Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard S. Ewell and the Battle of Gettysburg - Does He Deserve the Bad Rap?

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

We all know that Richard S. Ewell gets a bad rap for at least one of his decisions on the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg. He had the Yankees on the run - and chose not to push them off the high ground at Cemetery Hill...allowing them to secure their defenses on the hill while the rest of the Union army moved into position. Well - we have no way of knowing what would have happened had Ewell gone after the hill - but let's see if can shed a little light on why he didn't at least go for it.

On July 1, 1863, Ewell's corps more or less routed the Union XI and part of the I corps and chased them through the town of Gettysburg forcing them to take up defensive positions on Cemetery Hill. Lee, arriving on the scene, ordered Ewell to take the hill "if practicable." But there was more to it. Lee's orders were kind of confusing: He was "to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army."

What??? How do you attack the Union army without bringing on a general engagement? Plus, there were some other things to contend with. Ewell's troops were tired from the day's fight, they needed reinforcements that Lee was unwilling to provide, and Ewell knew that the rest of the Union army was heading his way. Yikes!

But the real problem here was Lee himself (Lee supporters prepare to attack in 3...2...1). His orders left too much discretion. Historians have speculated that more aggressive commanders, such as Jackson, would have gone for it. Ewell, new to corps command was not Jackson...and Lee knew it. Lee also knew that Jackson and his other principle lieutenant, James Longstreet, worked well with discretionary orders. Ewell was untested in this regard.

Apparently, Ewell got to the hill, and did not find an attack "practicable" after all. And you know what...he was probably right.  Maybe Lee should have just said - take the freakin' hill.




  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Keith Harris, Keith Harris. Keith Harris said: Richard S. Ewell and the Battle of Gettysburg – Does He Deserve the Bad Rap? http://cosmicamerica.com/?p=547 [...]

  2. You give a convincing argument, cutting Ewell a break for his failure to take Cemetery Hill on day one at Gettysburg. New to corps command, given discretionary and contradicting orders, weary troops. And Lee's order, "carry the hill... if practicable" is certainly wishy washy, as any West Point cadet could recite the precise formula of overwhelming numerical superiority required to take high ground or any other well positioned defense. Without sure knowledge of the movement of Union troops on AND BEHIND that hill, he waited AS ORDERED for his promised reenforcements to arrive.

    Coming to Ewell's defense is the accepted role of Lee's other scapegoat, cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart. Ewell simply did not have the needed intelligence (military information people!) to "safely" engage the enemy on that hill. Popular history tells of Stuart's foolish ride around the entire Union army frightening citizens and getting his name in the papers. Supposedly this publicity stunt for personal glory left Lee without knowledge of the Federal movements and forced Lee into a major battle in a place and time not of his choosing. Most brief histories fail to note that Stuart sought Lee's approval to disrupt the rear and sever the supply lines, and that the plan was approved, again "if practicable". Moreover, there were still many Confederate cavalry troops available to Lee for reconnaissance - which, taking some of the heat off of Stuart, places blame back upon Ewell for being too cautious.

    It was once said that "victors write histories", but it seems when it comes to Civil War interpretations, the defeated South has done all it can to twist facts and shield Lee from all blame. In truth, modern reality teaches us that "movies write history" as far as popular opinion goes. With the movie GETTYSBURG clearly portraying Lee in his Man Of Marble persona, blundering Ewell and Stuart are both needed to explain the disastrous outcome. Lee's "it's all my fault" statement is undercut by his "I thought they could do anything I asked", effectively blaming everyone under his command except himself. The movie viewer is left with the impression that Ewell and Stuart are simply idiots, and Lee the unfortunate and noble victim of circumstance.

    Sadly I think it's too late to resurrect Ewell and Stuart, as far as popular opinion goes. The momentum has been against them for too long, with GETTYSBURG sealing the story in cement for the current generation. COSMIC AMERICA excepted, poor General Ewell and his ancestors may have to wait for another movie, or perhaps a popular graphic novel, to be vindicated for his role on that summer day under Cemetery Hill.

  3. [...] in particular seemed to strike a chord, especially since Keith, over at Cosmic Civil War, has given some time to blog about it recently (and we exchanged Tweets about the subject over a period of a couple days).  So, enjoy, [...]

  4. awesome! I am particularly interested in the portrayal of Jubal Early - kind of limp...not at all living up to his "bad old man" reputation. I don't think the Early would have approved.

  5. thanks for the comment Kurt - but you know, I think the fllm Gettysburg actually makes Lee seem somewhat out of touch - more than just a victim of circumstances and incompetent lieutenants. Longstreet comes across as the man with the foresight to win the war - with Lee married to suicidal tactics. And since the film's release...Longstreet has gained back his position in the Confederate pantheon. You are right - films partially write history for the public at large. on one hand, this kind of bums me out - but on the other....it at least it gives me plenty to write about!

  6. I agree re: Early. Also, I seem to recall reading something about the squeekiness of his voice. The portrayal was much more distanced from the man as documented in the books.

  7. I've heard claim that Lee was not mentally robust at Gettysburg.

  8. I agree with you, Keith, that Ewell executed the discretion he was given, but I also think he made the right choice. I don't believe he could have successfully assaulted Cemetery Hill, even with Anderson's Division added to his number. There were prepared positions on the hill thanks to Howard's foresight, there was a good amount of artillery, and with Cemetery Hill's location on the edge of town, the town of Gettysburg itself tended to break up attack formations.