Streetwise Professor

May 18, 2024

The Tragedy of G. K. Warren

Filed under: Civil War,History,Military — cpirrong @ 2:42 pm

Outside of relatively specialized Civil War publications (which are shrinking in number), one seldom sees reference to Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. Hence it was a pleasant surprise to see a rather lengthy article about him in The Epoch Times of all places.

G. K. Warren

The article ends with a discussion of Warren’s “Unjust Fall” during the Battle of Five Forks in April, 1865, when a furious Philip Sheridan unceremoniously relieved Warren of command of the V Corps, believing that Warren was too slow in attacking.

Warren’s relief–and particularly Sheridan’s refusal to reverse it, or apologize for it after the heat of battle had passed even though his victory was complete–was indeed unjust. The part of the V Corps under Warren’s direct observation advanced into a vacuum, rather than attacking Pickett’s Confederates directly as Sheridan wanted, because of the fog of war, and in particular unfamiliarity with the Confederate dispositions due in large part to the heavily wooded terrain. It was the kind of thing that happened numerous times during the war, and which happens in every war.

But although Warren’s fate was decided on in the smoky Virginia woods on 1 April 1865, it was written long before, and was in many ways emblematic of the history and culture of the Army of the Potomac and the clash between that culture and U.S. Grant and his coterie–which prominently included Phil Sheridan.

Philip Sheridan

Warren was an engineer by training. Indeed, his greatest service in the war was his direction of two brigades to the vacant Little Round Top at Gettysburg while serving as the AoP’s Chief Engineer. After Gettysburg, he became a corps commander, first in temporary command of II Corps after W. S. Hancock’s wounding at Gettysburg, then in permanent command (until Five Forks) of the V Corps. Warren brought an engineer’s mindset–precise, deliberate, and cautious–to corps command. This drew the ire of Grant and his circle, who during the Overland Campaign and the Petersburg Campaign were repeatedly frustrated by what they perceived as Warren’s lack of aggressive spirit.

In his defense, one could say that based on experience, especially at the Wilderness and after, caution in attack was prudent, and aggressiveness foolhardy. But Grant was not alone in his frustration with Warren. Even before Grant’s arrival in Virginia, AoP Commander George Gordon Meade had been furious with Warren for failing to attack as ordered at Mine Run (in November, 1863). Meade was also harshly critical of Warren’s caution at the Wilderness on 5-7 May 1864, and tension between Warren and Meade, not to mention Warren and Grant, was pronounced throughout the balance of 1864 and into 1865.

Warren also had a touchy personality, resented criticism, and argued with his superiors constantly–Meade in particular. The intense mental and psychological stress of the brutal Overland Campaign only aggravated Warren’s (and Meade’s) tempers and mutual dislike.

Thus, Warren was skating on very thin ice when Grant’s grand offensive against Lee commenced in March, 1865. His assignment to cooperate with and support Phil Sheridan made falling through it almost inevitable.

Sheridan was everything Warren was not, and vice versa. The former was blunt and hyper-aggressive, the later high strung and sensitive, and as noted above cautious rather than offensive-minded, especially after the 11 shattering months of combat in Virginia in 1864-5. Sheridan had come originally from the western theater (brought by Grant to command, though he had not served extensively with him and had not commanded large cavalry units), and from the start clashed with the AoP establishment which he found lacking in the will to do what was necessary to win the war. (Note his confrontation with Meade in over how to deploy the cavalry the immediate aftermath of the Wilderness, which led to Grant turning him loose to raid Richmond, resulting in the death of Jeb Stuart and little else).

Whereas Warren was something of an intellectual, by army standards (the engineers were, in general), Sheridan was anything but. He finished 34th (out of 55) in his West Point class: Warren was second in his. Sheridan had been suspended for a year for threatening to bayonet an upperclassman. Warren’s conduct record was exemplary.

Sheridan had won smashing victories in the Shenandoah Valley in September-October 1864, and had wreaked destruction in the Valley afterwards–a “hard war” policy that the AoP had shrunk from since its formation. Sheridan was viewed by the AoP as something of a barbarian.

Thus, Warren represented everything that Sheridan despised, and epitomized everything Sheridan found wrong with the AoP. Sheridan was looking for a chance to get rid of him, specifically asked Grant for the permission to do so (before Five Forks), and did it at the first opportunity on a flimsy pretext–even after Warren had extricated Sheridan and his cavalry from a difficult situation at Dinwiddie Court House on 31 March.

In the box of 1 April 1865, Sheridan was clearly in the wrong. But in the large, he was in the right. Men like Gouverneur Warren were not going to win the Civil War. Hard men, relentless men–men like Sheridan, Sherman, and Grant–were, and did.

Warren was thus a tragic figure, in a war chock full of them. He was a good man, but in the wrong position. You would almost certainly find Warren to be much preferable as a companion to the brusque, relentless, and blunt (“the only good Indian I ever saw was dead”) Sheridan, and you can genuinely pity his fate. But good companions are typically not cut out to be good commanders, especially in total wars. The sons of bitches are. And Phil Sheridan was one of the Civil War’s leading sons of bitches.

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  1. So, where do we find the sons-of-bitches who will be needed in the — probably near — offing? Do they just emerge?

    Comment by Pat Frank — May 18, 2024 @ 5:36 pm

  2. @Pat Frank. Alas, it has often taken a while to find the SOBs. They typically do not rise to the top during peacetime–the more conventional, political types do. They fail in war, and then the SOBs emerge.

    Comment by cpirrong — May 18, 2024 @ 7:03 pm

  3. Ike was interesting. In his job as part Field Marshall/part Diplomat he was a great success. It was particularly striking because he was an officer who had never seen action.

    Suppose he hadn’t got that job but was instead entrusted with command of the US troops at Omaha beach or Utah beach. Would he have been successful? Possibly; they were (I assume) jobs that called for a cool head and good judgement (which is presumably why Patton was kept well away from it).

    Comment by dearieme — May 19, 2024 @ 6:08 am

  4. I personally believe that the relief order wasn’t as unjust as it seemed. Whatever Sheridan rightfully or wrongfully perceived as to Warren’s failure at Five Forks, it was part of a pattern of a lack of aggression on the part of the V Corps commander. That is why Grant issued written orders that allowed Sheridan to relieve Warren if he felt Warren’s conduct did not measure up to the aggressiveness Grant and Sheridan demanded. That fact that Crawford’s division did not properly execute the attack plan falls to the corps commander and was just part of the screw ups, mix ups, and slow moving mistakes that cost the Union Army of the Potomac tens of thousands of casualties. For example, even though there are conflicting explanations, one of the origins of the Sheridan-Warren dispute was created on the road to Spotsylvania Court House where Sheridan’s cavalry troops became entangled with elements of Warren’s corps which delayed the movements of Sheridan that could have potentially seized the ground and road network that would have destroyed Lee’s army. Instead, the delay allowed Stuart and Anderson to get there first and dig in the almost nearly field fortifications.

    The other aspect of the story is that Warren was a McClellan man and a Democrat when political matters overlapped with military matters in the midst of an American Civil War. IF this was pre-election 1864, when Lincoln needed the patronage of every Democratic war general, Warren probably is protected from relief. But Lincoln’s 1864 reelection meant that he was free from having to pay respects to incompetent political generals and McClellan sycophants still in command at the highest level.

    Comment by MARK — May 19, 2024 @ 7:20 pm

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