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Decision at The Battle of Five Forks – 1865

By Noah Andre Trudeau
1/20/2009 • MHQ

There was a larger issue at stake in these proceedings that was not addressed in the court’s judgments. U.S. Grant’s decision to provide Sheridan advance authorization to relieve Warren, in the absence of any actions that might have justified such a severe judgment, raised serious questions. How much latitude an army leader had to ignore military protocols and normal standards of justice at a time of great urgency was at the heart of what happened to Gouverneur Warren on April 1, 1865.

“One of the most anxious periods of my experience during the rebellion was the last few weeks before Petersburg,” Grant wrote in his memoirs. His great fear was that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would manage to slip away from his embrace “and the war might be prolonged another year.” The cost to the country in terms of blood and treasure if this were allowed to happen was too awful to contemplate. At such a momentous period, Grant believed that he had the full authority to put into place people who could accomplish the task of swiftly ending the war.

Grant’s point of view found a ready ally in the postwar army’s top commander, William T. Sherman. In his opinion of the court’s findings, Sherman argued that a democracy must allow its military leaders wide latitude at critical times. A commander in combat “is responsible for results,” declared Sherman, “and holds the lives and reputations of every officer and soldier under his orders as subordinate to the great end-victory.” Bold, decisive leaders like Sheridan “must be fully and entirely sustained if the United States expects great victories by her armies in the future.”

Warren felt otherwise, believing that such a course of action ran against the grain of the American military tradition. In a letter written in 1868 but never sent to the U.S. army adjutant general, Warren wrote: “There will be no power to prevent some commander in chief in a future day overthrowing the government whom it allows…
subordinate officers to be disposed on the caprice of the superior.”

Ulysses S. Grant believed that General Warren was not the right officer demanded by circumstances. Twice before-at Spotsylvania and at the start of the Petersburg siege-he had come within a hairsbreadth of removing Warren for finding reasons not to carry out his part of a plan. The prospect of having the querulous Warren in a key position when the nation’s future was in the balance was something Grant could not accept, so he took the extraordinary step of giving Sheridan unsought authority to relieve Warren in a manner that had every appearance of a peremptory order. Sheridan admitted as much when he stated that without Grant’s prior approval he would not have even considered removing Warren. “I would have had no right to do it,” he said. “It required authority.”

Grant never wavered from his belief that he had made the right decision at that time and place. He said as much in testimony that was not allowed into the official transcript of the hearings, but which was dutifully set down by some of the newspaper reporters present:

“It had been determined to strike a blow, and I meant that it should be a final blow to the Confederate army. I thought of the consequences if the movement should fail, and I intended to give Sheridan to understand that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of success, so that if necessary, he should not hesitate to remove any officer….What I want is men who will obey orders promptly, not men who will stop to think for themselves before obeying. I once removed an officer [here the newspaper record indicates that Grant nodded in the direction of Warren] for just that thing, and I presume I should remove another under like circumstances.”


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