“Happiness Is Not My Companion”: The Life of General G. K. Warren.

“Happiness Is Not My Companion”: The Life of General G. K. Warren. – book review

Gordon C. Rhea

By David M. Jordan. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 401. Cloth $35.00.)

David M. Jordan, whose biography of Winfield Scott Hancock stands as the best modern treatise on the commander of the Union Second Corps, has turned his considerable skills to another prominent figure from that army, Gouverneur K. Warren. Unquestionably brilliant, the talented topographical engineer reached the pinnacle of his military career at Gettysburg, where he grasped the importance of Little Round Top and rushed troops there in time to hold the critical high ground for the Federal army. The next spring, Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant marched into the Wilderness with Warren at the head of the Fifth Corps. So high was Warren’s reputation that Grant considered the New Yorker, his youngest corps commander, a likely replacement for George G. Meade, the army’s titular leader.

Three weeks of combat, however, disclosed serious flaws in the prickly Warren’s judgment. The gangly general could be unmerciful to subordinates, brazenly confrontational to superiors, and given to outbursts of temper so vituperative that they filled one spectator “with wonder at the ingenuity of invention and desperate blackguardism they displayed.” Meade complained that Warren could not “execute an order without modifying it,” and Grant pronounced the opinionated young general’s meddlesome streak “constitutional and beyond his control.” Moody and obstinate, Warren quarreled with Grant, Meade, and the cavalry commander Philip H. Sheridan throughout the remainder of the war, ultimately receiving his comeuppance when Sheridan unceremoniously–and unfairly–dismissed him from the field a few days before Lee’s surrender. He spent his remaining seventeen years waging a bitter campaign to redeem his reputation, receiving partial posthumous vindication in a favorable court of inquiry ruling.

Jordan’s study fills a void in Civil War literature. Until now, the only published biography of Warren was a laudatory and superficial piece written by Emerson Gifford Taylor, a writer engaged by Warren’s daughter, and entitled Gouverneur Kemble Warren: The Life and Letters of an American Soldier, 1830-1882. Unlike Taylor, Jordan undertakes a thoughtful examination of the enigmatic Warren and reports what he finds, warts and all. The result is a balanced account fully up to modern standards of scholarship. Jordan must also be commended for his thorough research. The Warren Papers at the New York State Library and Archives in Albany contain voluminous correspondence from and to Warren, his family members, and his acquaintances, as well as the general’s military papers. More Warren material appears in the papers of his chief aide and later brother-in-law Washington A. Roebling, and in Meade’s and Andrew Atkinson Humphreys’ papers in Philadelphia. Jordan has mined these and other treasure troves with care, bringing numerous gems to light.

Jordan’s coverage of Warren’s military career delves into the details of Warren’s battles and traces the general’s contentious relations with his superiors. The analysis is sharp and thoughtful. Warren’s personal life also receives welcome attention. The richness of Warren’s correspondence with his wife, Emily, to whom he confided his innermost thoughts, tell us much about the morose general, whose candid observations open a revealing window into the inner workings of the Potomac army. Jordan does an excellent job of examining Warren’s deteriorating relationship with Meade, whom he ultimately denounced as an “unjust and unfeeling man” who had “quick perceptions but does not know how to act with patience and judgment.” To my disappointment, Jordan makes light of a prewar relationship between his future wife, Emily, and A. P. Hill. There can be no doubt that the romance, real or rumored, preyed on Warren’s mind. “I have not only whipped you, but married your old sweetheart,” Warren wrote Hill after defeating the Confederate at Bristoe Station. And after repelling Hill’s attack at Jericho Mills, Warren wrote Emily: “It was your old Beau Hill (A.P.) that I fought with yesterday–same as it was at Bristoe. I think he must begin to feel unkindly toward me.” Were Warren’s references only a private jest between the general and his wife, or did they signify something deeper? Jordan does not tell us, and I do not fault him for the omission. If the answer could be found, his careful research would surely have uncovered it.

Several maps accompany the text and help illustrate the battle narrative. My only complaints are with the index, which could be fuller and more useful, and the print, which is a little too small and dim for my aging eyes. But these are minor nits in an otherwise excellent work. Jordan’s biography of General Warren has a permanent place on my bookshelf, and I recommend it highly.


Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina

COPYRIGHT 2003 Kent State University Press

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