Gouverneur Kemble Warren was born on January 8, 1830, at Cold Spring, New York, approximately fifteen miles up the Hudson River from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Warren was the fourth of twelve children born to Phebe Lickley Warren and Sylvanus Warren, a New York State assemblyman. Warren was named after Gouverneur Kemble, a local industrialist and family friend who later represented New York’s 4th District in the 25th and 26th U.S. Congress (March 4, 1837-March 4, 1841).
U.S. Military Academy Cadet
After attending local schools at Cold Spring, Warren spent one year at Kinsley’s Classical and Mathematical School near West Point. While studying there, he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy at age sixteen. Warren enrolled at the Academy on July 1, 1846, and graduated on July 1, 1850, ranked second in his class of forty-four cadets.
U.S. Army Officer
Upon graduating from West Point, the army brevetted Warren as a second lieutenant and assigned him to the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He spent his first few years in the service working on engineering projects to improve navigation on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. On September 1, 1854, officials promoted Warren to the full rank of second lieutenant. Also that year, they assigned him to a project mapping parts of the United States west of the Mississippi River. While exploring the West, Warren experienced his first combat at the Battle of Ash Hollow, an engagement against the Sioux Indians in the Nebraska Territory on September 3, 1855.
Upon finishing his explorations, Warren went to Washington, DC, in 1856 to complete his maps and reports. The results of his efforts later proved useful in determining a route for the construction of a transcontinental railway. On July 1 of that year, army officials promoted Warren to first lieutenant.
Warren returned to the U.S. Military Academy on August 29, 1859, to serve as an assistant professor of mathematics. On November 3, academy officials promoted him to full professor. Warren remained on the faculty at West Point until the American Civil War erupted in April 1861.
On May 14, 1861, Warren accepted a commission as a lieutenant colonel with the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, also known as Duryee’s Zouaves. Serving in the Department of Virginia, Warren took part in the Battle of Big Bethel Church on June 10, 1861. On August 31, 1861, the War Department promoted Warren to colonel and placed him in command of the regiment. On September 9, army officials promoted Warren to captain in the regular army. Mindful of the lack of military discipline his unit displayed at Big Bethel, Warren spent the rest of 1861 drilling his men near Baltimore, Maryland.
When Major General George B. McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign in March 1862, Warren’s regiment accompanied the Army of the Potomac as part of the Reserve Corps. During the initial stages of the offensive, Warren put his engineering skills to use leading reconnaissance missions and drafting detailed maps of the Virginia Peninsula.
Aware of Warren’s achievements and lofty credentials, McClellan chose Warren to command the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division, when the general formed the 5th Corps on May 18, 1862. Warren led a brigade throughout the rest of the Peninsula Campaign. During the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862, he received minor wounds. Army officials later brevetted Warren to lieutenant colonel for his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Gaines’s Mill.”
Northern Virginia Campaign
When McClellan’s offensive faltered during the summer of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln organized the Army of Virginia, commanded by Major General John Pope, to guard against a Rebel possible assault on the nation’s capital. When McClellan no longer posed a threat to Richmond, Confederate General Robert E. Lee went on the offensive, before Pope could merge his army with McClellan’s retreating forces. In response, Union officials withdrew the 5th Corps, including Warren’s brigade, from the Peninsula and attached it to the Army of Virginia.
Lee’s forces defeated the Army of Virginia at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862) near Manassas, Virginia. During that engagement, Warren’s brigade fought valiantly, suffering over 2,000 casualties while futilely trying to halt a Confederate assault against Pope’s left flank.
Emboldened by the Rebel victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Robert E. Lee took the war to Northern soil in the late summer of 1862. On September 2, as Lee prepared to cross the Potomac River and enter Maryland, President Lincoln placed McClellan in command of, “the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital.” McClellan merged the Army of Virginia with his Army of the Potomac, and Warren’s brigade returned to McClellan’s command. Two weeks later, Warren’s under-strength unit remained in reserve, when the Army of the Potomac engaged Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the bloody Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
Following Lee’s retreat to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, President Lincoln appointed Warren to the grade of brigadier general in the volunteer army, effective September 26, 1862. The army confirmed the promotion in General Orders, No. 181, published on November 1, 1861. Twelve days later, President Lincoln sacked McClellan and appointed Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac.
On November 14, Burnside issued General Orders, No. 184 (AoP), dividing the Army of the Potomac into three “grand divisions.” Burnside assigned Warren’s brigade to the Center Grand Division. By November 19, Burnside had all three grand divisions poised to cross the Rappahannock River and strike Lee’s army near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside’s ill-fated campaign culminated with the most decisive Confederate victory of the Civil War at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862). During the Union debacle, Warren’s men covered the federal retreat across the Rappahannock.
Soon after Fredericksburg, President Lincoln lost confidence in Burnside. On January 25, 1863, Lincoln drafted General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department), announcing that he was placing Major General Joseph Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. One week later, on February 2, Hooker promoted Warren to a staff position, naming him Chief Topographical Engineer of the Army of the Potomac. Warren served as an assistant to Hooker during the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863).
Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac
The Confederate victory at Chancellorsville prompted Robert E. Lee to launch a second invasion of the North in June 1863. At about that time, the War Department merged the Corps of Topographical Engineers into the Corps of Engineers. On June 8, 1863, Hooker named Warren as Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac. As Lee moved north, Lincoln ordered Hooker to move in a parallel direction, keeping the Army of the Potomac between Lee and the nation’s capital. Hooker relied upon Warren to advise him on the best routes available to shadow Lee’s movements and to impede an assault on Washington.
During the early stages of Lee’s campaign, Warren took a brief leave of absence to travel to Baltimore, where he married Emily Forbes Chase on June 17, 1863. Their union later produced two children. After the wedding, Warren quickly returned to his duties advising Hooker.
Warren’s service to Hooker did not last much longer. On June 28, 1863, Hooker attended a strategy meeting with the President and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. When a dispute arose regarding the disposition of troops at Harpers Ferry, Hooker impulsively offered to resign his command. Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation and placed Major General George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, 1863. Meade assumed command on the same day, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–July 3, 1863).
Battle of Gettysburg
On the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Warren made his greatest contribution to the Union war effort. Serving as Meade’s chief of engineers, Warren discovered that a crucial hill known as Little Round Top, on the federal left flank, was undefended. Acting on his own initiative, Warren commandeered troops from Major General George Sykes‘ 5th Corps and occupied the position in time to repulse an assault by 14,000 Rebels commanded by Lieutenant General James Longstreet. During the fighting, Warren suffered a minor neck wound. Warren’s decisive action helped to prevent Longstreet from turning the Union left flank and possibly changing the outcome of the battle. Following the Union victory, officials brevetted Warren to colonel in the regular army for his “gallant and meritorious services.”
Meade lost three of his seven corps commanders because of death and serious injury at the Battle of Gettysburg. Forced to reorganize the command structure of his army, on August 12, 1863, Meade appointed Warren to command the 2nd Corps, while Major General Winfield Scott Hancock recuperated. Accordingly, the War Department advanced Warren to the rank of major general, effective May 3, 1863, as confirmed in General Orders, No. 316, U.S. War Department, on September 18, 1863.
Throughout the autumn of 1863, the Army of the Potomac cautiously pursued the Army of Northern Virginia as it retreated into Virginia. On October 14, the two armies engaged near Bristoe Station, Virginia. During that encounter, Warren deployed his 2nd Corps in a strong defensive position along the embankment of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and unleashed a hail of lead into the right flank of two brigades of the unsuspecting Confederates commanded by Major General Henry Heth.
Heth desperately tried to turn his men around to face their assailants with little success. A futile charge into the murderous fire failed to dislodge the stubborn Yankee defenders. By the time that the Rebels escaped, the Union victory at the Battle of Bristoe Station had cost the Confederacy nearly 1,400 soldiers, and a battery of artillery. During the night, Warren’s corps withdrew and rejoined the Army of the Potomac.
Mine Run Campaign
In late November 1863, Meade attempted to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia before the onset of winter. During the short-lived and ill-fated Mine Run Campaign, Warren independently canceled an assault on well-entrenched Confederate lines scheduled for the morning of November 30.
Warren’s unilateral decision initially upset Meade, but he later concurred when he rode to the front and observed what Warren’s men faced. Although Meade agreed that the assault would have produced a bloodbath, Warren’s decision to cancel the operation at his own discretion gave Meade reason to doubt Warren’s willingness to follow orders–a crucial attribute of a soldier.
5th Corps Commander
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also designed his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia and destroy the Army of Northern Virginia. To prepare for Grant’s offensive, he and Meade reorganized the Army of the Potomac. When Hancock returned to command the 2nd Corps, they merged the 1st Corps into the 5th Corps, and Warren assumed command of it on March 23, 1864.
Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns
Warren and the 5th Corps performed well during the Overland, Petersburg, and Appomattox Campaigns, taking part in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21, 1864), the Battle of North Anna (May 23–26, 1864), the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek (May 29-30, 1864), the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864), the Second Battle of Petersburg (June 15-18, 1864), the Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864–March 25, 1865), the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road (June 21-23, 1864), the Battle of Peebles Farm (September 30–October 2, 1864), the Battle of Boydton Plank Road (October 27-28, 1864), Battle of Hatcher’s Run (February 5-7, 1865), the Battle of White Oak Road (March 31, 1865), and the Battle of Five Forks (April 1, 1865).
Relieved of Command
Despite Warren’s satisfactory performance during the final months of the war, philosophical differences between him and Grant led to an abrupt and ignominious end of his stint with the Army of the Potomac.
As he had shown during the Mine Run Campaign, Warren was not averse to questioning orders. During his rise through the ranks, Warren developed a reputation with some as an officer who occasionally thought he was more qualified than his superiors to make important decisions—a trait that did not sit well with Grant. Reportedly, Grant considered removing Warren from his command on two occasions early in the Overland Campaign, because Warren did not follow orders quickly enough. Warren’s alleged sluggishness might have been due to his concern for his men. While Grant was reluctantly willing to sacrifice soldiers in his war of attrition against the Army of Northern Virginia, the more conservative Warren preferred a more methodical approach to avoid loss of life when possible.
Things came to a head on April 1, 1865, when Grant tried to force Lee’s army out of its entrenchments at Petersburg by ordering Major General Philip Sheridan‘s cavalry to destroy Lee’s last supply line. When Sheridan requested infantry support for the operation, Grant selected Warren’s nearby corps, even though Sheridan did not like Warren. As a concession to Sheridan, Grant authorized Sheridan to relieve Warren of his command if Warren’s performance did not meet Sheridan’s satisfaction. Grant’s deal with Sheridan was unusual, if not unprecedented, in that it bypassed Sheridan’s and Warren’s immediate commander, Major General George G. Meade.
With Warren’s support, Sheridan defeated Major General George Pickett‘s Rebel forces at the Battle of Five Forks, opening the way for the capture of Petersburg. When Warren arrived at Sheridan’s headquarters that night expecting to celebrate a resounding victory, Sheridan instead handed Warren papers informing him that Sheridan had relieved him of command of the 5th Corps. Warren’s appeals to Meade and Grant fell on deaf ears.
Resignation from Volunteer Army
Grant reassigned Warren to the defenses of Petersburg from April 3 to May 1, 1865. He then sent Warren west to command the Department of Mississippi. On May 27, 1865, incensed about how Grant had treated him, Warren resigned his commission in the volunteer army, but he remained in the regular army.
As the war wound down, officials brevetted Warren to the rank of brigadier-general on March 13, 1865, for his “Gallant and Meritorious Services at the Battle of Bristoe Station.” On the same day, he also received a brevet promotion to major general for “Gallant and Meritorious Services in the Field during the Rebellion.”
Warren remained in the army for the next seventeen years, working as an engineer on many internal improvement projects. On March 4, 1879, army officials promoted him to lieutenant colonel with the Corps of Engineers. Warren spent the rest of his military career struggling to clear his name. During President Andrew Johnson‘s administration immediately after the war, Reconstruction overshadowed Warren’s efforts to secure a hearing. Grant, understandably, had no inclination to have the matter investigated during his two terms as President of the United States. It was not until Rutherford B. Hayes assumed the presidency that the army agreed to address Warren’s grievances.
On December 11, 1879, a board of inquiry convened at Governor’s Island, New York, for preliminary meetings. The first of 103 witnesses that included Warren, Sheridan, and former President Grant testified on May 4, 1880. The final witness appeared on November 22. The board did not release its findings until July 11, 1882, when Judge-Advocate-General D. G. Swaim issued his report on the proceedings. Finally, on November 21, 1882, Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln issued a directive stating that “The foregoing proceedings and report have been laid before the President, he directs that the findings and opinion of the court of inquiry be published.”
During its deliberations, the board considered four points of contention about Warren’s performance during the Battle of Five Forks. The final report presented mixed conclusions regarding the first two points, but on the second two points, the board exonerated Warren. Sadly, the report came too late to provide Warren with the satisfaction he had so earnestly sought for seventeen years.
Warren died of acute liver failure at Newport, Rhode Island, on August 8, 1882, three months before the report’s publication. Never knowing of his exoneration, Warren chose to be buried wearing civilian clothing with no military honors at Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island.