- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Military lives often are defined in a few vital moments. The surgeon buries his mistakes and the bankrupt entrepreneur starts anew. For the professional soldier, however, years of training and peacetime routine may climax in a single critical decision on the battlefield that proves decisive for his cause and for his career.

For Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, the moment of truth came July 2, 1863, on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Warren suggested to his commander, Gen. George G. Meade, that he would like to examine the Union left, and Meade consented. That afternoon, Warren discovered that Little Round Top, the anchor of the Union line, was virtually undefended and about to be attacked.

The general saw the makings of a disaster. He rode off for help, and soon encountered the 140th New York regiment. Warren told its commander, Col. Patrick O’Rorke, to move his men up Little Round Top. When the New Yorker protested that he had other orders, Warren cut him off. “Bring your men up on the double-quick — don’t stop for aligning! I’ll take the responsibility.”

Warren, as chief engineer, was outside O’Rorke’s chain of command, but the Irishman did as he was told, just in time. The Confederates, now confronted by a line that included Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, wavered and then withdrew. Little Round Top was secure, thanks in large part to Warren. A breach that might have made Meade’s line untenable had been averted. Warren, slightly wounded late in the day, emerged as one of the heroes of Gettysburg.

He did not look the part. The New Yorker was 33 and had a slender build, abundant black hair and a dark complexion. His manner was thoughtful rather than assertive, and he was prone to twirl his long mustache while in thought. Although little escaped his eye on the battlefield, he had none of the charisma of generals such as Winfield S. Hancock or Daniel Sickles. He had a stiff pride that at times would cause friction with his superiors, but in the euphoria that followed Gettysburg his military future seemed assured.

Warren was born in Cold Spring, N.Y., across the Hudson River from West Point. He was attracted to military service, and well-connected relatives secured him an appointment to the military academy that was so close to his home. One relative admonished young Warren that he was expected to graduate “not lower than second” in his class. Faithful to this charge, Warren graduated second in his class and in 1850 was commissioned in the elite Corps of Engineers.

Who knows what might have happened if the relative had indicated that Warren was expected to become president of the United States?

As a junior officer, Warren served at a variety of engineering posts, mostly in the West, before being posted to West Point to teach mathematics. He was there when the war broke out in 1861, but was soon promoted to colonel and posted to Baltimore to assist with the defenses there.

In spring 1862, Warren was given command of a brigade in the Army of the Potomac. He served at the siege of Yorktown, Va., and in the Seven Days campaign that followed. He was wounded at the battle of Gaines’s Mill on June 27, and was made brigadier general of volunteers for gallant and meritorious service in that battle. Four days later, his brigade turned back a Confederate attack at Malvern Hill.

Warren participated in the Second Battle of Manassas and in the Maryland campaign that followed. His record as a brigade commander appears to have been one of solid competence. On June 3, 1863, he was promoted to major general of volunteers and made chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac. Warren, still a bachelor, marked the occasion by marrying his fiancee, a Baltimore belle named Emily Chase.

One month later came his day of glory at Gettysburg, and the army commander, Meade, was duly appreciative. In fall 1863, Meade gave Warren temporary command of the II Corps while its commander, Hancock, recovered from a wound. In March 1864, Warren was given his own corps, the Fifth, which he would command during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s overland campaign against Richmond.

The V Corps would fight in almost all of the major engagements as Grant pressed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army toward the outskirts of Richmond. Warren’s record, however, was mixed. He was popular with his soldiers — they appreciated his attention to their welfare and his bravery under fire — but was less highly regarded by his superiors. Warren, who had never commanded a unit larger than a brigade in battle, was now responsible for the movement of at least three and sometimes four divisions. He immersed himself in detail, but rarely succeeded in getting his attacks off on schedule. Meade regarded Warren as dilatory in the maneuvering in front of Petersburg in June 1864, and for a time considered replacing him.

The Federals were advancing, but at a terrible cost. Campaigning with Grant took a toll on Warren, who, on one occasion, remarked to a fellow officer that the previous month had been one funeral procession after another “and it is too much!” Grant might have done well to have found a new post for Warren, but corps commanders were in short supply.

As 1864 turned into 1865, Grant continued to extend his lines south, forcing Lee to stretch his thinly manned defenses south of Petersburg. On March 29, Grant ordered Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, supported by Warren’s corps, to attempt to turn Lee’s line southwest of Petersburg. In a significant command shift, he separated Sheridan’s cavalry and Warren’s corps from the Army of the Potomac, and put the hard-driving Sheridan in charge of the movement.

The next two days saw a series of sharp skirmishes, most of them along muddy roads, in a cold drizzle. Sheridan’s troops attacked on foot while Warren moved ponderously against a Confederate force commanded by Gen. George E. Pickett. Pickett, realizing that he was severely outnumbered, pulled back toward a road junction known as Five Forks.

Warren knew that he was expected to press the enemy on April 1, but he had conflicting orders as to which road to take. The result was a good deal of marching and countermarching, and one of Warren’s divisions headed down a road that would take it out of the battle altogether. When Sheridan came looking for Warren at the front, he was told that the corps commander was at the rear of the column. “That’s just where I expected to find him,” Sheridan responded sarcastically. Later, when Warren returned, there was a confrontation, with Sheridan stamping in the mud and Warren reportedly controlling himself with difficulty.

The morning was gone, but Sheridan, supported by elements of the V Corps, launched an attack that overwhelmed Pickett and laid open the road to Richmond.

Sheridan was not satisfied. Even in victory, Warren had not attacked at the point designated, and he was still having difficulty with one of his divisions. Even as enemy defenses collapsed, Sheridan sent a courier to Warren to relieve him of his command. When dusk brought a halt to the Federal advance, a shaken Warren approached Sheridan and asked if he would reconsider his decision. “Reconsider, hell!” Sheridan responded. “Obey the order!”

Warren served out the remaining week of the campaign in a staff assignment under Grant. He must have been tempted to leave the army after the war, but he did not. He stayed in the service that had been his life, resuming the topographical work that had been interrupted by the war.

Nevertheless, Warren was bitterly resentful of his treatment by Grant and Sheridan. He repeatedly requested a court of inquiry into his conduct at Five Forks, but as long as Grant was president and Sheridan the army’s second-ranking general, his requests were ignored. In December 1879, however, Warren’s request was granted, and the resulting military court not only exonerated him but criticized the manner of his relief.

Warren may have been an example of the Peter Principle — a good man promoted a grade too high, but the manner of his relief and the shabby treatment afforded him after the war reflect no credit on either Grant or Sheridan.

John M. Taylor lives in McLean. He is the author of a number of books on the Civil War period, including “Duty Faithfully Performed: Robert E. Lee and His Critics.”

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