Book Review: “Confederate Waterloo: The Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865 and the Controversy that Brought Down a General”

It is difficult to choose a dissertation topic in military history, especially about the American Civil War. No matter how good an idea seems at first, a little digging around and one finds that others have also been intrigued by the same idea. Still, not all that much had been written about the Battle of Five Forks, considered to be the battle that put paid to any ideas General Robert E. Lee had that there might be a Confederate victory somewhere in his future.

But–it had been written about, and by no less than Edwin C. Bearss (Battle of Five Forks, 1985), then later by Donald R. Jermann (Union General Gouverneur Warren, 2015), and Robert Alexander (Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy, 2013).

Michael McCarthy, finishing his Ph.D. in American History from the University at Albany in 2010 as the climax to a life of work in government and public finance, was looking for an unusual topic. Military history was already beginning to involve the inclusion of different perspectives such as those of Southern whites and African-Americans, so perhaps there was another way of looking at the Battle of Five Forks as something more than a series of red and blue arrows and a shad bake.

One of the events–perhaps THE event–that make Five Forks so important in Civil War memory is the firing of Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren by Maj. Gen. Sheridan, under a tacit understanding with Lt. Gen. Grant. Depending on the author’s point of view, Warren was either (1) dilatory in not leading his troops on the march to Five Forks or coming to Gen. Phil Sheridan’s aid (Sheridan), (2) waiting for Sheridan’s cavalry to come to his aid and finish off the Confederates at White Oak Road (Chamberlain), or (3) not one to obey orders since the start of the Overland Campaign anyway (Grant). Author McCarthy uses both primary and secondary sources to give as wide an accounting of the battle as possible, emphasizing the disparity in interpretations.

In contrast to Napoleon’s Hundred Days ending at Waterloo, Gouverneur Warren’s began at the Battle of Five Forks, and his own exile never really ended. Warren spent the rest of his life trying to restore his honor and repair his reputation after he was relieved of command by Sheridan. McCarthy gives a blow-by-blow account of the legal battles of the Warren Court of Inquiry, much delayed due to the political involvements of many of the principals. The original presiding officer was Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who resigned to run for president in 1880. Sheridan, Grant, Chamberlain and several prominent former Confederate officers served as key witnesses. Warren felt Sheridan had treated him in an unfair and dishonorable manner, and the records of the Court of Inquiry were the largest of any case brought in the nineteenth century.

Author McCarthy again goes back to an extensive use of primary sources, including the records kept by Warren, and gives a fair and balanced analysis of the court proceedings. It is this half of the book that is firmly in the newer camp of an expanded definition of military history, and it is very well presented. In Warren’s case, the control of Civil War memory lay clearly in the hands of those in political power at the time. Finally, however, authors like Michael McCarthy are going back over records and reexamining facts. It is clearly time for a better understanding of the personalities involved and the Victorian values they represented. Our overall understanding of the Civil War, its leading generals, and the years following the war’s end can only be enriched by such analyses. Confederate Waterloo, well-written and extensively researched, is just such an analysis.


Michael J. McCarthy, Confederate Waterloo: The Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865, and the Controversy that Brought Down a General (288 pages).

Savas Beatie LLC, 2017

Footnotes, Order of Battle, Bibliography, Index



2 Responses to Book Review: “Confederate Waterloo: The Battle of Five Forks, April 1, 1865 and the Controversy that Brought Down a General”

  1. Five Forks—more correctly, the non-military events that followed—is indeed very controversial. Many (most?) writers that look at it, IMO, go in having “taken a side,” and end up producing a polemic of sorts, instead of an analysis. I would not characterize the dispute in any way similar to the three choices you ascribe to the author here (it is much more subtle and complex), so I fear this is another poor effort. But I appreciate the review.

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