The headstrong Gen. Philip Sheridan (left) had little patience for the careful battle tactics of Gen. Gouverneur Warren (right) and replaced him at Five Forks. But in 1880 Sheridan would be forced to justify his actions before a court of inquiry in New York.  Photograph: Library of Congress
The headstrong Gen. Philip Sheridan (left) had little patience for the careful battle tactics of Gen. Gouverneur Warren (right) and replaced him at Five Forks. But in 1880 Sheridan would be forced to justify his actions before a court of inquiry in New York. Photograph: Library of Congress

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 George Washington superseded Gen.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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The first two of Warren’s divisions to advance-led by Brevet Maj. Gen. Romeyn B. Ayres, who was closely supported by Brevet Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Crawford-were struck by four Confederate brigades that sent them reeling back to the Boydton Plank Road. Warren’s reserve (Brevet Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin’s division), backed by artillery and bolstered on its right by some of the II Corps, managed to hold the plank road line. Matters ground to an uneasy pause by midday with the Confederates lacking the manpower to overwhelm Warren’s last line, and the V Corps commander methodically reorganizing for a counterattack.

The riposte got underway at two thirty that afternoon, led by Griffin’s men. The attackers found the Confederates unable to hold their morning gains. Not only were they driven back into their White Oak Road entrenchments but also two of Griffin’s brigades crossed over the road itself just a short distance west of the works. At 3:40 p.m. a jubilant Warren informed army headquarters of his success. The reply he received at five o’clock was not what he expected. He was told to secure his position, to keep an especial watch over his left flank, and to try to establish contact with Sheridan’s troopers near Dinwiddie Court House. Instead of being allowed to rest on their laurels, it looked as if Warren’s infantrymen were being given another assignment.

Warren dutifully dispatched one brigade of Griffin’s division to feel down toward the courthouse. Other plans involving Warren’s men were rapidly evolving at army headquarters as the overall picture cleared. Sheridan needed help near Dinwiddie Court House to dispose of the enemy’s reaction force and Warren was to provide it. His efforts to comply were not helped by the imperfect knowledge at Meade’s headquarters of the locations and conditions of the V Corps divisions. Adding to the mix, the Boydton Plank Road was then blocked at its crossing of Gravelly Run by a destroyed bridge, made worse by high water from the recent storms. Even as engineers worked to restore the crossing, Warren was engaged in a frustrating exchange of messages with Meade trying to establish a common understanding of conditions.

What would afterwards be seen as a key message sent by Meade was received by Warren at 10:50 p.m. The entire V Corps was to disengage and march to assist Sheridan. “You must be very prompt in this movement,” Meade advised. (Not until an hour later did army headquarters become aware of the stoppage at Gravelly Run. Another exchange of notes explored various alternate routes, but Warren believed that it would be quicker just to wait for the Gravelly Run bridge to be fixed.) At 2:05 a.m., April 1, Warren received word that the way was clear. The V Corps began to march-Ayres in the lead, followed by Griffin and Crawford.

All this activity had not gone unnoticed by the Confederates, who had given Sheridan such a hard time. Just before 10 o’clock on the night of March 31, General Pickett learned of the probe by the Yankee brigade from Griffin’s division and realized that the enemy was threatening his left rear. He promptly ordered his mixed infantry-cavalry command to pull back. With delays because of darkness and the inevitable confusion following a large-scale action, it wasn’t until five o’clock in the morning on April 1 that the Confederates had cleared Sheridan’s front. Although the Yankee scouts kept close tabs on the retrograde movement, the cavalryman let them depart without any serious challenge.

Pickett had signaled to Lee his intention to fall back north as far as Hatcher’s Run, a strong natural defensive position. This Lee could not allow, since such a move would uncover the important road junction known as Five Forks, which was bisected by the White Oak Road. Allowing the enemy unfettered access to Five Forks would seriously undermine the extreme western flank of Petersburg’s contiguous defensive network. “Hold Five Forks at all hazards,” Lee commanded. Accordingly, Pickett took up a defensive position centered on the junction and facing south.

The first division of Warren’s arriving corps reached Sheridan’s outposts at sunrise, followed in the next couple of hours by the remaining pair. Sheridan had them mass around the John Boisseau farm, about two miles north of Dinwiddie. In the meantime he had his troopers aggressively exploring the enemy’s Five Forks position. The picture that their reports gave Sheridan was accurate save for one critical piece. Mistaking a strong cavalry outpost for part of the entrenched position, the Federal scouts placed the enemy’s eastern flank near the intersection of the White Oak and Gravelly Run roads. It was actually more than 4,000 feet farther west.

Sheridan and Warren first met at around 11 in the morning. By then Warren had been informed by Meade that he would be subordinated to Sheridan during their joint operation. The two were polar opposites. Sheridan was all hurry-up, an officer who led from the front and who judged his peers by their visibility along the firing line. Warren was careful, even cautious, a manager of military assets who preferred a central position in battle from which he could direct the deployment of his men. It was the first time the two had worked together.

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Sheridan had no definite plan to discuss at their initial meeting, but when they met again after one o’clock that afternoon, he had fully sketched out the attack he intended to deliver. Also by one o’clock, the cavalryman was in receipt of a remarkable order personally conveyed to him by one of U.S. Grant’s aides. As Sheridan later recalled it, he was duly authorized “to relieve General Warren, if, in my judgment, the public service would be benefitted by doing so.”

Sheridan made no mention of this as he briefed Warren. His plan called for a cavalry feint against the enemy’s western flank, followed almost at once by a massive infantry blow (the entire V Corps) against the eastern side. Once the Confederate position began to crumble, the remaining cavalry would press ahead all along the front. Warren immediately began the process of moving his troops to their jump-off position, just south of Gravelly Run Church. His corps would advance as a whole with Ayres on the left, Crawford on the right, and Griffin in reserve. It was expected that Crawford would strike the bend, or return, in the enemy’s works. Ayres would be attacking the east-west line head-on, while Griffin would be ready to assist or turn the flank.

It took several hours for Warren to brief his subordinates and position his corps. Nothing moved fast enough to suit Sheridan, while Warren was concerned that his troops be properly placed and prepared. “I know nothing that I could have done to hasten the formation,” he said afterward. At last, at about 4:15 p.m., with everything set, the order to attack was given. The 12,000 Federal infantry began advancing and quickly covered the 1,500 feet between the starting line and the White Oak Road. Much to the amazement of the infantry officers, the leading files crossed the road virtually unopposed.

A burst of musketry off the left flank of Ayres’s division was the first indication that the enemy’s entrenched position was not where it was supposed to be. In an instant an entirely new plan of attack had to be improvised under fire. The complex actions that followed reflected the confusion of the immediate decision-makers-division and even brigade commanders reacting to imminent or perceived threats-and Warren trying to corral his units back into something approximating the original scheme.

What unfolded was this: Stung by the fire against his left flank, General Ayres pivoted his division to advance westward, perpendicular to the White Oak Road. While this brought him directly against the enemy’s refused flank, it also broke his connection with Crawford’s division on his right. General Crawford, instead of maintaining station off Ayres’s right flank, stuck to his original orders by continuing to tramp in a northerly direction, each minute increasing the gap between the two. When General Griffin finally realized what was happening, he swung his division around to face toward the west and came in alongside Ayres, where Crawford was supposed to be. A few brigades got even more jumbled in these movements.

Both Sheridan and Warren reacted to the sudden breakdown of the plan. Sheridan rode among Ayres’s men, personally rallied a portion that was wavering, and led the assault against the enemy’s eastern flank. Warren went after Crawford. Unknown to both, the Confederates had materially assisted them by poor judgments and even worse management. Convinced that the Federals would not bother him this day, Pickett and his second-in-command enjoyed a late but leisurely shad bake along Hatcher’s Run, nearly a mile and a half behind the Five Forks line. Then a rare phenomenon known as an acoustic shadow so muffled the sounds of combat that no one in Pickett’s party was aware that a major battle was raging nearby. Pickett’s infantry and cavalry subcommanders reacted as best they could to the sudden onslaught, but without a chain of command in place, their actions were fatally disjointed.

Under Sheridan’s personal leadership, Ayres’s infantry (with much help from Griffin) caved in the eastern flank of the Confederate position and began rolling up the line toward the five-way junction. Warren, at last getting control of Crawford’s wayward division, brought it down against the intersection from the north. Some 2,400 Confederates were captured and perhaps 545 killed or wounded. The rest of Pickett’s force fell back to the west, badly mauled and now completely out of contact with Lee’s main force at Petersburg.

At about seven o’clock, even as he was regrouping his command near Five Forks, General Warren was handed an order from Sheridan relieving him of duty. When he confronted the cavalryman to ask that the decision be reconsidered, Sheridan snapped: “Reconsider? Hell! I don’t reconsider my determination.” Following Sheridan’s instructions, Warren reported to U.S. Grant at about 11 o’clock that night.

As Grant later recalled their meeting: “[I told him] that I was not surprised, and I informed him that I had given the authority for his removal, and I also stated to General Warren that while I had a very great regard for his capacity and personal courage, yet he had certain defects which I then told him of as a subordinate commander.” Unhappy with Grant’s refusal to reverse Sheridan’s decision, Warren sought out his immediate superior, General Meade. Warren’s meeting with Meade was equally unsatisfactory. As the disconsolate Warren left Meade’s tent, an aide reflected, “I am sorry, for I like Warren.”

Following Five Forks, Warren was given administrative command of the Petersburg region and was at this post when history-making events unfolded at Appomattox Court House on April 9. On the day that Lee surrendered his army, Warren vowed to his wife, “I will have justice done me yet.” That same mail carried his letter to Grant’s chief of staff seeking “a full investigation” into the circumstances at Five Forks. To this first request there was no reply. Later that month, a sympathetic New York senator pressed Grant on Warren’s behalf. Grant’s answer, which Warren would hear repeated endlessly in the years ahead, was that an inquiry would be too expensive and that it was impossible to gather all the necessary witnesses. By May 1, Warren’s wife was telling her father that he was “almost crazy sometimes over this affair of his.”

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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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In a written statement submitted to the court, Sheridan said that the “order to Warren to move and the exigencies which General Grant and Meade considered that the situation demanded, were of such a nature that they did not admit of anything but prompt and resolute compliance; and I felt that there were no circumstances in existence during the night which should have prevented the movement.”

Even after admitting under direct questioning that he had no firsthand knowledge of the conditions confronting Warren’s men, Sheridan was adamant that whatever they were, they were of no consequence. Meade’s 10:50 p.m. message was, said Sheridan, “one that required prompt obedience.” Regarding how long the march should have taken, Sheridan opined that two hours would have been about right. His irritation at being grilled on this estimate by Warren’s counsel showed when he testified that before the war he had marched infantry at a rate of five miles an hour. Pressed further by Mr. Stickney, a thoroughly riled Sheridan insisted that he had maintained this pace for 12 continuous hours. (Upon reading this statement in a preliminary transcript, Sheridan sought to change it, but Stickney insisted that it be left as he stated it, and it was.) Sheridan never wavered in his conviction that had Warren fully exerted himself the “thing might be done in an emergency, but it would be very difficult.”

Warren’s witnesses included the engineer (from Meade’s staff) who rebuilt the Gravelly Run bridge. He declared that the stream at that point was not fordable by infantry. What also emerged was the near total dysfunction of the communication chains. Warren reported to Meade, who then briefed Grant. Sheridan reported to Grant and got his orders from him. Meade seems not to have acted with the degree of urgency that Grant felt, so when it became clear at his headquarters that Warren’s men were to be unavoidably delayed getting over Gravelly Run, word did not get back to Grant.

The third charge levied against Warren was that once he knew Sheridan’s plan on April 1 he did not “exert himself to get up his corps as rapidly as he might have done, and his manner gave me [Sheridan] the impression that he wished the sun to go down before dispositions for the attack could be completed.” Here the testimony broke along party lines. Wesley Merritt, a brigadier general in 1865 commanding the Union cavalry at Five Forks, having met Warren before the attack, recalled him as “reluctant, quiet, and uninterested…with what might possibly be the results of the day.” A Sheridan staff officer, Francis T. Sherman, had the court spectators smiling as he struggled to explain his depiction of the V Corps commander as “earnestly impassive.”

Warren’s side was eloquently stated by another Civil War hero, Joshua L. Chamberlain, in 1865 a brigadier general in the V Corps: “I should say that those who do not know General Warren’s temperament might think him to be negative when he was deeply intent. General Warren’s temperament is such that he, instead of showing excitement, generally shows an intense concentration in what I call important movements, and those who do not know him might take it to be apathy when it is deep, concentrated thought and purpose.”

Charge four was that during the actual battle of Five Forks, Warren failed to be where he was most needed (with Ayres’s men) and that his lack of confidence in the enterprise spread to the troops “which General Warren did not exert himself to inspire.” It was here that Sheridan felt most aggrieved at Warren’s behavior. In his way of thinking, the capture of the enemy’s eastern flank was the key to victory. “The battle was over, I considered, as soon as we had captured that angle,” he declared. Warren’s inability to keep his initial formation intact “destroyed the tactics that I intended to make in the battle,” Sheridan said. The cavalryman admitted knowing nothing of what Warren actually did and cared even less to explore it 15 years later. As far as he was concerned, in 1865 and 1880, “Ayres’s division…and the cavalry, I think, won the battle; the others didn’t get in in time.”

Much testimony was introduced by and for Warren addressing the conditions on the field that day and the steps he took to rectify matters once the plan went awry. (The mislocation of the enemy’s flank was mentioned, but not wanting to attack Sheridan’s war record, Warren’s counsel did not press the matter.) From where he had been, Warren was certain that Crawford’s advance against the intersection from the north “was the cause of the final break that occurred in the enemy’s lines; it was the attack General Crawford made south on that road.”

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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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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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