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Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • MHQ

Final testimony was taken on November 22, 1880. Months passed, then a year, with no word on the results. In May 1882, Warren considered personally appealing to the commanding general of the United States Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, to have the findings released, but decided not to. Sheridan remained incensed over having to explain his Five Forks decisions 15 years after making them. It was, he said, “the most painful thing I ever had [to do] in my life.” Like his friends Grant and Sherman, Sheridan never looked back. (Ignoring the great national issues left unresolved when the fighting ended in 1865, Sheridan declared: “It is all over. The problem is worked out.”)

In the summer of 1882 the court’s still unreleased findings were reviewed by the army’s judge advocate general, who questioned some of the procedural methods used during the hearings but did not invalidate its conclusions. The judge advocate general did observe that a great deal of what took place in the hearing room was very much “in the nature of a contest between General Warren as plaintiff, and Generals Grant and Sheridan as defendants.” Indeed, matters did get personal; at one point during the testimony Warren believed that his courage had been questioned by Sheridan’s counsel. “It is the unpardonable offense, and it is base to even insinuate a charge of it, without sufficient cause,” he complained to his lawyer.

Issues around publishing the court’s findings were still churning within the War Department when Warren fell ill. An examination revealed acute liver failure made even worse by an existing diabetic condition. His health continued to deteriorate and Gouverneur K. Warren died on August 8, 1882. Shortly before the end, he told his wife: “When I am dead, see that I am not buried in uniform; have no military emblems or trappings near me. Allow no military escort. Convey me quietly to my grave without pageant or show, I die a disgraced soldier.” Three months after his passing, the court of inquiry’s findings were made public.

On the first charge, the court agreed that Warren was following orders in setting up his March 31 advance, so the fault was not his. However, he was chided for not being with his leading elements where trouble was expected. The court diplomatically refrained from noting that much of Grant’s opinion, as expressed in his report, was based on inaccurate hearsay.

The court also split hairs when it considered Warren’s march to Sheridan. It was “not practicable for the V Corps to have reached General Sheridan at 12 o’clock on the night of March 31,” the presiding officers concluded, adding that nevertheless, Warren should have made a greater effort to comply with Meade’s 10:50 p.m. directive.

When it came to consider Warren’s preparations for the April 1 assault, the court sided wholeheartedly with him, finding that “there was no unnecessary delay in this march of the V Corps, and that General Warren took the usual methods of a corps commander to prevent delay.” About his state of mind, the court said that the testimony “appears to be too intangible and the evidence on it too contradictory” for a judgment to be rendered.

In its consideration of the fourth charge, the court also sided with Warren, concluding that the “continuous exertions of himself and staff substantially remedied matters” during the actual April 1 attack. So, in sum, the court of inquiry vindicated Warren on the most important points of the first two imputations and fully exonerated him on the last two.

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