He was the least noticeable corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virgnia. Richard Ewell did not capture the spotlight the way Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, or A.P. Hill did. He was a competent commander of troops who routinely followed the orders of his superior, Robert E. Lee. Ewell’s ability to lead troops in combat would be tested at Gettysburg. The verdict of some is that the general came up short.
Richard Stoddert Ewell was born in Georgetown, District of Columbia on February 8, 1817. He attended West Point and graduated in 1840.Ewell’s early military career was in the West where he served along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. He saw combat during the Mexican – American war at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, and was promoted to a captain for conspicuous courage. Future assignments were in the New Mexico territory and what is now Arizona.
In The Gray
Elwell resigned his commission after Virginia seceded, despite being pro – Union before. He was commissioned a brigadier general on June 17, 1861, and was a field commander at the first Battle of Bull Run. He was promoted major general on January 24, 1862, and served in the Valley Campaign as a subordinate to Thomas “Stonewall”Jackson. Ewell commanded troops during the Seven Days Battle and the Second Battle of Bull Run.
Ewell was personally brave and not afraid to expose himself to enemy fire. He was wounded in a skirmish at Fairfax Courthouse on May 31, 1861, and that was his first wound. His second was more critical.
At the Battle of Groveton, he received a serious wound that required his left leg to be amputated below the knee. That handicap would plague him in the years to come and he suffered bouts of severe pain. The amputation required him to convalesce for nine months, but he returned to active duty as soon as he was able.
Ewell performed admirably as a commander under Stonewall Jackson and his abilities were noticed. He was promoted to lieutenant general after Jackson’s death at the battle of Chancellorsville, and was given the command of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. He distinguished himself the Second Battle of Winchester during the Gettysburg Campaign, where he defeated a Union army and open the way to Pennsylvania for Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Arriving at Gettysburg
Elwell’s conduct at Gettysburg has been widely discussed and often criticized. Some blame the man for losing the battle. The gist of the controversy is based on events that happened on July 1, 1863.
Ewell’s victory at Second Winchester permitted Lee to move the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, creating a serious panic in the North. Ewell marched the Second Corps into the small town of Gettysburg. A persistent myth about Gettysburg is that there was a shoe factory located there, but the town didn’t have one. Ewell and his men attacked the Union forces that were there and drove the enemy’s right flank out of Gettysburg. Union troops under the command of General Winfield Scott Hancock retreated south of Gettysburg to an elevation known as Cemetery Hill and took up positions.
Ewell at this point scored an advantage over the enemy: he had driven them into retreat. However, the Second Corps had sustained nearly 3000 casualties and needed to regroup. The orders he had at the time from Robert E. Lee, issued to all corps commanders, was not to engage the enemy until the Army of Northern Virginia had concentrated all of its units. Because there was fighting going on beforehand, the order was a moot point.
Ewell received new orders instructing him to take the high ground, meaning Cemetery Hill, if possible. This was to prevent the Union Army from continuing to fortify their position. Ewell consulted with his subordinate generals, Jubal Early and Robert Rodes, and both recommended an immediate attack. There was one caveat, though, and it required Lee to provide infantry support on the right. Ewell sent a request to Lee for reinforcements.
The wait for further instructions permitted him to get a closer look at Cemetery Hill. Hancock had been able to solidify his position and Ewell could see 40 cannons and at least one brigade waiting for the Confederate assault. It did not appear that the enemy was disorganized at all. Attacking that position would be a bloody effort. Ewell was perplexed at what to do.
A Question Of Semantics
The response he received from Lee only added to the problem. Lee sent a verbal order to his corps commander.
“Take the hill, if practicable, but don’t bring on a general engagement.”
Lee was giving Ewell considerable discretion without sending him the necessary infantry support. The order was both discretionary and nondiscretionary, however. Ewell was allowed to attack but he could not create a general engagement at the same time.
Some historians have argued that the difficulty was a question of semantics. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee had a relationship where the two could almost finish each other’s sentences. Jackson would have known instinctively what Lee meant by the phrase, “if practicable.” Jackson would have deduced that Lee really meant “take that hill at all costs.” Whether there was a general engagement would have been irrelevant to Jackson. He would have ordered an immediate assault.
Ewell decided that taking Cemetery Hill was not worth the loss of human life. He hesitated in the face of an opponent who had significant artillery in position. Moreover, his men were exhausted and spent from a day of marching and then fighting. Unfortunately, his hesitation allowed Union troops to gather reinforcements and even more artillery. Ewell and the Second Corps would fight hard on July 2 and 3 but an advantage that might have turned the battle was lost.
The Blame Game
Lost Cause advocates were keen to keep Lee’s reputation unsoiled and they were quick to blame others for the Confederate icon’s mistakes. Nevertheless, the facts suggest that Lee made a leadership error by not being specific with a relatively new corps commander. It is possible if Lee had met with Ewell at that point in the battle, the Confederate commander would have recognized the situation, perhaps pointed out weaknesses in the Union line, and issued more definite instructions.
The criticism of Richard Ewell at Gettysburg overshadows mistakes made by other Confederate officers during the engagement, most notably the errors caused by A.P. Hill and Jeb Stuart. It can be argued that Ewell was very concerned about needlessly wasting the lives of the soldiers under his command. The Confederacy always had manpower problems and the Gettysburg campaign decimated the officer corps. It is true that Ewell was cautious at Gettysburg but that did not mean he was incompetent. He was trying to follow an order from Lee that was not coherent.
Ewell would continue to serve as a corps commander and performed well at The Wilderness. Unfortunately, his conduct at the battle Spotsylvania Court House earned him a severe reprimand from Lee, who was beginning to lose confidence in the man leading the Second Corps. Ewell was eventually relieved of his command and reassigned to defending Richmond. He was captured at Sailor’s Creek and ended the war as a prisoner. He would end his days as a gentleman farmer in Tennessee and would die of pneumonia on January 25, 1872.
An interesting note about Ewell was his opinion of slavery. He believed that to win the Confederacy would have to free the slaves and permit them to join the ranks of the Confederate Army. He said that he, Richard Ewell, was willing to lead former slaves. His proposition was rejected, and Ewell did not bring up the subject again.