The Case of Gouvernour K. Warren

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

General Gouverneur K. WarrenMany of the general officers on both sides during the Civil War were simply fired, relieved or shunted aside by their superiors in Washington and Richmond. A few were either charged with dereliction of duty or demanded courts of inquiry. One such officer was Gouvenour K. Warren who was relieved by Philip Sheridan during the Battle of Five Forks and later urgently requested a court of inquiry to exonerate himself from the stigma of his treatment by Sheridan.

Gouvenour K. Warren entered the United States Military Academy at age 16 and graduated second in his class of 44 cadets in 1850. In the decade before the Civil War, Warren worked on engineering projects along the Mississippi River, mapping projects in the Trans-Mississippi region and transcontinental railroad surveys. He saw his first combat in Nebraska in 1855 during the First Sioux War.

The start of the Civil War found Warren at West Point as a first lieutenant and mathematics instructor. It had taken him almost eleven years to rise in rank from second lieutenant to first lieutenant. He would rise to the rank of major general of volunteers in a little over two years.

He helped to raise a local regiment, the 5th New York Infantry, and was named its lieutenant colonel on May 14, 1861. They first saw action at the Battle of Big Bethel in Virginia on June 10th. He was promoted to colonel of the regiment by September 10th.

At the start of the Peninsula Campaign he not only commanded his regiment but assisted the chief topographical engineer of the Army of the Potomac by leading reconnaissance missions and drawing topographical maps for the advance of the army up the Peninsula. He was promoted to brigade command before the Seven Days Battles and was wounded at the Battle of Gaines Mill but refused to leave the field.

At the Battle of Malvern Hill his brigade stopped an attack by a Confederate division. He continued to lead the brigade at the Second Battle of Bull Run, suffering heavy casualties in a heroic stand against an overwhelming enemy assault, and at Antietam, where V Corps was in reserve and saw no combat. On September 28, 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general. He led his brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December.

Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker named Warren his chief topographical engineer and then chief engineer. As chief engineer, Warren was commended for his service in the Battle of Chancellorsville. At the beginning of the Gettysburg Campaign, Warren advised Hooker on the routes that the army should take in their pursuit of the Confederates.

On July 2nd, Warren recognized the importance of Little Round Top as an anchor for the Union Army’s defensive position. He ordered the Gouvernour K. Warren's statue on Little Round Topbrigade of Colonel Strong Vincent to occupy it just minutes before it was attacked. He took a minor neck wound during the battle. After Gettysburg he was promoted to major general of volunteers.

From August 1863 until March 1864, he commanded the II Corps, replacing the gravely wounded Winfield Scott Hancock. He led the corps at the the Battle of Bristoe Station and the Mine Run Campaign. At Mine Run, he refused an order from General Meade when he detected a trap that had been laid for his corps. Initially, Meade was furious but he later acknowledged that Warren had taken the correct action.

In the spring of 1864, Warren assumed command of the V Corps and led it through the Overland Campaign, the Siege of Petersburg, and the Appomattox Campaign. During these Virginia campaigns, Warren had a reputation of bringing his engineering traits of deliberation and caution to the role of infantry corps commander.

He won the Battle of Globe Tavern, August 18 to August 20, 1864, cutting the Weldon Railroad, a vital supply route north to Petersburg. He also won a limited success in the Battle of Peebles’ Farm in September 1864, carrying a part of the Confederate lines protecting supplies moving to Petersburg on the Boydton Plank Road.

Unfortunately, this was the direct opposite of immediate superior, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan. The mercurial Sheridan was quick to anger at his subordinates and demanded immediate compliance with his every order. Warren came under Sheridan’s command at the beginning of the pursuit of Lee’s army in March 1865.

Sheridan asked for the VI Corps but General Grant gave him Warren’s V Corps instead, insisting that it was better position. At the same time, Grant gave Sheridan written permission to relieve Warren if he felt it was justified “for the good of the service.”

Grant later wrote in his Personal Memoirs:

I was so much dissatisfied with Warren’s dilatory movements in the battle of White Oak Road and in his failure to reach Sheridan in time, that I was very much afraid that at the last moment he would fail Sheridan. He was a man of fine intelligence, great earnestness, quick perception, and could make his dispositions as quickly as any officer, under difficulties where he was forced to act. But I had before discovered a defect which was beyond his control, that was very prejudicial to his usefulness in emergencies like the one just before us. He could see every danger at a glance before he had encountered it. He would not only make preparations to meet the danger which might occur, but he would inform his commanding officer what others should do while he was executing his move.

I had sent a staff officer to General Sheridan to call his attention to these defects, and to say that as much as I liked General Warren, now was not a time when we could let our personal feelings for any one stand in the way of success; and if his removal was necessary to success, not to hesitate. It was upon that authorization that Sheridan removed Warren. I was very sorry that it had been done, and regretted still more that I had not long before taken occasion to assign him to another field of duty.

At Five Forks on April 1, 1865, Sheridan became enraged when Warren didn’t move his corps fast enough to his liking. His corps of 16,000 was needed to close the trap on General George Pickett’s force and get into his rear areas. Despite Sheridan’s continuous prodding, it took Warren’s corps three hours to get into position.

But after all of this time two of his three forward divisions were out of position. It took Sheridan riding into the battle to encourage the lead division of Brig. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres in the attack. Horace Porter, of Grant’s staff, rode behind Sheridan in the charge, marveling. The little general, he said, was ‘the very incarnation of battle.’ It took Brigadier General Joshua Chamberlain, like Warren a true hero at Gettysburg, to smartly lead his brigade into the breach caused by the misalignment.

The Confederate line disintegrated. Many surrendered and the rest streamed away from the fighting. It was at this point that Sheridan relieved Warren. Next Sheridan sought out Griffin, the senior division commander in the V Corps, and brusquely gave him command of the entire corps.

White-faced and shaken, the hero of Little Round Top asked Sheridan to reconsider his order relieving Warren of command. ‘Reconsider, hell!’ said Sheridan. ‘I don’t reconsider my decisions. Obey the order.’ Sheridan could forgive the occasional blunder by youngsters such as Custer who fought like hell when the time came. But slowness, timidity, or caution, these Sheridan could not excuse.

Warren was reassigned to the Petersburg defenses and then briefly to the command of the Department of Mississippi. On May 27, 1865 Warren resigned his commission as major general of volunteers and reverted to his permanent rank as major in the Corps of Engineers. For the next 17 years he worked on engineering projects in the west. In 1879 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

He asked on numerous occasions for a court of inquiry but until Ulysses S. Grant left the presidency he was refused. President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered a court of inquiry that convened in 1879 and, after hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses over 100 days, found that Sheridan’s relief of Warren had been unjustified. Unfortunately for Warren, these results were not published until after his death.

As long as there is Gettysburg National Battlefield, Gouvernour K. Warren will be remembered as the man who saved the Union Army at Little Round Top where his statue stands.


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