The Removal of Gouverneur K. Warren: A True Crime against a Forgotten Hero of the Civil War

Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, Gouverneur K. Warren was the least deserving of being relieved of command.

By Gene Claridge
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2022, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: The subject of the annual Dick Crews Debate at the January 2022 Roundtable meeting was: “Apart from Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, which Civil War officer was the least deserving of being relieved of command?” Four members made presentations on the topic; the article below was one of those four presentations .

Most Civil War buffs will know Gouverneur K. Warren as one of the heroes from Gettysburg, yet most do not know his full story. I think this is best said in the following statement by David M. Jordan, who wrote a biography of Warren: “Little Round Top guaranteed G.K. Warren at least a footnote, a major footnote, in Civil War history. However, his further activities as a corps commander…made him a worthy subject of real study for the Civil War.” My goal this evening is not just to tell what happened to General Warren and his relief of command, but to argue and submit that this is an absolute crime to a forgotten hero of the war.

Let’s fast forward to spring 1865. The Union Army of the Potomac has been engaged in siege operations outside of Petersburg, Virginia. General Ulysses S. Grant has been trying to break the Confederate defenses for roughly nine and a half months. He will eventually order offensive operations against Robert E. Lee’s right flank, particularly the Southside Railroad. This was the lifeline for the Army of Northern Virginia to the outside world. The man ultimately responsible for these operations will be Philip Sheridan and supported by G.K. Warren. Now, enter our primary cast of characters.

Philip Henry Sheridan, commander of the Cavalry Corps (“Crude and Aggressive”). At this point in the war, his star was on the rise, and in many ways, he has become Grant’s protégé.

Gouverneur K. Warren

Gouverneur Kemble Warren, commander of the Fifth Corps (“Perfectionist Intellectual”). His best days of the war are long gone – Gettysburg, Bristoe Station, Mine Run.

These individuals are two opposites of one another. It is no surprise then, as you will find out, Five Forks will be the first and only time that Sheridan and Warren will work together.

Gene Claridge

Let’s quickly bring the Confederates to the field. Robert E. Lee will order a force under George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of R.E. Lee) to intercept the Union movements. However, Pickett’s force will become isolated from the main Confederate body. They will bloody Sheridan’s nose during the Battle of Dinwiddie Court House on March 31st, yet they are ordered to “Hold Five Forks at all hazards.”

The Incident: The Battle of Five Forks – April 1, 1865 (“All Fools’ Day”)

General Sheridan was given overall command of offensive operations, but the most important thing he had in his back pocket was a verbal order from Grant. This order gave Sheridan the authority to relieve General Warren as he saw fit. Of course, this order is not mentioned to Warren during any of the planning that afternoon.

Since we do not have time to discuss the complexities of the battle, we will break it down at the 50,000 feet level. Sheridan’s cavalry will pin down the Confederate defensive line at Five Forks. Meanwhile, Warren’s infantry will launch a crushing attack on the enemy’s left flank. In roughly two hours of fighting, the Confederate forces are essentially rolled up. Nearly a third of Pickett’s army will become casualties. Despite a resounding Union victory, Sheridan was not happy with Warren’s performance. His frustration reached a breaking point when he could not locate Warren during the fighting.

Map of the Battle of Five Forks (American Battlefield Trust)

Where was General Warren? He was personally redirecting one of his divisions to cut off the Confederate main line of retreat. At one point that evening, Warren will even personally lead some of the final assaults. Almost as if out of a movie, Warren grabbed the Fifth Corps flag and said to his men, “Now, boys, follow me, this will be the last fight of the war!” He then charged the enemy position. During this charge, Warren’s horse was shot and killed. One of his men jumped out in front of Warren to shield him from the enemy fire. In doing so, this soldier was wounded.

Philip H. Sheridan

Afterwards, when the dust settled, General Warren was handed an order from Sheridan relieving him of duty. Thunderstruck, Warren rode off to find Sheridan as he thought a mistake was made and that Sheridan should reconsider the decision. Sheridan told Warren, “Reconsider, hell! I never reconsider my decisions! Obey the order!”

From here, Warren made his way to General Grant’s headquarters. Now, remember, news of the victory at Five Forks is what Grant finally needed after nine and a half months of siege operations – an opportunity to break the Confederate defenses. That very night he issued orders for a general assault the next morning and an artillery bombardment across the entire line. So, do you think Grant was concerned with Warren’s protests when he arrived?

The Aftermath

What happened to General Sheridan? He will ride off into fame and glory, thus becoming a heralded hero of the Civil War.

What happened to General Warren? He was given backwater posts at Petersburg and later Vicksburg. Eventually, Warren will resign his commission in the Volunteer Army and will transfer back into the Corps of Engineers. This means he will go from the rank of Major General back to simply Major.

From here, Warren’s postwar career consists of working on projects for the Engineer Corps and efforts to clear his name. After years of hard work and perseverance, Warren will get his day in court – 14 years after the Battle of Five Forks. One rather intriguing item to note is that the circumstances of Warren’s removal made it difficult to figure out the exact charges against him. To justify his replacement, four imputations emerged, but Warren will ultimately be cleared of these charges and exonerated.

Why did G.K. not deserve his fate? The Key Takeaways

What happened? Warren was relieved of command not from a performance that resulted in a defeat, but in the wake of victory. A victory that is later commonly labeled the “Waterloo of the Confederacy.” This victory led to the final breakthrough at Petersburg, the capture of Richmond, and ultimately Lee’s final retreat, that is, the Appomattox Campaign. Since Warren’s infantry did most of the hard fighting at Five Forks, was it a lackluster performance? Who should really take the credit?

Why did it happen? Though it is unclear why Sheridan relieved Warren from command after the battle, four imputations are levied against him during the court of inquiry. The charges that Sheridan brought forward were erroneous at best, for example, “That he was ‘not at the front’ during the battle.” Warren nearly was wounded or killed in leading a frontal assault.

What was the overall lasting effect? Warren worked tirelessly to clear his name, yet it took 17 years and 7 months for the final court of inquiry’s findings to be made public. Gouverneur K. Warren died three months before the court released its findings. Perhaps, this is the saddest part of the story. Warren will go to his grave without closure or vindication.

Gouverneur K. Warren’s grave

To understand just how much of a crime against Warren all these events were, I want to share one last final quote of what was in his mind during his final days. Warren gave his wife, Emily, the following instructions: “When I am dead, see that I am not buried in uniform … Allow no military escort. Convey me quietly to my grave without pageant or show, I die a disgraced soldier.”

With regard to the other officers who are included in this debate, specific points can be made as to the fairness of their relief of command relative to that of Warren. Although Fitz John Porter was wrongly court-martialed, he saw closure and vindication in his lifetime. Joseph Hooker was relieved of command from defeat and poor performance, but he was able to redeem his name later in the Western Theater. Seeking to perpetuate his own legacy at Lookout Mountain, Hooker commissioned James Walker to produce an oil painting with the general prominently featured in the foreground. Joseph E. Johnston was given numerous opportunities to redeem himself, yet he continued to employ withdrawing strategies that delayed his inevitable and ultimate surrender. Although his feud with Jefferson Davis continued even after the war, Johnston did not spend the rest of his life trying to clear his name.

Major General Philip H. Sheridan relieved Major General Gouverneur K. Warren of his command after The Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, a resounding Union victory that brought about the final defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia and a battle in which Warren performed bravely and admirably. Warren’s removal from command was not only completely undeserved, but it was and still is a true crime against a forgotten hero of the Civil War.

Gouverneur K. Warren’s monument at Gettysburg

The next time that you are in Gettysburg and you stand on Little Round Top, walk to Warren’s monument. Now that you know the end of his story, thank Warren not just for what he did at Gettysburg, but for his actions throughout the remainder of the war. Gouverneur K. Warren: the heralded hero and savior of Little Round Top, the forgotten hero of the Civil War.

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