At the Center of Nothing, Meade’s Greatest Moment

Warren's Position-smIf all had gone according to plan, the men of the Federal II Corps would have marched across this field on the morning of November 30, 1863. They would have advanced from the far treeline toward the spot where the camera now stands, sweeping past it toward the Confederate line behind it.

The night before, though, Confederates had strengthened their previously weak position. Federals faced not the thinnest part of the Confederate line along Mine Run but—suddenly, unexpectedly—the most heavily fortified. “A damn sight worse than Fredericksburg,” one Federal infantryman complained, “and we can’t get more than two-thirds of the way up the hill.” Some soldiers, convinced of the hopelessness of their planned assault, pinned bits of paper with their names on them to their uniforms.

Just before the scheduled 8 a.m. launch time, II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren examined the newly constructed Rebel fortifications in front of his men. “The works cannot be taken,” he decreed. “I would sooner sacrifice my commission . . . [than] my men.”

Warren quickly sent word to the army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. One of Meade’s staffers, Col. Theodore Lyman, recalled Warren’s message, “saying the enemy had arrived in great force, during the night, had thrown up more rifle pits, and that, on reexamination of the ground he considered an attack there as hopeless.”

The announcement, said a V Corps soldier, “was like a death-knell to General Meade.” Inspecting the position himself, he concurred with Warren and, despite enormous political pressure to bring on a major battle, he called off the attack.

“Wherever the fault lies,” Lyman wrote,

I shall always be astonished at the extraordinary moral courage of General Meade, which enabled him to order retreat when his knowledge as an engineer and a soldier showed that an attack would be a blunder. The men and guns stood ready; he had only to snap his fingers, and that night would probably have seen ten thousand wretched, mangled creatures lying on those long slopes, exposed to the bitter cold and out of reach of all help.

Standing at the site today, there’s no indication of what nearly took place there 152 years ago—no wayside signs or historical markers. The unpaved road that runs between the positions of the two armies cuts a diagonal across what would have been the attack field. Those long slopes Lyman wrote of are readily apparent on both sides.

I set my camera for “panorama” and take a slow, sweeping picture from the Federal position to the Confederate. The road runs straight up the middle of the distorted landscape, which collapses the distance between the two armies. Instead of being between the opposing positions I now stand removed from the field.

Warren Attack Plain Panorama-sm

Perhaps this is how Meade felt, going from the eye of the storm to some horrific new warped reality, his great plan thrown akimbo by the shifting scene on the ground. Tens of thousands of men could have been strewn across this landscape, but instead there was no one.

And now there is nothing.

This empty battlefield that saw no battle is the greatest proof of Meade’s fitness for command.

This forgotten field was his finest hour.


Last Friday, Chris opened the anniversary of the Mine Run engagement with a post about the fight at Payne’s Farm.

21 Responses to At the Center of Nothing, Meade’s Greatest Moment

    1. The men at the time certainly appreciated him for it. Meade was never beloved the way McClellan was, for instance–but Mine Run certainly made Meade’s men fiercely loyal to him as they never had been before.

      1. Just to beat this to death: warren fought brutal battles with high casualties early in the war: gaines mill, Malvern Hill, second manassas, Bristoe Station, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and performed valiantly at all. He fought almost the entire war. By the time the overland campaign came along just maybe he was burned out, maybe he was sick of the pointless slaughter. Maybe Warren had PTSD by then. Warren supported a negotiated peace. he was a McClellan democrat. warren did not approve of grant. Grant must have known that. Warren still fought well at cold harbor, Weldon railroad, Peebles farm, Lewis farm, hatcher’s run , white oak road and five forks. he was instrumental in the seige of petersburg. I am sure by then Grant and Sheridan were sick of warren’s carping and criticism. they could see the end of the war in their grasp. Dinwiddie court House was the last straw. Grant felt he couldn’t take a chance on warren. I think grant regretted it later after his presidency but could not bring himself to reverse his decision which would have impinged the reputation of Sheridan. Warren was unbalanced. I think he very possibly was bipolar or perhaps high functioning autistic. He could never get over it. his brother in law and former chief of staff washington roebling built the Brooklyn bridge. Surely there was gainful employment for warren after the war.

  1. Fascinating! I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about this called off attack before. Finally – after Fredericksburg, Gettysburg and a host of other attacks, a general makes a choice to save his men.

  2. Meade was extremely upset with Warren over this, who became known as the Soldiers General for actions such as this. Meade accused Warren of “ruining” him careerwise because of this. Casualties were not the foremost consideration in the civil war. Meade’s decision had more to do with the fact the assault would fail than the number of casualties. 10,000 casualties would not be unusual. Warren’s concern for casualties, overly cautious approach, and his big fat mouth when dealing with Sheridan and Grant cost him his position as V corps commander at the battle of Five Forks, 8 days before Appomattox when he was fired by Sheridan w Grant’s approval for cowardice and disobeying orders. Meade also wanted to fire Warren previously but did not, possibly remembering Little Round Top and Gaines Mill where warren had been a hero. They were both engineers as well. Warren spent the rest of his life trying to clear his was never fully restored, although a partial absolution was obtained after his death from an Army court of inquiry convened by Sherman. Warren never left the army after the war, working as an engineer and seeking his acquittal of the charges against him by Sheridan until his death at 56. Grant and Sheridan would never relent on the topic of Warren’s dismissal. Grant of course was president and Sheridan chief of the army after the civil war. I recently visited Warren’s home at 10 Fair Street in Cold Spring , NY built in 1840. It is closed to the public. There is a plaque on the side of the building dated 1930. it is a very beautiful home.

    1. One way of looking at Mine Run is as a preview of the Overland Campaign, where Warren took it upon himself to frequently second-guess his superiors, where he moved slowly and sometimes begrudgingly, and he found lots of excuses not to act. At Mine Run, he happened to be right, but in 1864, he usually was not. That said, what happened to him at Five Forks was an awful injustice. I do happen to believe he should have been relieved far sooner than that, but on that particular day, he was not at all out of line. Sheridan was an ass.

      Cool that you got to visit Warren’s home. Thanks for sharing that tidbit!

      1. I have been going to a French restaurant in Cold spring NY called Le Bouchon for many years, located at the corner of Fair and Main in Cold Spring. Cold spring is a quaint little river town on the Hudson on other side of river from west point. I read a book on warren called Happiness is not my Companion, which said he was raised in Cold spring and kept a home there all his life. I was astonished to learn it was located half a block from Le Bouchon on Fair Street. it recently sold for $1 million. It is a private residence. quite large – 4000 sq ft. I think it would make a fantastic bed and breakfast with a civil war/ revolutionary war/ west point motif. I think it is a historic landmark. the whole town is designated historic. Cold Spring is the location of the west point foundry and iron works which is still there (dilapidated), and where union cannon were turned out for civil war field artillery and naval vessels. the guns of the monitor were made there. two dalgren guns. the west point foundry was famous for inventing the parrot gun. Warren’s uncle Gouveneur was the founder.

      2. i forgot to mention to any civil war buffs who visit cold spring NY, to visit the Putnam county Historical society museum. Its just a couple of rooms one of which is devoted to the west Point Foundry. It has a very famous painting of the foundry in action: “Forging the Shaft”, 1867 by John Ferguson Weir. Genl Warren is depicted in the painting (very small) standing to the side with other cold spring notables. The museum also contains numerous stereoscopic images from the period. Most still recognizable sites today in the hudson valley. Genl warren is also depicted in another cold spring painting “A?Picnic?on?the?Hudson”?by?Thomas?Rossiter, 1863. General warren is shown wearing his “Red Legs” chasseur pants of the 5th New York Zouaves. It was painted a month before Gettysburg.It is located at Boscobel, a river mansion a few miles from Cold Spring. open to the public. Private William McIlvaine characterized Warren as ‘very efficient’ but found his personality ‘cold, precise and scientific.’

  3. Chris: I am sending you a big hug and a kiss! Why? For calling Sheridan exactly what he was! My great uncle served under Major General William Woods Averell through the cavalry campaigns in western Virginia in 1863 and the Shenandoah Valley Campaigns of 1864. His subordinate officers loved him. Averell commanded the cavalry division that swept the left flank of Early’s forces off the field at Third Winchester and gave Sheridan the victory. Nevertheless, Sheridan didn’t feel Averell had done enough at the Battle of Fisher’s Hill three days later and relieved Averell of his command. Sheridan was exactly what you called him, Chris. Thank you!

  4. wow trying to get caught up on my reading here since i found this site. and being a Chris m. fan. i agree with the opinion ot Sheridan in all of my civil war studies ,

  5. Do you think Sheridan and Grant should have fired Warren at 5 forks? Sheridan was a bastard and self promoter but grant favored him. Like grant, Sherman, Lee, and Jackson, Sheridan was a butcher. warren was not. But they felt they could not risk warren having qualms with rebs almost finished.

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