General Ewell’s Gettysburg: Prudence or Folly?

The debate is endless…who’s to blame for the Confederate’s loss of the Battle of Gettysburg? While Longstreet and Stuart are primary scapegoats, General Richard Ewell acquires his share of blame too.

But, if this blog devolves to “blame-fest” and character besmirching, then I am not doing my job of teaching the facts. So, today, we’ll explore some biographical facts and another facet of Gettysburg history…and you can draw your own conclusions about the general.

A Warrior

Richard Stoddert Ewell was a warrior. Born in 1817, he grew up in Virginia, not far from the future site of the Battles of Manassas. He attended West Point, graduating in 1840, 13th in a class of 42 cadets. Commissioned in the U.S. Army, Ewell served during the Mexican War, and later had many adventures in the American Southwest. He returned to the east in 1860, suffering from bad health.


General Richard S. Ewell

Resigning from the U.S. Army in 1861 and offering his services the Confederacy, Ewell started his Southern military career as a brigadier general and was promoted to major general the following year.

Jackson’s “Trusted” Subordinate

During Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862, General Ewell and his army were crucial reinforcements which allowed Jackson to undertake more daring moves against the enemy. Ewell and his troops won the battle of Cross Keys on their own toward the end of the campaign.

While Ewell held a key role in the Valley Campaign, he had some…um…challenges with Jackson. You see, Jackson didn’t tell anyone his battle plans, his strategies, or his military thoughts to anyone. Subordinate generals got seemingly random orders which they were supposed to obey to the letter, even if they didn’t understand them.

This annoyed Ewell! He was ready to fight, but he wanted to know the plan. Ewell eventually came to the conclusion that Jackson was crazy, yet he continued to serve with him for the next few months.

An artist's idea of a Confederate prayer meeting. General Jackson is standing at the center. The second man to the right of Jackson in the image appears to be General Ewell.

An artist’s idea of a Confederate prayer meeting. General Jackson is standing at the center. The second man to the right of Jackson in the image appears to be General Ewell.

A Changed Man

There was another thing that Ewell found disturbing…and intriguing about General Jackson. That was Jackson’s faith and complete trust in God’s providence. Profane, hard-fighting, and too busy for religion, Ewell could not escape the clear evidence of faith’s power that he observed in Jackson’s life.

Time marched on…the Valley Campaign ended in victory, the Seven Days’ Battles around Richmond were also a Southern victory, Cedar Mountain – Jackson’s wins again. Then the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was fought on August 29 – 30, 1862. On the first day of that battle, Ewell was badly wounded in the left leg; the shattered leg was amputated and Ewell was sent home to recover.

Ewell spent part of his recovery time with a distant cousin, Lizinka Brown – a widow. By the time he returned to the army in the spring of 1863, Ewell had “got religion” and he’d married Lizinka.

There was a definite change in Ewell’s attitude when he returned. His soldiers noticed that his profanity was diminishing. He was more calm, more at peace with life. His newfound faith had changed his life.

A Corps Commander

Around the time Ewell returned to the Confederate army, General Lee was reorganizing his troops. General Jackson had died in May 1863, and his corps needed a new commander. General Ewell was assigned to the position and took command of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Ewell’s first campaign as a corps commander was the Gettysburg campaign. Wooden leg strapped to his saddle, he rode the dusty roads northward, leading his men through the Shenandoah Valley, across the Potomac, through Maryland, and deep into the heart of southern Pennsylvania.

Receiving new marching orders, Ewell started his corps toward a crossroad town on the map. It was called Gettysburg. He was following General Lee’s orders.

A Gettysburg Dilemma

On July 1, 1863, Ewell’s Second Corps found their route barred by Union soldiers north of Gettysburg. To the west of town, a battle was already raging, so the seasoned fighters of the Second Corps plunged into the fight, eventually breaking the Union lines and sending them fleeing for shelter on Cemetery Hill.

Twilight came. Some of Ewell’s subordinates were anxious to press on and attack the Union position on Cemetery Hill – or at least occupy Culp’s Hill, farther to the east. Ewell received a message from General Lee to occupy Culp’s Hill “if practicable.” Taking stock of the situation, Ewell was wary to launch attacks against unknown positions and foes in the gathering darkness. His men had been marching – and some had been fighting – most of the day. Ewell decided not to push them. He decided to avoid potentially high casualties by attacking unknown positions. To the disgust of his subordinates, Ewell waited and did not attack on the night of July 1st.

A sketch of the fighting on Culp's Hill on July 2nd or 3rd

A sketch of the fighting on Culp’s Hill on July 2nd or 3rd

On July 2nd and 3rd, Ewell’s men launched fierce attacks on Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Despite spirited attacks and hard fighting, the Confederates were not able to successfully gain and hold ground.

A Prudent…or Foolish Decision?

Was Ewell’s decision not to attack in the evening of July 1st wise? It’s a big debate.

At the time, some division commanders and staff officers wanted to press the attack. (At least according to their memoirs – written after the war!)

With hindsight – the blessing and curse of historians – Ewell should’ve occupied and fortified Culp’s Hill. No question. But at the time, with the limited knowledge he had, maybe Ewell made the right decision?

Surely Ewell knew about the Union debacle at Fredericksburg the previous winter, when a Union general launched endless attacks against a strong position. Maybe Ewell didn’t want to sacrifice his men. Maybe he was trying to earn the trust of General Lee by careful, cautious evaluation of the situation.

Ewell was a warrior, so it seems unlikely that he was afraid to fight. Perhaps a feeling of compassion for his troops or a spirit of prudence came over him. He was unwilling to make a risk – that ultimately proved disastrous to his cause. But can we blame him for caution in an unknown situation?

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. I want to know what you think. With the knowledge he had of the situation, should Ewell have pressed forward or was caution more prudent at the time?