Until the beginning of this century when real-time battle intelligence has been available to every level of command the outcome of battles was always determined by incomplete intelligence, often by wrong intelligence and occasionally by sheer stupidity. One of the classics of this last case was one of the union generals defeated by Ewell because he refused to believe what his observation balloons were reporting – it was after all new technology and not to be trusted too much.
Ewell would probably be thought of as too eccentric to command anything other than a Marine Corps Battalion today but he was by no means thought too strange for command during the War for Southern Independence. He had proven himself in a long career before the war fighting both in Mexico and on the frontier and was a very well thought of subordinate of Stonewall Jackson. Having had his leg shot off while in the saddle commanding at the front he had it replaced with a wooden leg and was strapped onto his horse so he could continue to lead at the front – this was a man to lead men.
Then there was Gettysburg. Performing brilliantly at the opening of the battle he and Longstreet failed to press their advantage and allowed the union to take the high ground which ultimately won the battle for them. Who ordered whom to do what and when is still the fodder of the yeah-but historians and will be so long as the battle and its consequences are debated. Martin’s account of the battle is amazingly even-handed and at the end of the day it is apparent that there was a very brief window at the end of the first day when the tide might have been decisively turned but that for the sake of good order and concern for their men the generals halted their advance and lost the initiative.
Whether or not it could have been regained or whether other tactics could have changed the outcome are never comprehensively explored by historians who are fixated on this one decision as the determining factor on the outcome of the battle. Whether or not the loss at Gettysburg lost the war in a single afternoon is a larger question and just a dubious when answered in the affirmative. This is a wonderful biography of a gifted, if odd, leader and our post is illustrated with the other leaders that he shared commands with – some of whom were also more than a little strange in their own right – all of who represented some of the finest officers and leaders ever fielded by this nation.
The road to glory: Confederate General Richard S. Ewell Indianapolis, Ind.: Guild Press of Indiana, c 1991 Samuel J. Martin Generals Confederate States of America Biography, Ewell, Richard Stoddert, 1817-1872 Book. iv, 432 p.: ill., maps; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 426-432) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG
On July 1, 1863, Lieutenant General Richard Stoddert Ewell, commander of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, made a fateful decision – a decision that has been second-guessed by Civil War veterans, military strategists, generations of historians, and just about anyone else who has ever read about the Battle of Gettysburg. As most historians know, two of Ewell’s divisions arrived at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1 and launched an attack that, along with elements of A.P. Hill’s corps, succeeded in routing two Union corps from the sleepy Pennsylvania hamlet and capturing some three thousand prisoners. Flushed with victory but tired and disorganized, Ewell’s men halted their advance late that afternoon near a range of small hills south of the town. Federal troops used this respite to begin fortifying Cemetery Hill in preparation for an attack. Here, Robert E. Lee ordered Ewell to capture the high ground if possible. Ewell apparently decided an attack was not possible, and thus the Federals held the high ground as reinforcements arrived. Precisely what Lee said, what he meant, and how Ewell responded have been hotly debated subjects in the Gettysburg campaign. Moreover, despite his extensive service with the Confederate army, this one decision has defined Ewell and established his reputation as an overly cautious, perhaps indecisive commander who squandered an excellent chance to win the Battle of Gettysburg and possibly the war. So goes the conventional view of Ewell but now we have Martin’s biography which clarifies a good of the Gettysburg narrative and while it does not totally exonerate Ewell it does put his actions into an explicable context.
On May 10, 1863, Stonewall Jackson had died. The most celebrated military figure in the Confederacy, and one of only two corps commanders in Lee’s army, was gone. For the next two weeks, the main topic of conversation around every table and campfire in the army was who would take Jackson’s place. Then on May 23, an announcement came from headquarters: Major (now Lieutenant) General Richard Ewell had been promoted to command of the Second Corps.
Dick Ewell inspired men in spite of, not because of, his appearance. Rather short at 5 feet 8 inches, he had just a fringe of brown hair on an otherwise bald, bomb-shaped head. Bright, bulging eyes protruded above a prominent nose, creating an effect which many likened to a bird – an eagle, some said, or a woodcock – especially when he let his head droop toward one shoulder, as he often did, and uttered strange speeches in his shrill, twittering lisp. He had a habit of muttering odd remarks in the middle of normal conversation, such as “Now why do you suppose President Davis made me a major-general anyway?” He could be spectacularly, blisteringly profane. He was so nervous and fidgety he could not sleep in a normal position, and spent nights curled around a camp stool. He had convinced himself that he had some mysterious internal “disease,” and so subsisted almost entirely on frumenty, a dish of hulled wheat boiled in milk and sweetened with sugar. A “compound of anomalies” was how one friend summed him up. He was the reigning eccentric of the Army of Northern Virginia, and his men, who knew at first hand his bravery and generosity of spirit, loved him all the more for it.
Ewell was a Virginian from a well-connected family in straitened circumstances. He grew up on a farm called “Stony Lonesome” near Manassas. Despite his family’s poverty, he received an appointment to West Point, and graduated 13th out of 42 students in the academy’s Class of 1840. He served on the Southwest frontier, fighting Indians with the dragoons. He served in the Mexican War, then returned to fighting Indians. By the time of the Civil War, he had developed a reputation as a great fighter and horseman.
Ewell entered Confederate service when the Civil War began and due to his lifetime of service he rose rapidly: made lieutenant colonel in April 1861, colonel in May, brigadier general in June – in time to command an infantry brigade at First Manassas – and major-general in January 1862. He was given a division under Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and became Jackson’s most trusted subordinate during the famous Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the spring of 1862, defeating Maj. Gen. N.P. Banks at Winchester and Maj. Gen. John Fremont at Cross Keys. In the following Peninsula battles, his marches were well-ordered and prompt, and at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill, he seemed to be always at hand with his brigades. No officer was mentioned more often or more appreciatively in the reports of others.
Then in August came the Second Manassas Campaign. Ewell was renowned for his courage, a man who often led his division the way he had led his dragoon company – from the front. In the bloody slugout with the Union Iron Brigade at Brawner’s Farm he once again yielded to his love of being in the middle of a fight. Leading one of his regiments forward in person, he was hit by a bullet which split his left kneecap, shattered the head of the tibia, then traveled down the marrow of the bone for six inches, fragmenting it into splinters. Surgeons amputated the leg the next day, and Ewell was out of the war for nine months while the wound healed, missing the Battles of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville.
Part of the extended recuperation was inflicted by Ewell himself. Already frustrated at his slow recovery, on Christmas Day of 1862 his crutches slipped on icy pavement and he fell, breaking off another inch of bone and causing the leg to hemorrhage badly. He was flat on his back for weeks afterward. Prostrated and weakened as he was, he displayed the essential generosity of his nature. A genuinely modest and decent man, he never looked for public recognition for himself, but fought hard for the reputations of his subordinates. He was convinced that the officer who had taken over his division in his absence – Brig. Gen. Jubal Early – had earned recognition as its permanent commander. From his bed, he wrote Early:
When I am fit for duty, they may do what they please with me, but I think your claims to the Division, whether length of time or hard service be considered, are fully equal, if not superior, to mine. I don’t presume they will interfere with you. What is very certain is that I won’t ask for any particular duty or station, but let them do as they see proper with me.
When he returned at the end of May to his promotion to the head of Jackson’s Corps after long months of convalescence, “Old Bald Head,” as the men affectionately called him, had many questions swirling around him: Had the loss of his leg affected his ability? Had the acquisition of a wife tempered his fighting qualities (as it had moderated his profanity)? Would he be able to handle a corps as well as he had handled a division? Would he perform under Lee, whose command style allowed his subordinates considerable discretion, as well as he had performed under Jackson, who always spelled out exactly what he expected?
The immediate indications were that Jackson’s successor would continue in the victorious Stonewall tradition. It was Ewell’s corps which led the Rebel incursion into Maryland, then Pennsylvania. In the two weeks prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, Ewell performed flawlessly, winning a sweeping victory on the march northward at the Battle of Second Winchester, capturing 28 guns, close to 4,000 prisoners, and mountains of supplies at the cost of only 300 Confederate casualties. One soldier testified, “Our march had been admirably conducted. We were always on the road at an early hour and, without hurry or the usual halts caused by troops crowding on one another, we made good distances each day and were in camp by sunset. I never before or afterward saw the men so buoyant.” Ewell’s decisiveness had been consistent, his directions clear and forceful. The officers and staff were all convinced they were serving under a commander who would lead them to success as surely as Stonewall himself. Sandie Pendleton, Jackson’s adjutant, wrote, “The more I see of him the more I am pleased to be with him. In some traits of character he is very much like General Jackson, especially in his total disregard of his own comfort and safety, and his inflexibility of purpose. He is so thoroughly honest, too, and has only one desire, to conquer the Yankees. I look for great things from him, and am glad to say that our troops have for him a good deal of the same feeling they had towards General Jackson.”
Ewell now traveled at the rear of the column in a buggy, with “Rifle,” a “flea-bitten gray” which was his favorite horse, near at hand. His wooden leg prevented him from mounting, so he had to be lifted into the saddle and strapped to his horse to avoid falling off. A born fighter, Ewell had shown early promise as a corps commander – but he had not yet led a corps in a pitched battle with the stubborn Army of the Potomac.
On the morning of July 1, Ewell marched Rodes’s and Early’s divisions south from Carlisle (25 miles north of Gettysburg) to rejoin the rest of the army, under orders from Lee to “proceed to Cashtown or Gettysburg, as circumstances might dictate.” Ewell was traveling at the rear of Rodes’s column – which had not quite reached Middletown – when he got a message from First Corps commander Lieut. Gen. A.P. Hill around 9:00 A.M. that Hill was moving from Cashtown toward Gettysburg. Ewell reasoned he was more likely to find a fight in Gettysburg than Cashtown, so he ordered Rodes’s division to turn toward Gettysburg once he reached Middletown. He also ordered Early’s division to march to Gettysburg from Heidlersburg.
Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes soon came upon the vulnerable flank of the Union First Corps drawn up west of Gettysburg to oppose Hill’s advance. Although Ewell was under orders from Lee not to bring on a general engagement until the rest of the army was up, he felt such favorable circumstances warranted ignoring those instructions, so, said Ewell later, “I determined to push the attack vigorously.” He ordered Rodes to attack the First Corps right flank, and also ordered Early to attack at once. Although Rodes was soon threatened by the Federal Eleventh Corps which came up north of the town, Early’s division appeared to the northwest and outflanked the Union Eleventh Corps on its right, driving it back through Gettysburg at a run. Rodes’s division meanwhile had pried the stubborn First Corps defenders off Seminary Ridge, and by 5 o’clock in the afternoon the disorganized remnants of both Union corps were attempting to regroup on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, immediately south of the town.
Lee had no way of knowing what condition Ewell’s men were in, so he sent a message to Ewell suggesting, not ordering, that Ewell should take Cemetery Hill if he thought it “practicable,” and without bringing on a general engagement. Ewell’s assault had lost its momentum after Union resistance was crushed north of town. The town itself had become an obstacle to swift movement, especially since Yankee sharpshooters and skirmishers were still harassing the advance of the Confederates. Many Confederate units had been disorganized as a result of the afternoon’s fighting. The men were fatigued. There were thousands of prisoners to round-up and guard. The Union position looked formidable from the town, and there were few good positions for Rebel artillery. Brig. Gen. “Extra Billy” Smith had warned that the enemy was approaching from the east along the York Pike, and Early had sent two brigades, Gordon’s and Smith’s, to guard against the danger, making them unavailable for an assault. For all these reasons, Ewell decided to wait for Maj. Gen. Ed Johnson’s division, arriving from the west along the Chambersburg Pike. Before Johnson could file through town and get into position east of Gettysburg, darkness had fallen, and Ewell abandoned the struggle for the day. His decision not to mount an attack against the hills on July 1 would forever afterward be one of the battle’s most closely questioned decisions.
That evening, Lee rode over to confer about an offensive the next day. Ewell nodded silently while his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Early, gave a number of reasons why an attack should not be made by the Second Corps. When Lee then proposed withdrawing the Second Corps to shorten his lines, Ewell again nodded in agreement while Early strenuously objected. Perhaps Ewell had lost his ability to make decisions, perhaps he was just using the more articulate Early as a spokesman, but the fact remained that under Ewell, Lee could not get the Second Corps to move – either forward or back.
After Lee left the meeting that evening, Ewell received a report that Culp’s Hill was undefended, and he went personally to Lee to get permission to remain in place so that he could seize those heights. Lee assented, but the decision was later criticized, since the hills in front of Ewell proved not only occupied but unassailable. Further, the Second Corps’s isolated position made communication difficult, and the army’s efforts were crippled by a lack of coordination in the last two days as a result.
On the morning of July 2, Ewell had placed Johnson’s division on the left across Rock Creek, facing southward toward Culp’s Hill, Early’s division from the middle of town east to the Hanover Road, and Rodes’s division from Gettysburg west along the Fairfield Road to Seminary Ridge. Lee instructed Ewell that when Longstreet started his offensive against the enemy left he was to “make a simultaneous demonstration upon the enemy’s right, to be converted into a real attack should opportunity offer.” However, problems beset Ewell. He could find no good artillery positions beside Benner’s Hill, which was completely exposed and too small to accommodate many batteries. When Longstreet went into action after 4 o’clock that afternoon, Ewell was only able to get thirty-two cannon into action. They were outgunned by the numerous Federal batteries on Cemetery Hill and driven off Benner’s Hill by 6:30 P.M.
At about 7:30 that evening, as Longstreet’s attack was winding down, Ewell decided the time was right to send the Second Corps forward. According to Ewell’s plan, Johnson’s brigades would confront the enemy on Culp’s Hill, then Early’s brigades would attack Cemetery Hill from the northeast, then Rodes would join the attack from west of town. However, only Early’s and Johnson’s divisions would in fact hit the enemy lines. Rodes had not given himself enough time to get his division in formation, and the fighting was over before he got his men into position.
Although Johnson’s attack on Culp’s Hill did not go as smoothly as planned, the Confederate brigades were in luck – almost the entire Twelfth Corps had just been pulled off the hilltop to go fight Longstreet. Even so, Johnson’s men were only able to capture a part of the Union line. Greene’s New York Brigade, still manning the defenses on the crest of the hill, proved to be impossible to drive out. Early’s men, on the other hand, succeeded in driving back the Federal defenders on Cemetery Hill in the gathering darkness. However, they were themselves driven back off the hill by Union counterattacks, since Rodes did not arrive to provide any support. The fighting sputtered to a stop by 10:30 that night. The ultimate fruitlessness of the attacks on the evening of July 2 must be laid at the door of Ewell, especially in regard to Rodes’s tardiness – with so much at stake, Ewell should have been more aggressive in seeing to it that Rodes’s large division was in position on time.
Ewell and Lee saw opportunity in the advantage that Johnson had gained on Culp’s Hill, and worked during the night to exploit it the next morning. Two brigades from Rodes’s division and one from Early’s were added to Johnson’s force on the hill. Lee’s plan was for Ewell to attack at dawn, in concert with an attack by Longstreet on the other end of the line. Ewell did his part, hurling Johnson’s augmented division forward at 4:30 A.M. on July 3. At 5:00 came word that Longstreet was not ready. By that time, however, Johnson was committed to the attack. As it turned out, the Union Twelfth Corps, aided by well-placed artillery which Ewell could not match, was enough by itself to defeat Johnson’s attack, and Ewell’s men were thrown out of their foothold on Culp’s Hill with heavy casualties by 11 o’clock that morning. After this tragic waste of life, the drama passed to “Pickett’s Charge” on the Union center, and Ewell’s Second Corps no longer figured in the battle. (Ewell, however, was shot in his wooden leg by Union sharpshooters as he rode down an exposed Gettysburg street around noon. Ewell chirped to Brig. Gen. John Gordon, who accompanied him, “Suppose that ball had struck you: we would have had the trouble of carrying you off the field, sir. You see how much better fixed for a fight I am than you are? It don’t hurt a bit to be shot in a wooden leg.”)
Ewell was criticized after the battle for his failure to act aggressively under discretionary orders from Lee. Ewell, with characteristic modesty, freely admitted that “it took a dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg and I committed a good many of them.” Again in the Wilderness the next year the same problems arose. In 1864, Ewell was in and out of command due to poor health and injuries, and was finally transferred by Lee to command the defenses of Richmond in June. At the end, Ewell was with the army in the Appomattox campaign until he was captured two days before Lee’s final surrender.