Did Philip Sheridan forever tarnish a major Union victory by abruptly relieving Gouverneur Warren of command?
The Battle of Five Forks, Virginia, on April 1, 1865, is both militarily significant and historically notorious. It collapsed Confederate defenses before Richmond and Petersburg, leading directly to the Appomattox campaign that culminated in Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. But its notoriety stems from an incident immediately following the battle, when Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan relieved Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren of his command. A great Union victory, then, became forever sullied by Warren’s replacement at its triumphant conclusion. And it became an issue that would not die, thanks to Warren’s obsessive determination to prove to the world that Sheridan’s reasons for taking away his command were without merit. N Removing American field officers for poor combat performance is not unprecedented. George Washington superseded Gen. Charles Lee on the field of Monmouth, and Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Gen. Lloyd Fredendall with George S. Patton
after the Kasserine Pass disaster. Yet what happened to Warren after Five Forks is in a class by itself. His relief had little to do with his conduct during the battle; rather, it was predicated on what he might have done in the campaign to follow.
The price of such removals could-in theory-be steep, as Warren later so floridly wrote: “Upon the maintenance of individual rights in all places where the individual has a duty to perform, against the…caprice of his superior, depends the prominence eventually of our nation itself.”
The stage for the battle of Five Forks was set by General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant’s determination to bring a portion of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces to battle outside the formidable earthworks that had held the Federals at bay for 10 months. Grant’s first move was to probe Lee’s extreme western flank below Petersburg. There was fighting on March 29 across the Boydton Plank Road centered on the Lewis Farm as the Federal V Corps (under Warren) butted unsuccessfully against Lee’s line. Then, with the Confederate infantry fully occupied with holding Warren back, Grant sent Sheridan, just returned from the Shenandoah Valley, with 9,000 horsemen on a wide, sweeping maneuver, threatening the Southside Railroad, vital to supplying Lee’s army and the path of his retreat.
Lee reacted aggressively by cobbling together a combined infantry-cavalry reaction force of some 19,000 men under Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett and dispatching it beyond the entrenched lines to stop Sheridan. The result was a sharp fight on March 31, near Dinwiddie Court House.
Pressed hard throughout the day from the north and west, the Yankee troopers managed to stabilize a perimeter close to the courthouse as night brought an end to the fighting. It had been touch and go at times, but at a cost of some 350 casualties the Union cavalrymen had staved off disaster. Sheridan, who had seen his share of battles, described March 31 as “one of the liveliest days in his experience.” Another field commander might have been satisfied with the draw and anxious to regroup, but not Phil Sheridan. When an aide from Grant reached him in the early evening, Sheridan pointed out that the enemy’s reaction force was “cut off from Lee’s army, and not a man in it should ever be allowed to get back to Lee.” Grant agreed. Looking at his battle maps, he quickly realized that the nearest infantry he could send to assist Sheridan was General Warren’s V Corps.
Grant’s eye had been on Warren since the start of the Overland Campaign. During the fighting on May 5 and 6, 1864, in the Wilderness Campaign, Warren had failed to deliver a decisive blow against the enemy’s lines. At Spotsylvania on May 12, Warren was supposed to carry out a critical attack meant to keep Lee from reinforcing his center, where Grant’s men had scored a breakthrough. When delay followed delay, Grant actually sent an officer to replace Warren but relented when the man reported that he could do no more than had Warren. Again, at Petersburg on June 18, Warren had ignored peremptory orders to attack, a pattern he repeated at the Crater on July 30. Looking back at his thinking on March 31, 1865, Grant reflected: “While appreciating Gen. Warren’s courage and his qualities as a soldier, from what I knew of his previous conduct, I was apprehensive that he might fail.”
Warren had an eventful day himself. Heavy rain falling on March 30 had limited his operations to resupply. In a series of telegrams between his headquarters and those of his immediate superior, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, Warren had worried that he was too exposed and for that reason was reluctant to venture out very far from his newly constructed works along the Boydton Plank Road. Meade responded by directing Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys to extend the II Corps south and west to provide more cover, and reminded Warren that his primary mission was to fully develop the enemy’s position along the White Oak Road. Carrying out those instructions became Warren’s program for March 31.
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