of the barcodes
3 flanking fire
4 cannons

I guess theres ways of using it, either at dawn or dusk so theres surprise or by using undermining to disrupt the defenders and create a space that can be rushed.

But it seems like after the first time its used and the defenders are surprised and overwhelmed since theres more bodies in a narrow space than there are guns to shoot them all down, word will get around and the next set of defenders will be ready with bastions and enfillade fire or just picket fence barricades.
 
Sep 2013
909
Chattanooga, TN
Doesn't sound so great to me. 2 flaws.
1. Who goes first?
I've always had the same thought. Being in the front rank of such a tactic would almost guarantee that one would be killed or at least wounded.



2. A 58 caliber minie ball will penetrate several human bodies, so why line them up?
Well, I would say that Upton columned them up, not lined them up, but I know what you mean. I think that "column'ing" them up would guarantee that many soldiers would reach the Confederate trenches, while if the Union attacked in a line, well, it's possible that the Confederates would shoot 100% of the attacking Union troops before the Union troops reached the trenches. Of course, the increased likelihood of the columned Union troops reaching the Confederate trenches would be at the expense of the Union troops at the front of the column. The Confederate troops would mostly be aiming for the Union troops in the front of the column.
 

Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
It was plenty effective at generating a breakthrough. The question of how best to exploit that breakthrough was not adequately examined before the tactic was put into practice at Spotsylvania.
 
Sep 2013
909
Chattanooga, TN
It was plenty effective at generating a breakthrough. The question of how best to exploit that breakthrough was not adequately examined before the tactic was put into practice at Spotsylvania.
First of all, where was the tactic put into practice other than Spotsvylvania?

Is what I wrote in post #7 one of the keys to Upton's tactic to generate a breakthrough?

In other words, did Upton's having the charging Union soldiers run towards the Confederate trenches in a column almost guarantee that many Union soldiers would reach the Confederate trenches while if the Union attacked in a line the Confederates might shoot 100% of the charging Union troops? If I am not correct, why did Upton have the Union troops charge in a column instead of a line?

The other key to this is so obvious that some might let it go without saying, but I would like to spell it out. The other key to this is that once the Union troops reached the trenches, the Confederates' tactical advantage of fighting from trenches would be totally neutralized since the Union troops would be in the trench also.
 
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Viperlord

Ad Honorem
Aug 2010
8,109
VA
The point of the columnar formation was less about the men getting shot, and more about concentrating more soldiers into a smaller area to completely overwhelm a narrow area of the Confederate defenses, and then spread the breakthrough from there as the rest of the column filed into the gap. To work however, the reserves need to be held back to remain a coherent formation, and sent through after the initial breakthrough, At Spotsylvania, the Second Corps' reserve divisions got caught up pretty quickly in the wake of the initial rush, and followed along in the wake of the advance units, creating something of a traffic jam in the Mule Shoe.