American Civil War: Major General Gouverneur K. Warren

Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Gouverneur K. Warren - Early Life & Career:

Born at Cold Spring, NY on January 8, 1830, Gouverneur K. Warren was named for a local Congressman and industrialist. Raised locally, his younger sister, Emily, later married Washington Roebling and played a key role in the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. A strong student, Warren obtained admission to West Point in 1846. Traveling a short distance down the Hudson River, he continued to display his academic skills as a cadet. Graduating second in the Class of 1850, Warren received a commission as a brevet second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In this role, he traveled west and aided in projects along the Mississippi River as well as helped plan routes for railroads.

Serving as an engineer on Brigadier General William Harney's staff in 1855, Warren first experienced combat at the Battle of Ash Hollow during the First Sioux War. In the wake of the conflict, he continued to survey the lands west of the Mississippi with the goal of determining a route for the transcontinental railroad. Ranging through the Nebraska Territory, which included parts of modern-day Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, Warren helped create the first detailed maps of the region as well as extensively surveyed the Minnesota River Valley. 

Gouverneur K. Warren - The Civil War Begins:

A first lieutenant, Warren had returned east by 1861 and filled a post at West Point teaching mathematics. With the beginning of the Civil War in April, he departed the academy and began aiding in raising a local regiment of volunteers. Successful, Warren was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 5th New York Infantry on May 14. Ordered to Fortress Monroe, the regiment took part in Major General Benjamin Butler's defeat at the Battle of Big Bethel on June 10. Sent to Baltimore in late July, the regiment aided in constructing fortifications on Federal Hill. In September, following the promotion of the 5th New York's commander, Colonel Abram Duryée, to brigadier general, Warren assumed command of the regiment with the rank of colonel.

Returning to the Peninsula in the spring of 1862, Warren advanced with Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac and took part in the Siege of Yorktown. During this time, he frequently assisted the army's chief topographical engineer, Brigadier General Andrew A. Humphreys, by conducting reconnaissance missions and drafting maps. As the campaign progressed, Warren assumed command of a brigade in Brigadier General George Sykes' division of V Corps. On June 27, he sustained a wound in the leg during the Battle of Gaines' Mill, but remained in command. As the Seven Days' Battles progressed he again saw action at the Battle of Malvern Hill where his men aided in repelling Confederate assaults. 

Gouverneur K. Warren - Ascent to Command: 

With the failure of the Peninsula Campaign, Warren's brigade returned north and saw action at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August. In the fighting, his men were driven back by a massive assault from Major General James Longstreet's corps. Recovering, Warren and his command were present the following month at the Battle of Antietam but remained in reserve during the fighting. Promoted to brigadier general on September 26, he continued to lead his brigade and returned to combat in December during the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. With the ascent of Major General Joseph Hooker to command of the Army of the Potomac in early 1863, Warren received an assignment as the army's chief topographical engineer. This soon saw him advance to become the army's chief engineer.

In May, Warren saw action at the Battle of Chancellorsville and though it resulted in a stunning victory for General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, he was commended for his performance in the campaign. As Lee began moving north to invade Pennsylvania, Warren advised Hooker on the best routes for intercepting the enemy. When Major General George G. Meade succeeded Hooker on June 28, he continued to help direct the army's movements. As the two armies clashed at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, Warren recognized the importance of the heights at Little Round Top which was situated off the Union left. Racing Union forces to the hill, his efforts just prevented Confederate troops from seizing the heights and turning Meade's flank. In the fighting, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain's 20th Maine famously held the line against the attackers.  In recognition for his actions at Gettysburg, Warren received a promotion to major general on August 8.

Gouverneur K. Warren - Corps Commander:

With this promotion, Warren assumed command of II Corps as Major General Winfield S. Hancock had been badly wounded at Gettysburg. In October, he led the corps to victory over Lieutenant General A.P. Hill at the Battle of Bristoe Station and showed skill and discretion a month later during the Mine Run Campaign. In the spring of 1864, Hancock returned to active duty and the Army of the Potomac reorganized under guidance of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and Meade. As a part of this, Warren received command of V Corps on March 23. With the beginning of the Overland Campaign in May, his men saw extensive fighting during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. As Grant pushed south, Warren and the army's cavalry commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, repeatedly clashed as the latter felt that the V Corps' leader was too cautious.    

As the armies moved closer to Richmond, Warren's corps again saw action at Cold Harbor before shifting further south to enter the Siege of Petersburg. In an effort to force the situation, Grant and Meade began extending Union lines south and west. Moving as part of these operations, Warren won a victory over Hill at the Battle of Globe Tavern in August. A month later, he achieved another success in the fighting around Peebles' Farm. During this time, Warren's relationship with Sheridan remained strained. In February 1865, he saw substantial action at the Battle of Hatcher's Run. Following the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Fort Stedman in late March 1865, Grant instructed Sheridan to strike Confederate forces at the key crossroads of Five Forks. 

Though Sheridan requested Major General Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps support the operation, Grant instead assigned V Corps as it was better positioned. Aware of Sheridan's issues with Warren, the Union leader gave the former permission to relieve him if the situation warranted. Attacking on April 1, Sheridan soundly defeated enemy forces led by Major General George Pickett at the Battle of Five Forks. In the fighting, he believed that V Corps moved too slowly and that Warren was out of position. Immediately after the battle, Sheridan relieved Warren and replaced him with Major General Charles Griffin

Gouverneur K. Warren - Later Career:

Briefly sent to lead the Department of Mississippi, an irate Warren resigned his commission as a major general of volunteers on May 27 and reverted to his rank of major of engineers in the regular army. Serving in the Corps of Engineers for the next seventeen years, he worked along the Mississippi River and aided in the construction of railroads. During this time, Warren repeatedly requested a court of inquiry into his actions at Five Forks in an effort to clear his reputation. These were refused until Grant left the White House. Finally, in 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes ordered a court convened. After extensive hearings and testimony, the court concluded that Sheridan's actions had been unjustified. 

Assigned to Newport, RI, Warren died there on August 8, 1882, three months before the court's findings were formally published. Only fifty-two, the cause of death was listed as acute liver failure related to diabetes. As per his wishes, he was buried locally in Island Cemetery with no military honors and wearing civilian clothes. 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Gouverneur K. Warren." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Gouverneur K. Warren." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).