“Happiness Is Not My Companion”: The Life of General G. K. Warren. David M. Jordan. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001. 402 pp. 11 maps.
Before I review this one, let me admit that I’ve never been into book length biographies, even when they concern Civil War era figures, so this is a bit of a new experience. Keep this is mind when reading these early attempts at reviewing biographies. I picked up this bio of Gouverneur Kemble Warren for two reasons. First, Indiana University Press was having an unbelievable sale, and I managed to find this one as a brand new hardback for only $6. Second, I’d been looking to get into the biography arena by looking at men who commanded at division level or higher during the siege of Petersburg.
“Happiness Is Not My Companion” takes a look at the checkered career of Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a man who was stripped of his command at the moment of his greatest triumph at Five Forks. Author David Jordan covers Warren’s life in some detail, though I thought that a closer and more definitive work can probably be penned at some point in the future. With that said, I enjoyed this biography, especially the section dealing with the Petersburg Campaign. Jordan keeps the reader interested while moving the story along. The author argues that Warren was wronged by Sheridan at Five Forks, but he does candidly admit many of Warren’s flaws, though I suspect he may not have gone far enough in revealing these.
Gouverneur Warren was an extremely intelligent man, but his main faults, according to author David Jordan, were his difficulty in following orders given to him while at the same time giving frequent unwanted “suggestions” to his superior officers. Jordan downplays somewhat Warren’s nature to frequently act with great condescension, which is to me his greatest flaw. Warren was born on January 8, 1830 in upstate New York in the little town of Cold Spring, just a short distance from West Point. That Warren ended up at the Military Academy is hardly surprising given his birthplace and his prominent family. He graduated second in his class, and was awarded a spot in the coveted Corps of Engineers. In this role, Warren spent the better part of the 1850’s on expeditions to the west, where he encountered friendly and hostile Native Americans, including the Sioux, and participated in his first military actions. Warren had accepted a position to teach mathematics at West Point by the time war broke out, but he soon became Lt. Colonel and then Colonel of the famous 5th New York, Duryea’s Zouaves. He led the men of this regiment as a brigade commander in the Seven Days and at Second Bull Run, and was afterward promoted to Chief Topographical Engineer and then Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac. It was in this position at Gettysburg that Warren perhaps gave his greatest contribution to his country. Warren, while out scouting on the Union far left, noticed the importance of the Round Tops and the fact that Confederate infantry were approaching. He immediately found the nearest Union troops, the brigade of Colonel Strong Vincent, and sent them scurrying for the crest of Little Round Top. They barely beat the Confederates to the crest and managed to secure this vital area for the Union. Warren was promoted to Major General after the battle, and he was temporarily placed in command of the II Corps while Winfield Hancock recovered from his severe Gettysburg wound. In the Mine Run Campaign of November 1863, Warren called off an attack that he deemed suicidal on his own responsibility. Meade was at first furious that Warren had disobeyed, but he agreed with Warren’s decision after taking a look at the Confederate entrenchments. This first instance of Warren questioning his orders as a corps commander was only the beginning. Meade and Grant would grow exasperated with Warren on more than one occasion during the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns. It was during this time frame, while commander of the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, that Warren had his greatest problems as a commander. Meade and Grant were on the verge of relieving him several times for his continued questioning of orders, or in some cases, his outright disobedience of these orders. Jordan quotes the diary of Charles Wainwright, the V Corps Artillery Chief, quite often during this time period. Apparently Wainwright did not much like Warren and was constantly critical of his commander. All of this was leading up to Warren’s greatest triumph…and his greatest disappointment. Warren was placed under Phil Sheridan during the attack on Five Forks. Grant, apparently having grown tired of Warren’s tendency to question his orders, gave Sheridan the right to sack the v Corps commander at any point and replace him with any of the V Corps division commanders. Although Warren moved his men up in a satisfactory manner, and although the V Corps was able to flank and drive off the Confederates guarding Five Forks, Sheridan relieved Warren and sent him back to Grant. Jordan discusses Warren’s unceasing efforts after the war in his quest to see a court of inquiry convened. It wasn’t until the early 1880’s that Warren was able to make this possible. He had known that while Grant or member of his circle were in power that his request would never be granted, so he had waited until Rutherford B. Hayes was President to press home his request. In my mind, Jordan demonstrates pretty conclusively that Warren was not at fault in any way at Five Forks, though Warren’s peers who oversaw the court were rather ambivalent in their findings, perhaps to appease Sheridan, who now commanded the entire United States Army. Warren died before the findings of the court were made public. He deserved better, from Sheridan on April 1, 1865, to Grant in the intervening years concerning the granting of a court of inquiry, to the men who finally made judgments on his behavior.
As I stated in the introduction, this is a good but not great book. Jordan goes into considerable detail, but I couldn’t help feeling that even more could have been done. He also seems to go a little easy on Warren in some cases, especially when it concerns Warren’s difficulty in dealing with subordinates and superiors who he felt were not as intelligent as he was. One trait I dislike more than most in my fellow human beings is condescension. Warren was filled to overflowing with condescension for quite a few people, and I would have liked to see the author get into this in more detail. Other than that, I thought he tried to be impartial, as a good biographer always should. The maps that accompanied the text were solid, and really a bit of an unexpected bonus as far as a biography goes. Anyone interested in biographies of Civil War generals will not be disappointed in this one. Those interested in G. K. Warren or in the later campaigns of the Army of the Potomac will also want to give this one a look.
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