Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bruce Catton on General Warren

Generals need to avoid the appearance of evil (a concept that those steeped in the Bible would have been familiar with), and that was especially important on the battlefield. How did a general "appear" to his troops? How did he "appear" to his commander. The battlefield was never a court of law. It was all about appearance. When the battle is over some might ask about an underlying reality, but a more important question would be to ask how did the events "appear" to those who fought and those who made the decisions. There was never time during a battle for anything beyond "appearance." Warren, as Catton writes, appeared erratic and defective long before he went to work for Sheridan.

Here is Catton writing about Warren on page 51 of A Stillness at Appomattox: "To the V Corps, in place of the departed Sykes, came one of the most baffling figures in the army -- Major General Gouverneur Kembel Warren.

"Warren was thirty-four, with long jet-black hair and a mustache which he was fond of twirling; a slightly built man with sallow complexion, looking not unlike an Indian, well liked by the troops because he displayed bravery under fire. (No officer could be popular in this army unless he could show a spectacular contempt for danger.) He was a queer mixture of the good and the ineffective -- a fuss-budget with flashes of genius, a man engrossed in detail and given to blunting his cutting edge by worrying over trifles which a staff captain ought to have been handling. He had never heard of delegating authority, and he had a certain weakness for setting his own opinion above that of his superior officer's.

"He had had two great days. One was at Gettysburg, when as an engineer officer on the commanding general's staff he had stood on Little round Top, had seen the coming danger, and by a hair's thin margin had got Union troops there in time to save the day. The other was at Mine Run, in December, when half of the army had been given to him for a mighty assault that was to destroy the Rebel army and make General Warren a national hero.

". . . He had filled in for Hancock in charge of the II Corps . . . and now he had a corps of his own. It included many good fighters and contained some of the best of the troops from the departed I Corps, and what it might do would depend a good deal on General Warren.

Pages 169-170: "When Cutler's division was briefly taken out of the line on June 8 for a short stay in the rear, its commander noted that this was the first day in more than a month in which no man in the division had been reported killed or wounded. One of his colonels wrote that he had had neither an unbroken night's sleep nor a change of clothing since May 5, and another remarked that he was so groggy with fatigue that it was impossible for him to write an intelligent letter to his family: 'I can only tell my wife I am alive and well. I am too stupid for any use.'

"And General Warren, sensitive and high-strung, turned to another officer one day and burst out:

"'For thirty days it has been one funeral procession past me, and it is too much!'

"Warren was showing the strain, and both Grant and Meade were noticing it. He had been a good friend of Meade for a long time, and Grant had been favorably impressed by him. when the army crossed the Rapidan, Grant even made a mental note that if anything should happen to Meade, Warren would be a good man to put in command of the army. But somehow he was not bearing up well. Details engrossed him, and he seemed to have a stiff pride which made it hard for him to accept direction and counsel. worst of all, he was never quite able to get his corps moving promptly. It was felt that he was slow in bringing his men into action the first day at Spotsylvania, and when the attack was made at the Bloody Angle and Warren was supposed to hit the Confederate left there had been a three-hour delay -- a costly thing, which led Grant to tell Meade to relieve Warren of his command if he delayed any longer. Meade replied that he was about to do it without orders, but Warren finally got his corps in motion just in time to save his job."

Pages 210-211: ". . . As the army settled into its trenches after four days of battle at Petersburg -- four days which cost, roughly, as many killed and wounded as had been lost in all twelve days at Cold Harbor -- some of its professionals were giving cause for worry.

"Meade was on the verge of removing Warren, just when Grant was sending Smith into exile. warren was increasingly given to broad interpretation and spontaneous revision of orders, and Meade could hardly fail to note that the all-out attack which he had told Warren to make at dawn on the crucial eighteenth of June had not actually been delivered until 3:30 P.M. At one time Meade had definitely made up his mind to send Warren away, but the trouble was reconciled somehow and by July 1 Assistant Secretary War Dana wired Stanton that 'the difficulty between Meade and Warren has been settled without the extreme remedy which Meade proposed last week."

Sheridan might seem to be less long-suffering than Meade in regard to Warren, but there can be little doubt that he was apprised of Warren's background. He would have known what Meade and Grant thought of Warren, and as has been quoted, Grant urged (ordered?) Sheridan not to let himself be impeded by Warren. Thus, on the crucial day of Warren's firing, "the great fury of battle was on Sheridan. Warren's corps had been late in getting to Dinwiddie and it had been late getting into position at Five Forks, and when it attacked two thirds of it had gone astray and Warren had gone with it; Sheridan did not in the least care whether the reasons for all of this were good or bad, and he did not want to receive any more reports from General Warren."

Comment: If Warren had not performed poorly under Meade would Sheridan have fired him for poor performance at Five Forks? I suspect not. Sheridan was not quick to fire anyone. There had to be a history of failure, the "appearance of evil" on several occasions and that appearance already existed in Warren's case. Had Sheridan ignored Grant's warning and if Sheridan failed because of Warren, that would have reflected badly upon Sheridan, but the warning would have been enough. If Warren's Corps performed as it was ordered to then fine, but if it didn't Sheridan wasn't going to listen to the sorts of excuses Meade listened to -- there wasn't time.

The Battlefield isn't a court of law, and while I haven't read the records of Warren's Court of Inquiry I have an impression of how it must have gone. Warren would have described and documented all of the extenuating circumstances, the reasons why he couldn't comply with Sheridan's orders -- without reference to whether Sheridan could have known about those reasons. The Court of Inquiry would have sought something close to the truth and not mere "appearance." Thus, Warren (and Averell) satisfied their courts that there were legitimate reasons for not performing in accordance with Sheridan's orders.

Should Sheridan be condemned for not acting in accordance with those "reasons" during battles? No General can be held to that standard. Sheridan wouldn't have had the luxury or the time available to a Court if Inquiry. He needed to make snap decisions based upon "appearances." I don't know if Meade talked to Sheridan about Warren, but Grant did and he would have told him of Warren's behavior under Meade; so Sheridan would have been on the lookout for failures of that sort.

In response to the idea that Sheridan was wrong because the Court of Inquiry found that Warren did X, I would ask whether Sheridan knew that Warren did X -- or whether Sheridan believed that he had done Y as he had under Meade. Warren had a history of doing Y. Grant ordered Sheridan not to let Warren do Y; so when Warren gave the "appearance" of doing Y; Sheridan did his job and fired him.

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