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Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • MHQ

Warren took command of the Department of the Mississippi, and at Vicksburg, on May 19, formally resigned his commission as a major general of volunteers. He returned to his regular army posting as a lieutenant colonel of engineers and in so doing rejected an offer to join a private firm, fearing that leaving the army would prevent him from ever obtaining redress. In this capacity he played a significant role improving the navigation and crossings of the upper Mississippi, evaluating the routing of the Union Pacific Railroad, and surveying the waterways of coastal New England. But constant work and equally intense stress sapped his health.

Warren never gave up his determination to overturn the decision relieving him of his command after Five Forks, however. His efforts to have a court of inquiry convened at war’s end proved fruitless as the Andrew Johnson administration imploded over Reconstruction policies. Johnson was succeeded by America’s great war hero, U.S. Grant, who had more important things for Phil Sheridan to do than explain the decisions he made on April 1, 1865. Not until Grant left office after his second term did Warren persuade the new president (and former Union major general), Rutherford B. Hayes, to convene the board-nearly 15 years after he had been summarily relieved of his command.

The board first met on Governor’s Island on December 11, 1879, to begin a series of preliminary hearings that continued intermittently until the first witness was called on May 4, 1880. One key procedural decision was to limit all testimony to the actual events of those two critical days. The circumstances of Warren’s removal from command of the V Corps made it a challenge to exactly identify the specific charges against him. Four imputations finally emerged to justify his replacement, one (from U.S. Grant’s official report) concerning his handling of the March 31 fight, and three (noted in Sheridan’s) involving his performance just before and during the battle of Five Forks.

A total of 103 witnesses would be heard in 75 hearing sessions, 27 of the men spending more than one day answering questions from Warren’s counsel, Albert Stickney, or Sheridan’s legal representative, Maj. Asa Bird Gardiner. Warren-described in one press report as “following every word of the stenographer, and slowly and methodically tracing on the chart before him his movements during the days in question”-would be present for every day of testimony, while Sheridan remained only for the days he was examined.

The witness scheduling was necessarily opportunistic, so the men appeared in no particular order. Several were ex-Confederates whose participation was controversial. Some spoke to all four charges, others to just one or two. Most were officers, a couple came from the enlisted ranks, and one was the civilian engineer who drafted the maps that were habitually spread about the hearing room and along its walls when the court was in session. In such a piecemeal manner, points for and against the four charges were introduced to the official record of the proceedings.

The first imputation, and the only one concerning Warren’s actions on March 31, came from General Grant’s campaign summary, which stated that Warren had “reported favorably on getting possession of the White Oak Road, and was directed to do so.” However, in carrying out this assignment “he moved with one division instead of his whole corps, which was…driven back on the second division before it had time to form, and it in turn forced back upon the third division; when the enemy was checked.” At the hearing itself, Grant could not recall any of the “exact occurrences” that led him to the conclusions he drew in his report.

Warren’s defense produced communications showing that while Warren had wanted to deploy all his divisions in the effort, orders from Meade and Grant had limited him to the two he sent forward. Also put on the record was the fact of Warren’s eventually successful counterattack.

The second, third, and fourth charges were the crux of the matter, for they all represented Sheridan’s official reasons for relieving Warren. Number two, as stated in Sheridan’s campaign report, was “had General Warren moved according to the expectations of the Lieutenant-General [Grant], there would appear to have been but little chance for the escape of the enemy’s infantry in front of the Dinwiddie Court House.” Here Sheridan and his supporters pointed to a dispatch sent to him by Grant at 10:45 p.m. promising that all of Warren’s infantry “should reach you by 12 to-night.”

How Grant arrived at that time estimate was never made clear, especially as he testified that he had no recollection of making it. Still, his deadline was a matter of record so Sheridan argued that he was fully justified in setting expectations based on that standard. Meade’s 10:50 p.m. note to Warren advising him to “be very prompt in this movement” sealed the argument as far as Sheridan was concerned.

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