Late in the afternoon of July 1, 1863, after a full day of fierce fighting, Confederate troops finally drove the Union defenders from the fields west of Gettysburg. As the Union troops fled east toward the haven of Cemetery Hill, General Robert E. Lee sent the following order to Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell, commander of the II Corps, whose men had gained victory that day: ‘The enemy [is] retreating over those hills … in great confusion. You only need press those people to secure possession of the heights … .Do this, if possible.’ Legend tells us that, at that crucial moment, ‘Old Bald Head’ lost his nerve. Instead of pursuing the fleeing Union soldiers, who were so panicked they could not defend themselves, Ewell held back, allowing the Federals to entrench atop Cemetery Hill. The advantage of holding the heights led to the Union victory at Gettysburg. Ewell’s indecision supposedly cost the South the battle.
While this is an interesting story — and one that has been repeated again and again in many books about the Civil War — it is also a lie that libels Ewell. The story was concocted by Lee’s apologists in a postwar attempt to shift the blame for losing the battle from their hero onto Ewell. In truth, Lee sent no definitive orders directing Ewell to pursue the enemy when the Union lines broke at Gettysburg, and Ewell was not benumbed by indecision when he should have been chasing the Federals to prevent them from establishing an impregnable position on top of Cemetery Hill. The proof of this lies in a close study of the battle, including the location and strength of the opposing forces once the first day’s fighting had ended, and in how the key participants reacted to the changing events of the day.
It all began because too many Rebels were barefoot. ‘A large supply of shoes were stored in Gettysburg, but there was evidently a [Union] cavalry force occupying the town,’ Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth stated, ‘and [my] men reported the beat of drums, indicating infantry.’ There was always the risk of battle, but Heth went to his superior, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, chief of the III Corps in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. ‘If there is no objection, I will march my division … to Gettysburg, and secure those shoes,’ Heth requested. ‘Do so!’ Hill replied.
Heth started his column of 7,500 troops, including the infantry brigades led by Brig. Gens. James J. Archer, Joseph R. Davis, John M. Brockenbrough and James J. Pettigrew, down Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg at 5 a.m. on July 1. About three miles west of the small crossroads village, Heth’s advance was met by Federal skirmishers from Colonel William Gamble’s brigade of Maj. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry division. This confrontation started about 5:30 a.m.
Gamble’s objective was to delay the Rebels until Union infantry reached the field. The Union Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George C. Meade, was hurrying through Maryland to intercept the Confederates, who were concentrating just north of the border.
When the Union pickets opened fire, Heth halted, formed into battle line and began to slowly probe his front to test the strength of the force that was blocking his way into Gettysburg. Two hours passed. When the Confederates finally climbed Herr Ridge, they saw ahead a meandering creek, Willoughby Run. On the opposite bank, the ground sloped upward to McPherson’s Ridge, where Gamble’s 1,600 men were posted. Heth sent Archer’s and Davis’ brigades, totaling 3,800 troops, ahead to face the Union line. They exchanged fire from a distance with the Federal cavalry for two more hours.
At about 10 a.m., Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ infantry corps came marching into Gettysburg. Brigadier General James A. Wadsworth’s division, including the brigades led by Brig. Gens. Lysander Cutler and Solomon Meredith, arrived first and pressed forward to relieve Gamble’s exhausted troops, who were still aligned along McPherson’s Ridge. The cavalry withdrew to the left, below the slope, as a reserve force. Just as Wadsworth’s men took their post, the Confederates under Archer and Davis charged. Both sides absorbed terrible losses in the one-hour melee. At first the Southerners prevailed, but a Northern counterattack pushed them back.
The two sides then resumed their original positions, content to continue the battle by exchanging artillery fire. During the clash, Archer was captured and taken to the rear, where he was warmly greeted by Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, an old friend from prewar days, who had just taken command of I Corps after Reynolds had been killed by a sniper.
‘Archer!’ Doubleday exclaimed on seeing him. ‘I am glad to see you.’
‘Well, I am not glad to see you,’ Archer snarled, ‘not by a damned sight, Doubleday!’
When the I Corps’ remaining divisions, led by Brig. Gens. John C. Robinson and Thomas Rowley, arrived at Gettysburg at 11 a.m., the latter’s two brigades pushed ahead to reinforce Wadsworth; Robinson’s brigades were held in reserve in Gettysburg to face the enemy’s II Corps, reported to be approaching from the north.
Ewell, with only Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes’ division in hand, arrived at Gettysburg at about noon. As he came out of the woods that crowned Oak Hill, Ewell saw the exposed Union flank below him and knew he had an unparalleled opportunity to rout the enemy.
After giving Rodes orders to deploy his 8,125 soldiers for battle, Ewell sent Major Campbell Brown, his stepson and principal aide, to find Lee and tell him that Ewell meant to join the fray. Brown found Lee on Herr Ridge, where both he and Hill had come after hearing the bark of muskets and bellow of cannons. Lee sent Campbell back to Ewell with an astounding order: ‘Do not charge; I want to avoid a general engagement.’
Had Stonewall Jackson sent Ewell those instructions, he would have meekly complied without question. Jackson, who had died in May, never granted his subordinates any discretion. Lee, however, was a different type of commander, one who expected his leaders to use their own judgment. He had, for example, told Ewell to bypass Winchester while heading through the Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. When Ewell saw that he could rout the Yankees occupying the small village, he decided to disobey Lee’s orders, attacked the enemy and won a decisive victory over the Northern defenders. Lee did not reprove Ewell for disregarding his instructions at Winchester. Now Ewell saw a similar chance for glory at Gettysburg, and he again elected to flout Lee’s directive.
Brown advised that now was not the time to disobey Lee. He described Lee as seething with anger,’showing a querulous impatience … I never saw before.’ Lee’s ire was the result of cavalry head Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s disregarding his instructions. ‘He’s gone off around the Federal Army,’ Lee groused, ‘failing to keep in constant communication with me.’
Despite Brown’s warning that Lee was in no mood to see his orders ignored, Ewell could not pass up the opportunity to assault the open Union flank. The enemy troops were so vulnerable that they could be quickly routed, which would not be a ‘general engagement,’ Ewell reasoned. He decided to gamble his rank and career by proceeding with a charge. In giving the written order to his division commanders, Rodes and Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, Ewell stressed that, after driving the enemy from the ground, they must break off their engagement. This point was also verbally emphasized by the messengers dispatched to both Rodes and Early.
Before he could launch his attack, Rodes had to switch from column into battle formation. He moved Brig. Gen. Junius Daniel’s brigade west to flank the Federals along McPherson’s Ridge; Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson’s men would slip behind the Union forces on the hill to take the enemy from the rear. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Edward A. O’Neal’s troops would come down Oak Ridge, where they would be in a position to block a Union retreat. Brigadier General George Doles would guard Rodes’ left flank; Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur’s brigade would be his reserve.
As the Confederates filed into position, the Federals hastened to meet the enemy threat. Brigadier Generals Gabriel Paul and Henry Baxter rushed their troops, 2,600 men in all, out of Gettysburg and into a line facing northwest along Oak Ridge.
About that same time, the Union XI Corps, led by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, reached the battlefield. Howard’s command included divisions under Brig. Gens. Carl Schurz, Francis C. Barlow and Adolph von Steinwehr. Schurz’s two small brigades rushed into position on the right, northwest of Gettysburg; Barlow’s 3,400 men extended the line east to Rock Creek. The Union soldiers grimly awaited the arrival of Early’s division.
Rodes’ alignment took much longer than he had expected, and the arrival of fresh Federal troops added desperation to his assault. As a result, when Rodes’ troops finally advanced at about 2 p.m., their charge was delivered piecemeal. O’Neal had 1,800 soldiers at hand, and in his haste to attack the Federals he sent only three of his five regiments down Oak Ridge against Paul, who easily repulsed the charge.
Iverson’s 1,500 troops moved ahead at about 2:30 p.m. As the men advanced, looking for the enemy on their right, they failed to spot Baxter’s force, hiding behind a stone wall to their left. The Federals waited until the Confederates were opposite their position, then rose and poured a savage salvo into Iverson’s flank. Five hundred men, a third of the brigade, fell from the withering fire of Union rifles. Almost 400 more were quickly captured.
To the right, Daniel started his 2,300-man brigade down McPherson’s Ridge. When they saw Iverson under assault near the stone wall, three of the five regiments swerved left to the rescue. They not only were too late to save Iverson but also left Daniel with just two regiments for his own assault. As a result, Daniel was easily repulsed.
Heth, on Herr Ridge, saw Ewell’s attack falter. Turning to Lee, he asked if he should press Pettigrew’s and Brockenbrough’s brigades into the fray. ‘No,’ Lee curtly replied. ‘I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement today.’ He was determined to shun battle that day, and no doubt was incensed at Ewell for having defied his orders.
Atop Oak Hill, Ewell watched as Rodes’ attack disintegrated. His expectations of a quick victory had vanished, and he knew that Lee’s wrath was sure to come his way. Having drawn the Federals into battle, however, Ewell had no choice but to continue the fight. After ordering Rodes to gather his troops for a second charge, Ewell rushed east to check on Doles, who was posted north of Gettysburg. When he reached that front, he found Doles and his 1,500 Georgians under attack by two Union brigades, whose superior numbers enveloped both Confederate flanks. Ewell hurried back to his command post on Oak Hill to bring Ramseur, his only reserve, to Doles’ rescue. As he rode west, an enemy artillery shell crashed nearby, killing Ewell’s horse and throwing Ewell to the ground. Shaken but otherwise unhurt, the one-legged general gallantly mounted a spare mare and continued his dash back to Oak Hill.
When Ewell finally reached his field headquarters, he was surprised to learn that the battle had shifted dramatically in his favor. Ramseur had taken his 1,100 men, plus a few of O’Neal’s troops, and charged the Federals defending Oak Ridge. Both Paul and Baxter had been driven from the field, all the way back to Cemetery Hill. Ramseur was pursuing the fleeing Union soldiers.
Meanwhile, at 4:15 p.m., Daniel had charged again into a railroad cut. He, too, had routed his adversary out of his strong position, and the Federals were reeling in retreat toward Gettysburg. The assault, however, had exhausted Daniel’s men, and they had halted along Oak Ridge.
When Lee saw the tide of battle shift in his favor, he suddenly turned aggressive and ordered A.P. Hill to have Heth’s reserve brigades (Pettigrew and Brockenbrough) charge the Union line along McPherson’s Ridge. The Federals greeted the attack with repeated salvos, dropping hundreds of Confederates, but Heth’s troops refused to falter. They clambered up the slope, pushing the enemy back to Seminary Ridge, an extension of Oak Ridge, below Chambersburg Pike. Their lines shattered, Pettigrew and Brockenbrough halted along McPherson’s Ridge. Hill sent three of Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender’s brigades chasing after the retiring Federals.
To the east, the threat to Doles’ position had been reduced by the sudden appearance of Early’s division. He had arrived at about 3 p.m., but paused for half an hour so that his infantrymen could catch their breath after their hard march to the field. Early then charged out of the northeast, sending the brigades led by Brig. Gens. John B. Gordon, Isaac E. Avery and Harry T. Hays against the Union line. The Federals repelled the initial attack from Gordon out of the north, but when Hays came up from the east, the blue-clad troops broke and began running for Gettysburg. The retreat opened the flank to Gordon, who led his brigade toward the Federal ranks. The Union defense collapsed, and the soldiers rushed in disarray toward Gettysburg and the safety of Cemetery Hill. Gordon’s troops had exhausted their ammunition in the charge, and they halted above the town; both Hays and Avery pursued the fleeing enemy.
Howard, attempting to stem the Southerners’ advance, rushed troops off Cemetery Hill to intercept the oncoming Confederates. As they moved north, however, the reinforcements collided with the Federals running for the rear. The new men panicked and turned to join their compatriots fleeing for the heights.
When the Union right broke, the flank held by Brig. Gens. George von Amsberg and Wladimir Krzyanowski was exposed. They probably did not notice their problem, however, since they were busy dealing with the menace to their front. Doles had charged their line, and as the Federals braced for Doles’ blow, Ramseur suddenly exploded against their left flank and rear. The Union defense collapsed, and the troops under von Amsberg and Krzyanowski joined their XI Corps comrades in a desperate run for the haven of Cemetery Hill. Doles and Ramseur followed close on the heels of the enemy.
Howard, upon seeing his corps routed, sent word to the I Corps on Seminary Ridge that the Rebels were coming across its rear, and the I Corps must retire before the Confederate troops closed the gap. The message was never received, and Doubleday’s soldiers held their ground, weathering several assaults on their front.
At about 4:30 p.m., the Confederate superiority in numbers began to tell, and although Union fire opened gaping holes in their ranks, Hill’s men finally pushed the Federal I Corps off Seminary Ridge. With the Yankees in full retreat, both Rodes and Early called a halt to their pursuit, following the instructions issued by Ewell at the onset of the battle.
No one disputes this detailed description of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. The controversy begins with the Federal retreat. Those who blame Ewell for losing the battle claim that when Lee saw the enemy fleeing the field, he sent Ewell orders to ‘press those people [and] secure possession of the heights.’ They charge that Ewell lacked the courage to carry out Lee’s instructions, thus allowing the Federals to entrench on Cemetery Hill, the ultimate key to their victory. How true are the charges?
At about 4:30 p.m., as the Union line began to break, Lee and Hill stood atop Seminary Ridge and watched the Federals retreating through Gettysburg and up Cemetery Hill. While they were thrilled by the Rebel success, they were also stunned by the cost of that victory. Hill had thrown seven brigades into the battle and suffered terrible losses. Archer and Davis, who opened the fray, had taken about 1,400 casualties, one-third of their original number. Their troops lay exhausted on Herr Ridge. Brockenbrough and Pettigrew had lost 648 men, 20 percent of the force that had charged the Union troops on McPherson’s Ridge. Their brigades were strewn along the dearly bought ground. Brigadier Generals Abner Perrin, James H. Lane and Alfred Scales, who had pushed the attack against the Federals on Seminary Ridge, had seen more than 1,000 of their men, one-fourth of their commands, fall in the fight. Only Perrin had continued the pursuit of the enemy troops into Gettysburg.
Lee, who was personally commanding Hill’s troops (he had at first refused to order them into battle, then changed his mind and sent them forward), decided at the time to accept what had been accomplished that afternoon. He did not instruct Ewell to mount a charge against Cemetery Hill. He allowed Perrin to return to Seminary Ridge. Had Lee wanted to deny the enemy the heights, he could have sent Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division — just now arriving and ready to fight — ahead to Cemetery Hill. Instead, Lee told Anderson to prepare to camp for the night.
When he wrote his report, Hill recalled Lee’s words, ‘Prudence led me to be content with what had been gained [in the fight], and not push forward troops [who were] exhausted and necessarily disordered … to encounter fresh troops from the enemy.’
Lee’s actions were sensible. He had just fought and won a punishing battle, during which he had committed every man available. Lieutenant General James Longstreet and his I Corps were approaching with reinforcements, but they were not expected to arrive before sunset. If Lee was to continue the fray, he would have to do so with the troops at hand, most of whom had spent all day in battle.
At the same time, the entire Union Army was known to be rushing toward Gettysburg, and the lead elements had already arrived and offered battle. Were Meade’s other corps about to come into line? Lee did not know, but since more Federal infantry were apt to appear at any moment, he could not gamble on sending weary troops against Cemetery Hill, which was likely to be defended by fresh enemy troops.
Ewell’s forces were in just as bad shape as Hill’s. Rodes had sent all five of his brigades into the battle, but only two, Doles’ and Ramseur’s, were at the front and in position to continue the fighting. O’Neal had lost almost 25 percent of his force, and most of his survivors (except the few who had joined Ramseur’s charge) remained on Oak Hill. Daniel, too, had taken huge losses; almost 35 percent of his troops had fallen in battle. Iverson had suffered the most. His casualties exceeded 900 men, 60 percent of his brigade, and the remnants lay exhausted atop Oak Hill. And even though both Doles and Ramseur were ready for more action, their numbers, too, were diminished. They had entered into battle with 2,600 effectives; only about 2,000 remained.
Only one of Early’s four brigades was still positioned for action. Avery’s 2,000 men had advanced to the base of Cemetery Hill, where they were still attracting the enemy’s attention. ‘We were subject to galling fire,’ remembered Lieutenant Warren Jackson. ‘I spent about two hours as miserably as I ever did in my life.’
Early’s other brigades were unavailable for Ewell to send into action. William Smith’s men were posted east of the village, on the York Pike, guarding the corps’ flank; Gordon’s troops were north of Gettysburg, awaiting a resupply of ammunition; and Hays’ soldiers were in the town, encumbered with 3,000 Union prisoners.
Ewell had no thought of continuing the battle, but his rationale for holding in place was not based on having fewer than 4,000 men available for action. He was more concerned over having disobeyed his orders. ‘General Lee … instructed me not to bring on a general engagement,’ he replied to the subordinates who urged an assault against Cemetery Hill. ‘I will wait for those orders.’
While Ewell’s reasons for not challenging the Federals crowded on Cemetery Hill were perhaps wrong, was he right in not mounting an assault against the slope? Experts who have studied Gettysburg say yes. They base their analysis not only on the impotence of the Confederate forces but also on the strength of the Union forces.
When the Federal lines collapsed north and west of Gettysburg, the Union troops drew back to Cemetery Hill, the designated haven in case of defeat. Colonel Orland Smith’s 2,000-man brigade, supported by a battery of six guns, was atop the knoll, eager to greet any oncoming Rebels. As the fleeing Federals climbed the slopes, their officers guided them into imposing defensive positions. Gamble’s 1,500 troopers were sent south, in front of and along Cemetery Ridge, where they guarded the left flank from Confederate assault. Most of the I Corps fell in atop Cemetery Ridge behind the cavalry; Wadsworth’s division rushed to Culp’s Hill to protect the right flank; and Howard’s corps augmented Smith’s men on Cemetery Hill. A total of about 12,000 Union soldiers were ready to defend the heights.
Reinforcements were also at hand. Five hundred veterans from the 7th Indiana came forward, and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps had arrived. The leading columns of the 1st Division, led by Brig. Gen. Thomas Ruger, began filing into position behind Cemetery Hill at about 4:30 p.m. Brigadier General John W. Geary’s 2nd Division reached Gettysburg about half an hour later. These 8,000 fresh troops brought the Union strength to about 20,000 soldiers.
In addition to the reinforcements, the Federals had most of their artillery pieces, which they had salvaged during their retreat. Almost 40 cannons had joined Smith’s six guns, and the entire array was emplaced, unlimbered and ready to fire, atop Cemetery Hill.
Ewell, of course, saw the enemy digging in on Cemetery Hill. Although he no doubt suspected that the Union soldiers would be impossible to dislodge, he knew that sooner or later he would have to charge the heights. When Early urged an immediate assault, Ewell agreed, but insisted that Lee must approve their attack and Hill had to provide reinforcements. James Power Smith, an aide who had spent the afternoon with Lee and had just now come to Gettysburg (without bringing any orders from Lee to Ewell), was dispatched back to Lee with those two requests.
Back on Seminary Ridge, when Lee saw that the Federals had aligned their guns shoulder to shoulder across the crest of Cemetery Hill, he also recognized that the Southerners would have to attack the heights — perhaps better now than on the morrow. Lee had already recalled Hill’s men from the field; therefore only Ewell’s troops were available to dispute the enemy’s new front.
After 5 p.m., just prior to Smith’s arrival with Ewell’s proposal to charge Cemetery Hill and long after the Union retreat had started, Lee sent an aide, Colonel Walter Taylor, to Ewell with instructions to challenge the Federals. ‘The enemy is retreating … in great confusion,’ Lee said in his message. ‘You only need to press those people to gain possession of the heights … .Do this if possible.’
Lee’s order seemed to assume that it would be relatively easy for Ewell to dislodge the Federals from their post atop Cemetery Hill. After the Civil War, apologists for Lee ignored the fact that the Union position was virtually impregnable, and they used this order as proof that Lee was not responsible for the Southern defeat at Gettysburg. Ewell was to blame because he had failed to pursue the defeated Northern army, allowing them to entrench on the critical high ground.
When Taylor found Ewell in Gettysburg and presented the message, Ewell made no comment. He may have been dumbfounded by Lee’s apparent assumption that the enemy could be easily pushed off Cemetery Hill; more likely, he knew that the note was meaningless. He could not move until he received Lee’s response to his plea for reinforcements. Years later, Taylor would claim that Ewell’s silence meant that he had agreed to charge Cemetery Hill, another attempt to clear Lee by discrediting Ewell.
When Smith arrived at army headquarters, he handed Ewell’s request for reinforcements to Lee. ‘Tell General Ewell … I regret that my people are not [able] to support his attack,’ Lee responded, ‘but … I wish him to take Cemetery Hill if practicable.’ He then added an impossible condition — should Ewell advance against the hill, he must ‘avoid a general engagement.’
Smith returned to Gettysburg, where he found Ewell and gave him Lee’s instructions. Ewell saw at once that his new orders were paradoxical. He could not drive the enemy from the heights without reinforcements. The force at hand, 4,000 men, was no match for the hordes of Federals, backed by cannons, atop Cemetery Hill. To attack would bring disaster to his corps. And even if Ewell mounted the suicidal assault, how could he assure Lee that reopening the battle would not bring on a general engagement? He had no choice. Ewell dropped his plan for a direct charge against Cemetery Hill.
In the fighting that followed on days two and three at Gettysburg, the Confederates had numerous chances to defeat the enemy, but in each instance, they failed to take advantage of their opportunities. Ewell blundered more than once, and he manfully admitted his errors. He was as much responsible for the South’s losing the battle as any of the other commanders involved.
But Ewell was not frozen by indecision, unable to find the courage to charge the Union forces on Cemetery Hill on the first day. Lee’s order to ‘press those people … if possible’ was not sent during the Union retreat. He issued the directive after he recalled Perrin’s force from Gettysburg, after the Federals had fled the field and after the enemy troops had consolidated their position atop the heights. Ewell, refused the reinforcements he believed necessary for a successful attack on Cemetery Hill, elected not to charge, a good decision in retrospect, because the Federals were never really vulnerable to being driven off the high ground. Ewell did not lose Gettysburg by himself.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America’s Civil War magazine today!