Confederate Waterloo:  The Battle of Five Forks, April1, 1865, and the Controversy that Brought Down a General, by Michael J. McCarthy

Reviewed by Ed Kennedy, Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Having spent a career in the Army, I know the Army is not “fair”.  The Army is not “made up of people” as a former Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams (1914-1974) was fond of saying.  He instead said that “It is people!”  Because it is people, it is made up of imperfect beings.  In this regard, leaders are much the same over history.  They have emotions, suffer from the same biases and prejudices as others do, and, in general, are fallible.  For this reason, “Confederate Waterloo” is an excellent study of human dynamics and leadership.  It is a well-researched work that is logically and fairly presented using the best aspects of critical thinking.  It shows that the Army is not “fair”.

Dr. Michael McCarthy has done an outstanding job of relating the sad affair regarding the relief in combat of MajGen Gouverneur K. Warren, a Union Army corps commander with a previously excellent reputation.  Reliefs of command in any circumstance are bad.  In combat, they are worse as it affects the subordinate units and the command climate.  Reliefs of bad commanders are to be celebrated.  For good commanders, reliefs are not good.  Because Warren’s relief was so controversial, it affected the U.S. Army for years after the war.  The War Between the States was close to being over so the effects were not as immediate to the Union Army but it tainted the command climate.

McCarthy does a detailed account of the Battle of Five Forks and the events leading to the demise of Warren as V Corps Commander under MG Meade.  A convoluted command system in which units were detached and attached at-will, a highly confused operational understanding by commanders attempting to use new technology to ‘command and control’ (the telegraph), and what Clausewitz calls “fog” and “friction” are proximate causes of Warren’s relief.

Warren’s performance under Army of the Potomac Commander, MajGen Meade, had been relatively good during the previous year of command.  Meade seemed pleased with V Corps’ performance.  Things took a drastic turn at Five Forks when Grant moved Warren’s V Corps and attached it to Sheridan’s command.  Sheridan was no fan of Warren.  Grant was no fan of Warren’s.  Until 1 April 1865, Meade had served as a buffer between Grant and Warren but with V Corps’ attachment to Sheridan’s command, the leadership dynamics took a radical turn for the worse.

From McCarthy’s account, it is obvious that politics and personalities played strongly into the relationships between commanders —- as is to be expected in real life.  Leadership is a human endeavor and personalities and people are the “human dimension” that defy battlefield calculus.  LtGen Grant, the overall commander on 1 April 1865, was miles from the action at Five Forks.  He was using the telegraph and developed a very imperfect understanding of the situation to try and synchronize operations.  Reflecting a situation that very much relates to current Army doctrine, a situation on the ground is best understood by the local commanders involved.  Grant failed to exercise exactly the understanding that had developed him into a higher-level commander and was “micromanaging” units without the situational understanding required.  Time-distance factors, bad weather, darkness, tired leaders, and a lack of a common situational understanding may have all contributed to the operations that evolved.  Although the Battle of Five Forks was ultimately a Union triumph, Warren was relieved by Sheridan in a preemptory and embarrassing fashion.

For years Warren attempted to seek vindication.  Those who have served in the Army know full-well that regulations and processes can be used as a weapon of retribution, or as a means to suppress anything that is disagreeable to those whose reputations are at stake.  For Grant and his protégé, Sheridan, Warren’s request for redress was successfully suppressed almost 15 years.  Finally, Warren was able to get “his day in court”.  A “Court of Inquiry” was finally convened and in proceedings similar to a modern-day courts martial, lawyers for both sides battled in a very public fray for more than a year.  Warren, who had left the service disgraced, was pitted against two of the most powerful post-war Army officers —- Grant and Sheridan.  The Army, in another attempt to suppress the less than complimentary findings of Sheridan and Grant, again “slow rolled” the results.  However, by the time the findings were made public, Warren had died, his reputation and honor still stained by his relief.

McCarthy does a great service by setting the records straight regarding General Warren.  His research is outstanding but his critical thinking is superlative.  McCarthy delves into the root causes of the issues involving personalities and provides an honest appraisal based on extensive records study and a knowledge of human nature.  This book adds much to the understanding of how leaders were motivated and acted under circumstances of stress, effects of ego, and a desire to be remembered for doing what they thought should be the historical record.