Upton’s Regulars; The 121st New York Infantry in the Civil War
By Salvatore G. Cilella Jr.
June 2009; 592 pages, 40 illustrations, 6-1⁄8 x 9-1⁄4
Modern War Studies; Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1645-9, $39.95
From Cooperstown and its surrounding region, upstate New Yorkers responded to President Lincoln’s call to service by volunteering in droves to defend an imperiled Union. Drawn from the farms and towns of Otsego and Herkimer counties, the 121st New York State Volunteer Infantry Regiment served with the Sixth Corps in the Army of the Potomac throughout the Civil War. In the first comprehensive history of the regiment in nearly ninety years, Salvatore Cilella chronicles the epic story of this heroic “band of brothers.”
Led for much of the war by the legendary Emory Upton, the 121st deployed nearly 1,900 men into battle, from over 1,000 at call-up to the 330 who were finally mustered out of its war-depleted unit. Its soldiers participated in 25 major engagements, from Antietam to Sailor’s Creek, won six Medals of Honor, took several battle flags, led the charge at Spotsylvania, and captured Custis Lee at Sailor’s Creek. Cilella now tells their story, viewing the war through upstate New Yorkers’ eyes not only to depict three grueling years of fighting but also to reveal their distinctive attitudes regarding slavery, war goals, politics, and the families they left behind.
Cilella mines the letters, diaries, memoirs, and speeches of more than 120 soldiers and officers to weave a compelling narrative that traces the 121st from enlistment through the horrors of battle and back to civilian life. Their words vividly recount the experience of combat, but also rail against Washington bureaucrats and commanding generals. Many were upset with those who suggested that Emancipation was the war’s primary cause, declaring their fight to be for the Union rather than freed slaves, but they also scorned any Northerners who sympathized with the South.
Cilella also features compelling portraits of the regiment’s three commanders: original recruiter Richard Franchot; West Pointer Upton, by whose name the 121st came to be known; and Otsego County native Egbert Olcott. Readers will especially gain new insights into the charismatic Upton, who took command at the age of 23, was a fearless leader on the field of battle, and became one of the army’s most admired regimental leaders, clearly marking him out for future accomplishments.
As dire as the war became, especially in the summer of 1864, Upton’s Regulars repeatedly told their families they would do it all again and would sooner die in battle than shirk their responsibility to the Union. This regimental history stands as a testament to that dedication—and as an unvarnished look at the harsh realities of war.
“A rich portrait that deserves the attention of any serious student of the American Civil War.”—Journal of Military History
“This is an evocative, engaging, and often exciting portrait of a regiment that has been probed by historians before—but never with such a fine brew of deep scholarship and skillful writing, and never with such perception about not only military life, but also the political and social forces behind the lines. Salvatore Cilella has made a unique and highly readable contribution to Civil War literature.”—Harold Holzer, Co-chairman, U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
“In a powerful and moving narrative, Cilella examines the men who served in the 121st New York infantry, from their rural backgrounds through vigorous warfare. This well documented study also explores how the survivors, only one-fourth of those who joined up, lived after the war. This book not only takes its place among the best of regimental histories, it serves as a model for the kinds of studies needed to understand the transformation of a war to preserve the union to one committed to a new birth of freedom.”—Orville Vernon Burton, author of The Age of Lincoln
“Cilella provides a remarkably full account of the 121st’s soldiers and their circumstances as they enlist, train, march off, and experience three years of the Civil War. His research on their experiences and attitudes is impressive, even amazing. Well written, informative, and analytical, it’s everything an excellent regimental history should be. I strongly recommend it.”—Steven Woodworth, author of Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861–1865
“Cilella wonderfully captures the experience of the common man in the Civil War as represented by those who were part of the campaigns of New York’s 121st Infantry.”—D. Stephen Elliott, President and CEO, New York State Historical Association and The Farmers’ Museum
SALVATORE G. CILELLA JR. is president and CEO of the Atlanta Historical Society.
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