Gouverneur Kemble Warren was born on 8 January 1830 in Cold Spring, New York. He entered the United States Military Academy at nearby West Point at the age of sixteen, graduated second in his class in 1850, and was assigned to the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.
From 1850 to 1853 Warren served on several important survey expeditions, including surveys of the lower Mississippi delta in 1850-1851 to explore means of flood prevention, and of the upper Mississippi rapids in 1853 to facilitate navigation of this vital trade route. From 1853 to 1855 he assisted in a government study to determine the best possible transcontinental railroad route, examining reports of all explorations west of the Mississippi back to Lewis and Clark. As part of this analysis, Warren began work on the first comprehensive map of the trans-Mississippi United States.
In 1855 Lt. Warren served as chief topographical officer in General William S. Harney's expedition against the Sioux in southern Nebraska Territory (in present-day Nebraska and South Dakota). His topographical report of the region won him much acclaim before Congress and led to greater responsibility in future explorations. In 1856 Warren commanded a successful survey mission in northern Nebraska Territory along the Missouri River and sixty miles up the Yellowstone (in present-day North Dakota and eastern Montana). This was followed in 1857 with a dangerous survey of the the Niobrara River and the Sioux-occupied Black Hills. These three expeditions were integral both to the Pacific Railroad report and to the building of military roads into the Nebraska Territory.
Warren spent the following year in Washington compiling his findings into official reports and completing his Map of the United States from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, which accompanied Secretary of War Jefferson Davis' final report to Congress on the results of the transcontinental railroad route investigation. From 1859 to 1861 he served as an assistant mathematics professor at West Point.
In May 1861 Warren was given a leave of absence from the Academy to accept the offer of a lieutenant-colonelcy in the 5th New York Volunteer Regiment. By the end of the month Warren and his regiment were stationed outside Fortress Monroe, Virginia, seeing their first action at Big Bethel Church on 9 June. Warren spent the remainder of the year drilling his regiment and utilizing his engineering skills in the construction of the Baltimore and Washington defenses. In October he was promoted colonel of volunteers and given full command of his regiment.
In General McClellan's 1862 Peninsula campaign Warren led his regiment at the siege of Yorktown before being given command of a brigade. He was slightly wounded at Gaine's Mill on 27 June. At Malvern Hill on 29 June his command repulsed a Confederate division, and was engaged the next day at Harrison's Landing. On 30 August Warren fought at the second battle of Bull Run, earning praise for a strategic holding maneuver in which he lost over fifty percent of his command. Understrength, his brigade was held in reserve at Antietam in September and Fredericksburg in December. On 26 September Warren was promoted brigadier-general of volunteers.
General Warren was appointed Chief Topographical Engineer, Army of the Potomac, on 3 February 1863, and served mainly as an advisor to General Hooker at Chancellorsville in early May. On 12 May he was named Chief Engineer.
In the midst of a Confederate attack on the Union left at Gettysburg on 2 July 1863, Warren realized that Little Round Top, a low mountain which commanded the entire Union left flank, was left unoccupied. Acting quickly, he virtually commandeered a regiment of troops from Syke's corps and rushed them to the top just in time to repulse a Confederate charge, thus saving the Union flank and most likely the battle. Warren was wounded again in the subsequent defense of Little Round Top. In August he was promoted major-general of volunteers and given temporary command of the wounded General W.S. Hancock's II Corps.
Warren repulsed a heavy Confederate attack at Bristoe Station in mid-October. However, his last-minute cancellation of an assault at Mine Run on 30 November began to raise doubts about his willingness to act offensively, doubts which would linger, and eventually resulted in his removal from command.
Warren was given permanent command of V Corps on 23 March 1864, in time for General Grant's long Wilderness Campaign. Warren and his new corps were engaged at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor in May and June, losing over 12,000 of the 28,000 troops in the command within a forty-three day period. On 18 June they were involved in the unsuccessful initial assaults on Petersburg, then took part in the long siege which followed. On 30 July Warren's corps was one of those scheduled to participate in the assault which was to follow the explosion of a huge mine placed in a seventy-five foot tunnel under the Petersburg defenders. Although personal enemies tried to implicate him in the failure of this plan, Warren showed conclusively that he could not make his assault because IX Corps remained between his corps and the breach until after the Confederates had recovered from the explosion. In August and December, Warren earned distinction with his independent commands against the Weldon Railroad, a vital supply line to Petersburg.
The February 1865 engagement at Dabney's Mill served as prelude to the controversial battle at Five Forks from 29 March to 1 April, in which General Sheridan, under Grant's authority, removed Warren from command of V Corps. Grant and Sheridan both felt that Warren was overcautious in committing his troops offensively, and when Warren was delayed by conflicting orders in reinforcing Sheridan at Five Forks, Sheridan took the opportunity to remove him.
The friction between Grant and Warren lay in their conflicting ideas on the handling of troops. Grant, aware of his great numerical superiority over the Confederate army, constantly took the offensive without regard for casualties because he knew that he could afford to take losses much more easily than the Confederates could. Warren, on the other hand, was unwilling to attack unless he could be reasonably sure of victory without the loss of a large number of his men.
After his removal from command, General Warren was given command first of Petersburg and the Southside Railroad, and then of the Department of Mississippi, before resigning his volunteer commission on 19 May 1865. He remained in the regular army, however, now as major.
In addition to preparing official maps and reports of his Civil War campaigns, Major Warren spent 1866-1867 conducting surveys of the Mississippi River system. In 1869 he planned and built the Rock Island Bridge over the Mississippi. Throughout the 1870's he engaged in extensive bridge-building and harbor-improvement projects on the Mississippi, along the Atlantic Coast, and in the Great Lakes. On 4 March 1879 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel of engineers.
Throughout the post-war period, Warren had never ceased in his efforts to obtain an investigation into his removal from command at Five Forks. Finally, in December 1879, President Hayes ordered a Court of Inquiry. The Court convened in January 1880 and closed in July 1881 to consider a verdict. The verdict came in November 1882, exonerating Warren of all major accusations related to the Five Forks affair. However, Warren would never know his name had finally been cleared: he died on 8 August 1882 of "acute liver failure" related to diabetes.
Warren left his wife, Emily Chase Warren, whom he had married on 17 June 1863, a son, Sydney, and a daughter, Emily.
Biographical notes by New York State Library
see also, Gouverneur Kemble Warren Papers, 1848 - 1882; New York State Library, URL 6/07, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/sc10668.htm