Happiness Is Not My Companion: The Life of General G. K. Warren

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Happiness Is Not My Companion"
The Life of General G. K. Warren

David M. Jordan

The valorous but troubled career of the Civil War general, best known for his quick action to defend Little Round Top and avert a Union defeat at Gettysburg.

Gouverneur K. Warren, a brilliant student at West Point and a topographical engineer, earned early acclaim for his explorations of the Nebraska Territory and the Black Hills in the 1850s. With the start of the Civil War, Warren moved from teacher at West Point to lieutenant colonel of a New York regiment and was soon a rising star in the Army of the Potomac. His fast action at Little Round Top, bringing Federal troops to an undefended position before the Confederates could seize it, helped to save the Battle of Gettysburg. For his service at Bristoe Station and Mine Run, he was awarded command of the Fifth Corps for the 1864 Virginia campaign.

Warren's peculiarities of temperament and personality put a cloud over his service at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and cost him the confidence of his superiors, Grant and Meade. He was summarily relieved of his command by Philip Sheridan after winning the Battle of Five Forks, just eight days before Appomattox. Warren continued as an engineer of distinction in the Army after the war, but he was determined to clear his name before a board of inquiry, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the battle, Warren's conduct, and Sheridan's arbitrary action. However, the findings of the court vindicating Warren were not made public until shortly after his death.

For this major biography of Gouverneur Warren, David M. Jordan utilizes Warren's own voluminous collection of letters, papers, orders, and other items saved by his family, as well as the letters and writings of such contemporaries as his aide and brother-in-law Washington Roebling, Andrew Humphreys, Winfield Hancock, George Gordon Meade, and Ulysses S. Grant. Jordan presents a vivid account of t

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1. Cold Spring and West Point

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A MALE CHILD WAS BORN ON JANUARY 8, 1830, to Phoebe and Sylvanus Warren, in the village of Cold Spring, New York, on the eastern shore of the Hudson River. The Warrens named their newborn son, the fourth of what would be twelve children, Gouverneur Kemble Warren, after a close friend who was one of the most distinguished citizens of Putnam County.

Gouverneur Kemble was a substantial citizen indeed. Born in New York City in 1786 and an 1803 graduate of Columbia College, Kemble had gone to Spain in 1816 to study methods of casting cannon. A fledgling casting industry had been set up by a group of local men in 1814, but the flowering of the business awaited Kemble’s return from Europe. When he came back in 1818, he established the West Point Foundry, the lone industry in Cold Spring, where for the first time in the United States cannons were cast with any degree of perfection. A local historian called the foundry “the life of Cold Spring Village . . . and . . . it may be said, it feeds all, clothes all, and supports all.”1

 

2. Topographical Engineer

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AFTER ARRIVING IN THE UNIMPRESSIVE LITTLE TOWN which served as the nation’s capital and seeing to his lodging, twenty-year-old Gouverneur Warren reported to the headquarters of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, where he was directed to Captain A. A. Humphreys. Captain Humphreys informed the young officer “that he was preparing to make a survey and examination of the banks and bed of the Mississippi from the mouth as far up as the Red river, and that I was to assist him.”1

Warren reported that Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, then forty years old and the product of a wealthy and respected Philadelphia family, was “an exceedingly pleasing man in manners and conversation.” His meeting with Humphreys was the start of a close professional and personal relationship which would last the rest of his life, in the Topographical Engineers before the Civil War, in the Army of the Potomac, and in the Corps of Engineers after the war. Warren would be closely involved with Humphreys’ controversial work on the Mississippi, and they would collaborate on Warren’s mapping of the West. At Gettysburg, Humphreys was out on the Emmitsburg Road while Warren was holding Little Round Top. Humphreys was Meade’s chief of staff in the 1864 campaign, and he saved Warren’s neck at Spotsylvania on May 12. At Five Forks, Humphreys’ corps was on the right of Warren’s, and he was able to offer valuable insights in the later inquiry into that battle. Humphreys was Warren’s superior in the postwar Engineers, and he worked closely with Warren and his attorney to force a resolution to the court of inquiry just before Warren’s death. Through all the years and all their varied activities, the two men would remain close friends.

 

3. Into the West with Harney

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JEFFERSON DAVIS HAD A PROBLEM. Appointed secretary of war in 1853, when Democrat Franklin Pierce became president and ousted the Whigs from power, Davis was committed to advancing the cause of his native South within the Federal Union. One means of doing so involved the projected railroad to the Pacific Coast, a road which would enhance the economic interests of that part of the “civilized East” from which it departed. In the spirited sectional competition for the transcontinental railroad, Davis, a Mississippi planter and former U.S. senator from that state, was keenly interested in pushing the “southern route” as strongly as possible. Not only would the South benefit economically, but there would arise a golden opportunity to forge political ties between the South and the West. But before any route could be chosen, of course, the fullest information about the lands beyond the Missouri River had to be available.

The army had long been gathering information about the lands of the west on a piecemeal basis. For several years its officers and engineers had been compiling reports, data, statistics, and surveys of the western territories. But in order to make use of this mass of information, Davis needed it all pulled together. For this purpose he tapped Gouverneur Warren, who enjoyed a growing reputation both for accurate fieldwork and for meticulous handling of the data acquired.

 

4. The Black Hills

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THE REPORT WHICH WARREN WROTE ON HIS 1855 explorations was published the following year, accompanied by a laudatory letter from Secretary of War Davis. In its conclusion, Warren wrote, “Very little is known as to the accurate geography and topography of the Crow country and Black Hills, and, in fact, of any portion of Nebraska west of the Missouri, and the roads from Fort Pierre to Fort Laramie.” He ended by recommending an appropriation by Congress of fifty thousand dollars “for military and geographical explorations in the territory of Nebraska.”1

The high quality of the work Warren had performed in 1855, along with the recommendation in his report, was recognized by the War Department when he was ordered in 1856 to return to the West and continue his exploring work. He would once again be loosely attached to General Harney, but the focus of his efforts was to be on mapping the Missouri upriver from Fort Pierre.

In his travels in 1855, limited in funds, Warren had hired assistants for short periods—days or weeks—to help in performing various functions as he saw his needs come and go. The only exception had been J. Hudson Snowden, whom he had hired for his whole tour. For 1856, Warren benefited from more generous funding, although nowhere near the fifty thousand dollars he had suggested, and he was able to employ a three-man crew for the whole season: Snowden as a meteorologist and W. H. Hutton as a topographer, both from the Washington office, and Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist and naturalist, whom Warren wanted for his knowledge of the Sioux country. Hutton was hired at $100 per month, Snowden at $60 a month, and Dr. Hayden at $1000 for the year.2

 

5. The Explorer Becomes a Soldier

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WARREN SPENT 1858 IN WASHINGTON, WORKING on his report and his map. He pored over his daily journal, the notes he took, his drawings, and his mathematical calculations, he reviewed the journal that Snowden had kept of his separate journey along the Niobrara, and he urged Hayden to make his contributions to the general report. His perfectionist nature drove Warren to make his report a massive and comprehensive document, even though it was titled a “preliminary report.”

Warren felt that what he had accomplished in his three years in the West was worthy of acclaim, and he was always pleased to see appropriate notice taken of it. In February he commented that Dr. Joseph Leidy, one of the country’s leading naturalists and a frequent correspondent of Hayden’s, “thinks very highly of our collection of vertebrate remains. New elephant & rhinoceros, wolves, horses, deers, etc.”1

Dr. Hayden was querulous in his comments on Warren. On November 19, he complained to his friend Engelmann, “I have to make out a brief list of plants for Lieut. Warren.” A few days later, he wrote that “Lieut. Warren gave me but a short notice to prepare a list of our collections to be published with the Message and documents.” He spoke of plants which he felt had been collected at other times, “so that they are not at Warren’s disposal at all.” The good doctor worried about other things, too: “I saw him [Warren] and as I very well knew before there is no money to pay for the examination of the plants. Indeed,” he went on, “I do not think there will be any money to keep me at work on the Geology. Lt. Warren will not promise to pay anything more.” But Hayden did not despair: “I will however do all I can hereafter as he expects to start out again next spring with a large appropriation.”2

 

6. On the Virginia Peninsula

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THE FIRST FLUSH OF MARTIAL GLORY—the “On to Richmond!” stage—was past, gone with the tragicomic battle of Bull Run. Winfield Scott, the relic of America’s wars of old, was gone, too, pushed into retirement by his own infirmities and the ambitious nudging of George Brinton McClellan, who succeeded him as general in chief. McClellan set about building and training an army, a job for which he showed an exceptional aptitude. Eventually, however, when it appeared to Abraham Lincoln that McClellan had little stomach for risking his new creation in battle, the president forced his general’s hand and pressed him to present a plan for a spring 1862 campaign. McClellan eschewed the difficult task of fighting his way from Washington to Richmond overland, electing instead to transport his army by water to the tip of the Virginia peninsula, where Federal control of Fort Monroe gave him a secure jumping-off point.

It was to participate in McClellan’s march up the peninsula that Warren’s regiment was shipped back to Fort Monroe at the end of March, arriving on the 31st and going into camp five miles from the fort, near the division of regulars under General George Sykes to which the Fifth New York was attached. The scene around the “huge and frowning” Fort Monroe was chaotic. “Negroes were everywhere,” wrote one arriving soldier, unused to seeing such a concentration of black men, “and went about their work with an air of importance born of their new-found freedom.” The beaches were jammed with guns, wagons, and pontoon trains, and the land behind the beaches was crowded with tents. The observer saw “the red cap, white leggins, and baggy trousers of the Zouaves mingled with the blue uniforms and dark trimmings of the regular infantry-men,” along with cavalrymen, gunners, engineers, laborers, and teamsters, “all busy at something.”1

 

7. From Second Manassas to Fredericksburg

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THE SEEDS OF THE DISASTER TO COME at Second Manassas were planted in the new organization of the eastern army. Pope was despised by friend and foe alike, and McClellan was not disposed to offer the western general any kind of cordial cooperation. In addition, the corps commanders of the Potomac army units directed to join the Army of Virginia were McClellan confidants, who took their cues from Little Mac. McClellan’s inclination “to let Pope get out of his own scrape” was well known to them all. Pope himself, after an initial good start in dealing with Lee’s tactics, ultimately became confused at the key points of the ensuing battle and his army came to grief as a result.

Once Lee became aware that the Army of the Potomac was leaving Harrison’s Landing, he attempted to destroy John Pope before the troops coming up from the James could unite with the Army of Virginia. With the aid of McClellan’s foot-dragging, he very nearly did it. In a situation where the need for celerity of movement was glaringly obvious, McClellan moved even more slothfully than usual. One historian of the battle of Second Manassas wrote that “McClellan would determine how long Lee’s window of opportunity remained open. McClellan’s plodding evacuation of the Peninsula gave Lee additional days to operate against Pope.”1

 

8. With Hooker

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EIGHTEEN SIXTY-THREE BEGAN WITH THE ARMY of the Potomac hunkered down at Falmouth, Virginia, staring across the Rappahannock at its adversary in Fredericksburg. Gouverneur Warren spent a good bit of time at Burnside’s headquarters, in his temporary capacity as division commander in the absence of George Sykes. Sykes returned to camp on January 9, and Warren resumed his duties with his brigade.

On January 20 the army began the celebrated movement known to history as the “Mud March.” Warren noted in his journal that his brigade “marched only about a mile, road so occupied by troops.” The heavens had opened up on the Army of the Potomac and Ambrose E. Burnside, and the pouring rain persisted until about noon on the 23rd. “Everything stuck in the mud,” Warren recorded on January 22, the same day that Burnside called off the advance, which was designed to go around the right flank of Lee’s army, crossing the Rappahannock at Banks’s Ford.1

 

9. To Little Round Top

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GOUVERNEUR WARREN WAS HEARTSICK AFTER the Army of the Potomac recrossed the Rappahannock and returned to its camps around Falmouth. He wrote to his brother Will that “it was unnecessary for us to retreat . . . There was a want of nerve somewhere in carrying out the movement.” He said that he had “urged and counselled activity and rode from one end of our long lines over and over again to push things.” Unfortunately, he said, his advice was not taken “and here we are again . . . 30,000 men weaker than before we moved.”1

Warren’s letters to Emily after Chancellorsville, at first somewhat matter-of-fact as to his activities and duties, became more despairing as days passed. On May 11, he told her, “My mind is suffering from a great reaction and disappointment.” Filled with high hope and courage, he said, “we grappled with the foe” in what he thought was to be “the great victory that was to close the war.” He “knew not fatigue nor want of sleep and little regarded danger,” but steady purpose in the high command was wanting. “We halted, we hesitated, wavered, retired.” He thought about his own position in the army’s affairs:

 

10. The Aftermath of Gettysburg

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THE BATTLE OF GETTYSBURG, OF COURSE, did not end with the defense of Little Round Top, although it might have if Longstreet’s Confederates had captured the hilltop. Meade and Hancock, now in command of the entire left wing of the Union army, had anxious moments before all the results of Dan Sickles’s foolish move were countered. As the sultry July afternoon waned and the sun set in a fiery red glow through the dark smoke of battle, there was fierce fighting along Plum Run and in the woods and fields between the Emmitsburg Road and Cemetery Ridge. At the end of the day the Union line was intact and perhaps stronger than it had been at noon.1

That night, after Confederate probes at the positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill had been repulsed, General Meade called together his corps commanders to assess the army’s condition and plan for the morrow. The meeting began around nine o’clock in the stuffy little bedroom of the house where Meade had his headquarters. Butterfield and Warren were present with Meade, as were Slocum and Hancock, who had led the right and left wings respectively of the army, and seven corps commanders. The consensus reached was for the army to stay in its present position and, at least for the next day, wait for Lee to resume offensive action. Warren took no part in the conversation; worn out by his exertions, by the heat, and by the pain of his neck wound, the chief engineer curled up in a corner and slept through the meeting.2

 

11. Second Corps Interlude

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THE TIME OF IDLENESS WAS COMING TO AN END. Early in September Meade heard rumors that Longstreet’s corps had been pulled out of the Army of Northern Virginia and sent west to Tennessee. To try to confirm this story, Meade settled upon a reconnaissance in force, to be carried out by Pleasonton’s cavalry with the Second Corps right behind. Instructions went out to Warren the evening of September 11 to “move your entire corps, in the course of tomorrow, to Rappahannock Station, prepared to cross the river Sunday morning, in support of a cavalry reconnaissance.”1

The Second Corps was ready to start on its first mission under its new commander. The First Division was traditionally one of the crack outfits of the whole army, commanded in the past by Richardson and Hancock, its four brigades now under Brigadier General John C. Caldwell. The Second Division, three brigades, was under Brigadier General William Harrow while Gibbon recuperated from his Gettysburg wound. The Third Division, under Brigadier General Alexander Hays, one of the heroes of the July 3 fighting, also had three brigades but was a little smaller than the other divisions. The corps was blessed, in its chief of staff, with one of the best staff officers in the army, Colonel Charles H. Morgan; Warren would come to appreciate Colonel Morgan.

 

12. Fallout, 1863–1864

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THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC MARCHED BACK from Mine Run and the Rapidan and moved into winter quarters. Warren wrote to Emily, saying, “Our army accomplished but little on the late movement. We drove Genl Lee into his intrenchments when finding him too strongly posted for us to assault we came back.” He told Will, “You must not be disturbed by any attacks you may see on me in the newspapers. I have warning, that there is to be a regular charge on me because I declined to attack the enemy’s breastworks on the morning of the 30th November. But I am master of my position and good will come of it.” He warned Emily of “a grand newspaper assault on me” but hoped that out of it all “things will come before the public and I hope evils corrected that have long affected us.”1

Warren was anticipating the storm that would descend because of the abortive Mine Run campaign, but he was confident that his actions were immune to criticism. “Don’t let the late movements worry you,” he told his wife. “Thank heaven they were all right as far as I was concerned and the failure was to the plans not having been carried out by those with us, and then it fell upon me to decide we should not waste our men’s lives in hopeless assaults to make up for previous blunder. Rest assured I did right and all in the army will say so.”2

 

13. Into the Deep, Dark Woods

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THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, NEARLY A HUNDRED thousand strong, renewed by an invigorating winter, the return of many men wounded in the 1863 battles, and the addition of new recruits, “in health, in spirits, and in discipline,” as one of its members wrote, “never in better form for strong and stubborn work,” moved out early on May 4, 1864. At 2 A.M., James Wilson’s cavalry division reached Germanna Ford at the Rapidan, dispersed a few Confederate pickets guarding the crossing, and made the ford available to the pontoon bridge which quickly took shape.1

Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps followed the cavalry, having marched away from its camps around Culpeper. Griffin’s division reached Germanna Ford at about 6 A.M. and quickly moved across the river, to be followed by Crawford’s division, the forty-eight pieces of artillery commanded by Wainwright, and then Wadsworth’s and Robinson’s divisions. Warren, with Meade, Grant, and their staffs, stood on a bluff overlooking the ford, watching the corps as it crossed. The Fifth Corps entered the Wilderness.2

 

14. Bloody Spotsylvania

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IN THE EARLY AFTERNOON OF MAY 7, 1864, Meade’s headquarters, after getting the word from the lieutenant general, issued orders for a movement southeast from the stalemated battlefield along the turnpike and the Brock Road. The march was to begin when darkness fell, with the Fifth Corps in the advance.1

Pulling away undetected from a front with the enemy just a short distance away was a tricky business, to be handled with great discretion. It was essential to the plan worked out in Grant’s mind that he reach Spotsylvania Court House before the Confederates did, in order to place his army between Lee and Richmond, forcing Lee to a fight on what would presumably be unfavorable terms for the rebels. While Grant’s army lay in place in the Wilderness the Confederates were uncertain whether it would offer further battle where it was, retreat across the Rapidan, backtrack toward Fredericksburg, or move east and south, toward Spotsylvania. The very uncertainty of his next movement in Lee’s mind was an element of strength to Grant.

 

15. Around Lee’s Right

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THE FIGHTING AROUND SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE continued for another week after the day and night of the “Bloody Angle.” While it did not match the sustained carnage of May 12, the combat reflected Grant’s continuing belief that he could flank Lee out of his position and force a battle outside the rebel defensive works.

On May 13, the armies rested. The Confederates had pulled back in the early morning hours from the salient to a new line constructed about two miles in the rear, and the Union army spent the morning looking for them. Warren wrote to Emily that “I am yet very well,” and “yesterday was a fearful day of battle.” He sent Meade an unsolicited (and probably unappreciated) suggestion for crossing the Po again and perhaps flushing Lee out for a fight. Wainwright groused in his diary that “I have found no previous commander who did not shew me more consideration.” And Meade ordered a night movement by the Fifth Corps all the way around the army, to take up position on the left of the Ninth Corps and stage an assault at 4 A.M., “if practicable.”1

 

16. Standoff at Petersburg

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AFTER THE BATTLE OF COLD HARBOR THE FIFTH CORPS had several days of welcome rest near Bethesda Church, while Warren revamped his corps organization, a move made necessary by the hasty departure of the unfortunate Henry Lockwood.1

Griffin remained in command of the First Division, consisting of the brigades of Bartlett and Sweitzer and a former Fourth Division brigade, now headed by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine. Romeyn Ayres was placed in command of the Second Division, consisting of his own former brigade, the Maryland Brigade, and Kitchings’s heavy artillery brigade. The Third Division under Crawford had in it the veteran brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserves (those who remained after most of the Reserves went home), and the brigades of Lyle and Bates. Cutler led the Fourth Division, made up of the brigades of Robinson and Hofmann. The new regime was to take effect immediately on June 5, with a movement to a spot about two miles behind Cold Harbor scheduled for that night.2

 

17. The Mine and the Railroad

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THROUGH JUNE AND JULY A PROJECT HAD BEEN underway which promised a possible break in the Petersburg stalemate. The commander of a regiment in the Ninth Corps made up primarily of miners from Pennsylvania’s anthracite region had suggested digging a mine from the Union lines to a spot under the rebel position and there exploding a large amount of powder, with the hope of blowing a hole in the Confederate defenses. Burnside agreed to the plan—to keep his men occupied if for no other reason—and won grudging approval from Meade and Grant for the project. No one really expected much to come of the digging, but as the end of July approached so too did the end of the mine, and suddenly there was all sorts of interest in it. When there appears no other way to break a deadlock, any plan may seem attractive.

A few days before the expected detonation of the mine, Hancock’s Second Corps and two divisions of Sheridan’s cavalry were sent off to the right, to Deep Bottom, a bridgehead on the north bank of the James, to threaten Richmond from there and, it was hoped, draw off some of Lee’s army from Petersburg to meet the threat. The Confederates did in fact move substantial forces north of the James to counter the movement of the Second Corps. As the time for the bomb drew near, Hancock’s men were brought back to Petersburg.1

 

18. West to Peebles’ Farm

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GEORGE GORDON MEADE WROTE TO HIS WIFE on August 24, “We have had some pretty hard fighting to secure our lodgment on the Weldon Railroad. Grant and Warren are the heroes of the affair,” Grant for his conception of the movement, Warren for carrying it out successfully. Still, he said, “we lost a good many men in killed and wounded, but principally in prisoners. Our army is becoming much weakened by these repeated losses, and our only hope is that the enemy suffers proportionately.”1

Meade now brought Hancock’s Second Corps back from Deep Bottom, north of the James, and directed two divisions of it to Reams’ Station, on the Weldon Railroad below Warren’s position at Globe Tavern, to tear up tracks and make the railroad useless to the enemy as far south as could be done. Warren’s corps, meanwhile, was busily engaged in building redoubts, battery positions, and whatever else was needed to make its position on the railroad impregnable.2

 

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