Gouverneur Kemble Warren was born January 8th, in Putnam County, New York. He was named for a prominent local political figure and industrialist. He entered West Point in 1846, at the age of sixteen. In 1850, he graduated with the very impressive rank of second in his class of 44. He received a assignment as a brevet second lieutenant to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He worked on the Mississippi River and on transcontinental railroad surveys, and helped map the west, helping to create the first comprehensive map of the United States west of the Mississippi, and surveyed the Minnesota River Valley. He saw his first combat at Ash Hollow in the Nebraska Territory, having been too young to see action in Mexico like many of his future comrades and opponents.
At the start of the Civil War, Warren was a first lieutenant, teaching mathematics at West Point. He helped raise a local regiment, and was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 5th New York Infantry in May 1861. He and his regiment saw action at the first real engagement of the war, Big Bethel, where Warren distinguished himself by at one point leading his men over a ford mounted on a white mule. In September, Warren became the Colonel of the 5th New Tork.
Warren saw more service during the Peninsula Campaign, continuing to lead his regiment while at the same time assisting the Army of the Potomac’s chief topographical engineer, Andrew A. Humphreys (A man destined to rise to prominence in the war), map advance routes for the army. By the time of the Seven Days Battles’, he was the acting brigade commander, and was wounded in the knee at Gaines’ Mill, but refused to be taken from the field. His brigade gave particularly distinguished service at Malvern Hill. At Second Manassas, his brigade made a determined stand near Chinn Ridge against overwhelming forces that bought the Union Army of Virginia more time to assemble a defense on Henry Hill and make preparations to withdraw.
Warren was promoted to brigadier general in September, after Antietam where his brigade saw no action. His men fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg that December of 1862. In February, with Joseph Hooker’s reorganization of the Army of the Potomac, Warren was appointed chief engineer of the army, and received commendation for his service at Chancellorsville.
Warren gave Hooker advice on what routes to use for intercepting Lee’s army as it moved north in the Gettysburg Campaign. Following George Meade’s assumption of command, Meade wanted a new chief of staff to replace Daniel Butterfield, a Hooker crony who was widely loathed in the army’s high command. He offered the job to Warren, as well as Andrew Humphreys, but they both declined, forcing Meade to continue with Butterfield for the time being. Warren helped Meade establish the fishhook position at Gettysburg, and on July 2nd, he rode out to survey the Union left. He was not happy when he discovered the undefended Round Tops, realizing the danger this posed to the Union flank, and while sending off a note to Meade, he chose not to wait around, and on his own initiative, commandeered a brigade of the Union Fifth Corps, commanded by Col. Strong Vincent, and rushed it to Little Round Top just in time to halt the Confederate assault. As the right of Vincent’s brigade began to give way, Warren once again rode to the rescue with a commandeered regiment, leading the 140th New York in to plug the gap. He suffered a minor neck wound during this action. He attended Meade’s council of war, but troubled by his neck wound, ended up sleeping through it.
Warren was promoted to major general following Gettysburg. With three corps commanders killed or wounded, Meade had vacancies in his high command, and it was hardly a surprise when Warren was chosen to fill in for the injured Winfield Scott Hancock and take command of the II Corps. At the Battle of Bristoe Station, his corps gave a larger Confederate force under A.P. Hill a bloody nose, inflicting severe casualties before withdrawing to avoid being flanked by Richard Ewell’s forces. When Hill attempted to explain the debacle to Lee, Lee cut him off, stating “Well, well, general, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.” During the Mine Run Campaign, Warren was ordered to attack the Confederate army positioned at Mine Run, but perceiving the strength of the Confederate fortifications, Warren realized it was a trap and wisely declined. Meade was initially angry, but upon surveying the situation himself, concluded Warren was correct. 1863 had been a superb year for G.K. Warren.
1864 on the other hand, would be a year of unfulfilled promise and ambitions for Warren. Following the return of Hancock to his II Corps, Warren assumed command of the Union V Corps. This was a fine unit, doubtlessly not being hurt by absorbing the remnants of the tenacious Union I Corps. Warren, despite his fine 1863 service, was not necessarily popular with his division commanders, who doubtlessly were not impressed that Warren had gotten the corps while skipping the divisional level of command. In particular, Warren’s senior division commander, a popular and able man by the name of Charles Griffin, believed he should have gotten the corps, and was a bit resentful of Warren. Warren wasn’t unaware of his relative lack of experience, and indeed may have been slightly intimidated by Griffin, who reportedly tended to get his way in staff meetings.
Nevertheless, at the start of the campaign, Warren was very highly regarded in general. Grant later stated that at the start of the campaign, if anything had happened to Meade, he would have given Warren the army. This impression would not last long on Grant’s part. Like many Union commanders, Warren was not at his best in the Wilderness. Ordered to push across a clearing called Saunders Field and attack Confederate forces assembling in the woods ahead, Warren brought his careful and deliberate engineer’s nature to the fore, taking his time. Thanks to the failure of the Union cavalry, it wasn’t known what exactly was opposing Warren, and the Union Sixth Corps hadn’t lined up on his northern flank yet. Warren attacked nearly six hours behind schedule, by which time the Confederate II Corps had had time to fortify their position and assemble it’s full force, plentiful to stop Warren. Warren’s attacks were repulsed, and the annoyed Griffin stormed over to Meade’s headquarters to rant about what a poor job Warren was doing. Perhaps partly because of this, Grant and Meade visited Warren’s headquarters to inquire as to what had gone wrong, though it’s not known exactly what words they exchanged. Later that night, a captain on Warren’s staff overheard a conversation between Warren and his surgeon and adjutant generals, where Warren eventually stated it wouldn’t do to publish the real casualties that his V Corps took during the battle.
After the Battle of the Wilderness ground to a halt, Warren’s V Corps led the Union advance down the Brock Road towards Spotsylvania Court House. After Sheridan’s failure at Todd’s Tavern, Warren’s infantry were forced to clear the way for the Union army, causing the first clash between Warren and Sheridan as the latter officer accused Warren’s men of blocking the roads. Warren’s men did a fine job of clearing the way to Spotsylvania Court House, where they ran into the Confederate I Corps, as fine a army corps as ever served in the entire war. Warren, eager to redeem himself for his actions in the Wilderness, rushed his attacks, delivering them in a piecemeal and hasty manner. Unsurprisingly, they failed. Warren attempted with only minimal success to rally his men for more attacks. Warren was angry about the course of Union operations around Spotsylvania, and wrote a letter lambasting his fellow corps commanders, even Sedgwick, whom he was friendly with. Upon hearing of Sedgwick’s death, Warren demonstrated some rare tact by tucking the letter away where it wasn’t found again for over a century.
When Grant and Meade launched the Union II and VI Corps at the Bloody Angle, and the attack eventually ground to a halt, Grant assumed the Confederates must have weakened the Laurel Hill sector in Warren’s front, and ordered him to attack. Warren knew for a fact this wasn’t true, and was extremely reluctant to commit his men in another bloody frontal assault, stalling as long as he could before delivering a perfunctory assault. Grant and Meade sent Meade’s chief of staff, Andrew A. Humphreys, to relieve Warren if necessary. Humphreys, despite his reputation as a hard-ass and one of the Union army’s foremost masters of profanity, was sympathetic to Warren’s situation, and didn’t think he could have done any better, instead doing his best to aid Warren.
Warren’s performance improved in the aftermath of Spotsylvania, demonstrating some renewed vigor in some of Grant’s operations in the area following the May 12th assault. At the North Anna river, Warren once again gave Hill a bloody nose at Jericho Mills, and avoided falling into Lee’s trap at the North Anna by once again declining to attack a powerful position that Lee was hoping he would attack.
By the time the armies got to Petersburg, Warren had thoroughly alienated Meade and Grant. He had a reputation as an alarmist, and his habit of complaining to headquarters and questioning orders didn’t make him one of the most popular men. Among others (including even the aggressive Hancock), he didn’t move as rapidly as he could have during the early battle for Petersburg. Once the siege was underway however, the set-piece nature of the operations seemed to suit Warren’s talents, and he generally performed well, winning limited victories at Globe Tavern and Peebles’ Farm. Whatever his flaws, Warren and his V Corps carried their share of the load in the struggle for Petersburg.
In early 1865, moving to end the war in Virginia for good, Grant sent Sheridan’s cavalry to destroy Lee’s final supply line. Sheridan was stymied by a mixed infantry-cavalry force under the overall command of George Pickett. Sheridan called for infantry support; he wanted the Union Sixth Corps under it’s capable leader Horatio Wright. Warren and his Fifth Corps were more conveniently positioned, having just won the Battle of White Oak Road. Grant mollified Sheridan by giving him the authority to remove Warren if necessary. At Five Forks, Warren and his men carried the lion’s share of the burden. Inaccurate intelligence provided by Sheridan led to one of Warren’s divisions wandering past the Confederate lines to the north. While Sheridan rode to the front to rally and personally lead one of Warren’s other two divisions, Warren, after some initial efforts to realign Crawford’s errant division failed, took after them himself, reoriented them, and slammed them into the Confederate lines from the north in the move that effectively ended the battle. After this great victory, Warren was handed an order relieving him of command. Warren made an effort to get Sheridan to reconsider his decision, and was rudely rejected. He went to Grant and Meade, and while they were much more polite about it, he was still denied. One of Meade’s aides reflected “I am sorry, for I like Warren.” Perhaps Meade’s virulent dislike of Sheridan had filtered down.
Warren resigned his major general of volunteer’s commission in protest, returning to his permanent major’s rank in the engineers. He was devastated by the decision he considered to be unjust, and spent the rest of his life fighting to have it overturned. He could have done much as his brother-in-law and former staff officer, W. A. Roebling did, and entered a profitable civilian engineering career. He believed he would not ever get his name cleared if he left the military, however. Warren finally convinced the administration of Rutherford Hayes to hold a board of inquiry, which utterly vindicated Warren. Unfortunately, the hero of Little Round Top did not live to see his name cleared. He died of illness shortly before the decision, bitterly telling his wife to bury him in civilian clothing and without ceremony “I die a disgraced soldier”. His last words were “The flag! The flag!”