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The Letters of General Richard S. Ewell: Stonewall’s Successor

 Edited by Donald C. Pfanz, University of Tennessee Press

Donald Pfanz’s Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life (1998) ranks among the dozen best  Confederate biographies ever published—thorough, gracefully written and based on impeccable research. This follow-up book of Ewell letters makes an invaluable companion volume. The two will stand for many years as unimpeachable authorities on the man.

In 1935 Percy G. Hamlin, author of the first serious Ewell biography— Old Bald Head (1940)—printed 49 Ewell letters in a small book titled The Making of a Soldier. Pfanz located 173 primary documents for this edition. In addition to offering far more original material, he supplies detailed annotation, much of it extremely useful, for all of them.

Just 19 of the letters date from the short lifespan remaining to Ewell when he returned, weary and battered, to postwar civilian pursuits. Ewell, who died in January 1872, wrote 76 of the letters in this collection between 1836 and 1860. The others—nearly half of the total number—constitute rich documentation of Ewell’s Civil War experiences.

The war-dated correspondence, much of it directed to Ewell’s wife Lizinka, who played such a powerful role in his life, offers the priceless immediacy that makes letters so valuable as evidence. Letters from armed camps often suffer from brevity, or concentration on quotidian homefront matters. The general’s garrulous style, however, especially when writing to his spouse, includes a great deal that will be useful to modern students of the war.

Most readers will open this book thinking just of the 1860s, but in fact Ewell’s correspondence from postings across the antebellum frontier is among the best sources extant about that place and time. The letters’ piquant and picturesque style often makes for entertaining reading. In a typical sally, Lt. Ewell grumbled from St. Louis in 1844 that all the women there “are engaged to be married however ugly they may be….I have not seen a pretty Girl…since I have been here.”

Some readers will come away from a close reading of Ewell’s collected letters convinced that Pfanz is correct in asserting that Robert E. Lee misunderstood his subordinate’s capacity to command a corps. Others will remain unconvinced of that premise— and I am among them. But no one, however inclined on that issue, will fail to enjoy the fully illuminated Dick Ewell, revealed by his writings as a bright and perceptive man, a colorfully quirky individual and a devoted soldier.


Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.