Second-Guessing Dick Ewell: Why didn’t the Confederate general take Cemetery Hill on July 1, 1863?
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, after a bruising fight north of town sent portions of the Union Army of the Potomac into retreat, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered his Second Corps commander, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, to attack the new Federal position on Cemetery Hill “if practicable.”
Ewell chose not to attack, allowing the Federals to re-form on the hill and dig in. The position then served as the linchpin for the entire Union line. Armchair generals have since had a field day with what is seen as his failure, often arguing that “Stonewall” Jackson would not have been so “timid” and the legendary commander would have found it “practicable” to attack and would have swept the Union forces from the field.
But Ewell, who had taken command after Jackson was killed only a month and a half earlier, had several good reasons for not attacking the Union position—reasons frequently ignored or overlooked because of postwar scapegoating. As a result, modern students of the battle get only part of the story. They see Ewell as someone who failed to live up to his predecessor rather than a newly minted corps commander who made a sound decision.
Stonewall Jackson looms over July 1 at Gettysburg because his career as Ewell’s predecessor shapes the way people have looked at the latter general’s performance. Jackson earned a reputation for aggressiveness and independence; if ordered to do something, Jackson did it. It’s a small leap, then, to assume that he’d have found it practicable to take Cemetery Hill. “Oh, for the presence and inspiration of Old Jack for just one hour!” lamented Jackson’s former chief of staff, Major Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, who went on to serve under Ewell.
There are two major flaws behind that assumption, however. “It is a fact not generally known…that in all his famous flank movements Gen. Jackson was careful to examine the ground to learn the exact position of the enemy,” wrote Southern war correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander for the Charleston Mercury, “and hence his blows were always well aimed and terrible in effect.”
Jackson had learned a hard lesson at Kernstown in March 1862, when faulty intelligence about the enemy’s position led to his only battlefield defeat. Thereafter he made an effort to discern his opponent’s dispositions. In fact, it was in the midst of one such attempt at gathering information that Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men at Chancellorsville. To assume he would have stormed Cemetery Hill without any idea of what lay beyond it places too much emphasis on Jackson’s aggressiveness at the expense of his good sense as a tactician.
The second problem that underpins assumptions about Jackson lies in the wording of Lee’s orders. Over the years, much attention has been given to Lee’s particular wording: “General Ewell was, therefore, instructed to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable….” Ewell, however, had plenty of legitimate reasons to think an assault on Cemetery Hill wasn’t practicable.
It’s important to note that those words—“if practicable”—never appeared in print until Lee filed his revised report of the battle in January 1864, more than six months after the fight. In fact, Ewell biographer Donald Pfanz carefully avoids offering any direct quotes from Lee concerning his specific orders because no written record seems to exist.
Certainly, though, the intent behind Lee’s orders on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, seems unmistakable. He urged Ewell to attack if his corps commander thought it advantageous to do so. But Lee also placed a very important qualification on his order—best understood by looking at the complete passage from Lee’s 1864 report: “Without information as to its proximity, the strong position which the enemy had assumed could not be attacked without danger of exposing the four divisions present, already weakened and exhausted by a long and bloody struggle, to overwhelming numbers of fresh troops. General Ewell was, therefore, instructed 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, which were to hasten forward.” Unfortunately, in the years since the battle, much emphasis has been placed on the phrase “if practicable”—words that Lee may have never uttered—and the warning about avoiding a general engagement has been ignored.
Major General Isaac Trimble, attached on special duty to Ewell’s command during the battle, was among those who tried to dismiss Lee’s warning. Writing for the Southern Historical Society (SHS) years after both Lee and Ewell had died, Trimble recalled his attempt to persuade Ewell to attack. As Trimble recalled, Ewell called attention to Lee’s order not to bring on a general engagement. “[T]hat hardly applies to things,” Trimble responded, “as we have fought a hard battle already, and should secure the advantage gained.”
In Trimble’s version, he urged Ewell to take not Cemetery Hill, where the Union army was trying to re-form, but Culp’s Hill. “General, there is an eminence of commanding position, and not now occupied, as it ought to be by us or the enemy soon. I advise you to send a brigade and hold it if we are to remain here,” Trimble said, adding, “it ought to be held by us at once.” Ewell replied, “When I need advice from a junior officer, I generally ask it.”
Trimble never forgot the insult. Recounting his experience in the SHS papers, Trimble made an effort to paint Ewell as being “far from composure” and “under much embarrassment” and said Ewell “moved about uneasily, a good deal excited” and “undecided what to do next.”
“[F]ailure to follow up vigorously on our success…was the first fatal error committed,” Trimble wrote. “It seemed to me that General Ewell was in a position to do so. But he evidently did not feel that he should take so responsible a step without orders from General Lee….”
Nowhere in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels (or the related film Gettysburg), which covers Trimble’s encounter with Ewell, does Ewell get to tell his side of the story, so modern audiences typically accept Trimble’s version as truth. What really happened on the northern end of the battlefield late on the afternoon of July 1?
Ewell’s Second Corps arrived just north of Gettysburg by three different routes, allowing them to avoid the bottlenecks that tied up the Third and First corps, coming into town from the west along the Chambersburg Pike. As a result, his divisions entered the fray in a sequence that put increasing pressure on the beleaguered XI Corps, trying to hold the Union right.
Major General Robert Rodes’ five brigades had arrived first, around noon. At 2:30, just as it seemed Rodes’ men had taken all the abuse they could, Early’s Division appeared about three-quarters of a mile to their left, moving south down the Harrisburg Road. Early led his attack with Gordon’s Brigade, followed by the brigades of Brig. Gen. Harry Hays and Colonel Isaac Avery. Early’s fourth brigade, led by Brig. Gen. William “Extra Billy” Smith, deployed to the east to cover the division’s flank—which also served as the army’s left flank. In particular, Early ordered Smith to keep an eye on the York Road, in case any Union cavalry appeared there.
By 3:30 the Federal position crumbled. “Away went guns and knapsack, and they fled for dear life,” observed one Union surgeon. The retreat of the XI Corps might have been Chancellorsville all over again—a comparison that has served Ewell’s critics well because it underscores Jackson’s success and, by comparison, Ewell’s shortcomings.
How easy it might have been, critics argue, for Ewell to sweep up the Federals in their confusion. Indeed, Gordon’s Brigade captured 1,800 prisoners—impressive considering Gordon went into battle with only 1,813 men of his own. “The whole of that portion of the Union army in my front was in inextricable confusion and in flight,” Gordon later wrote.
As disorganized as the retreating XI Corps might have been, Ewell’s men were every bit as disorganized. Rodes had lost some 2,500 men since first appearing on the field that morning. Early’s Division, in better shape, had sustained fewer than 500 casualties, but Old Jube’s men still remained scattered throughout town.
Ewell’s third division, that of Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, still had an hour’s march ahead before it could even reach the battlefield. Johnson, approaching the battlefield via a route farther west than the rest of the Second Corps in order to protect the corps’ wagon train, found himself snarled in the same traffic jam along the Chambersburg Pike that had tied up the First and Third corps.
The Federals weren’t as disorganized as latter-day critics would have people believe, either. Only four brigades from the XI Corps had engaged in the fighting thus far; some 1,600 of them had remained behind on Cemetery Hill to fortify the position as a fallback line for the army. They would eventually have 43 cannons to support them.
“A position more favorable to [General Meade] and more unfavorable to Gen. Lee (should the latter make the assault,) could hardly have been selected,” wrote Peter Alexander in a dispatch on July 4. “The strength of this position cannot hardly be exaggerated,” he added in a July 7 dispatch.
As the Federals fell back to that strong position, they had strong leadership. “Directing the placing of troops where we turned up was Hancock, whose imperious and defiant bearing heartened us all,” said an officer from the 16th Maine. The remnants of the I and XI corps also had plenty of fresh reinforcements: the 1,600 fresh troops of Colonel Orland Smith’s brigade, plus elements of the XII Corps—some 9,000 men and four batteries strong. Just to the southwest, Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles was bringing the lead elements of his III Corps onto the battlefield, too.
Ewell didn’t know the particulars, but he certainly didn’t like what he could see. “It was now within an hour & a half of dark,” wrote Ewell’s chief-of-staff, his stepson, Campbell Brown. “[T]he enemy’s force on the hill already showed a larger front than the combined lines of our two Divisions—they were a mile & a quarter away.”
Around 5 p.m., Ewell had ridden into the center of Gettysburg, accompanied by his staff. On the way in, he had run into Gordon, who urged Ewell to press the attack forward to Cemetery Hill. In town he received similar advice from Hays. He also received orders from Lee, courtesy of Captain James Power Smith and then, moments later, from Major Walter Taylor.
After the war, in a letter to Brown, Smith said Lee’s orders had been for Ewell to attack if he “could do so to advantage.” Taylor’s postwar writings say that “from the position which he occupied, [Lee] could see the enemy retreating over those hills, without organization and in great confusion, that it was only necessary to press ‘those people’ in order to secure possession of the heights, and that, if possible, [Lee] wished [Ewell] to do this.” Ewell left Taylor with “the impression upon my mind that it would be executed,” and did not express any objections. Ewell sent for Early and Rodes and began to size up the situation.
“It was a moment of most critical importance, more critical to us now, than it would seem to any one then,” Smith later wrote. “Our corps commander, General Ewell, as true a Confederate soldier as ever went into battle, was simply waiting for orders, when every moment of the time could not be balanced with gold.”
Ewell determined he could make the attack, but he wanted support from Hill’s Third Corps. He sent Smith back to Lee with his request, then he ordered Early and Rodes to get into position.
It did not take long for Smith to return with word from Lee that Hill had no men to lend in support of the attack. Hill’s Third Corps had suffered heavy casualties in its victory over the Federal I Corps. He chose to rest his weary men rather than continue to press them—and he left his third division, under Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, out of the fight entirely. Ewell was to carry Cemetery Hill alone, if possible—but Lee also reiterated his earlier admonition not to bring on a general engagement if at all possible.
Ewell, it seems, was stuck.
Then came another wrinkle. “[U]p came ‘Freddy’ Smith, son of ‘Extra Billy,’ to say that a heavy force was reported moving up in their rear,” Campbell Brown recalled. “Extra Billy” was governor-elect of Virginia, and even the irascible Early showed him deference.
According to Brown, “Early said to Gen’l Ewell: ‘Gen’l, I don’t much believe in this, but prefer to suspend my movements until I can send & inquire into it.’ ‘Well,’ said Genl Ewell, ‘Do so. Meantime I shall get Rodes into position & communicate with Hill.’” Early responded by sending Gordon’s Brigade to join Smith’s along the York Road.
Ewell and his officers rode to the top of Benner’s Hill to look for themselves. They saw a line of skirmishers they first mistook for Federals who, as it turned out, were men sent out earlier by Smith. The coast was clear, it seemed. Early said Smith had filed “an unfounded report.”
Unknown to them, though, Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams of the Federal XII Corps saw the mounted Confederate officers on the hilltop, “evidently reconnoitering.” Seeing no signs of artillery or a large force, Williams reported, “I accordingly directed General Ruger to deploy his brigade, under cover of the woods, and charge the hill, supported by the 1st Brigade under Col. McDougall. I had with me two batteries of artillery, which were put in the road, and directed to follow the assault, come into battery on the rest of the hill, and open on the enemy’s masses.”
The Federals followed a Revolutionary War–era trail through the woods to the pike. “[T]he corps was moved to the right across country east of Rock Creek, until it faced a slope toward Benner’s Hill, where the line was halted and deployed with skirmishers in front,” wrote the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry’s colonel. “The country here was open, and mounted officers of the enemy could be seen on the high ground apparently examining the position.”
Ruger’s brigade was actually ascending the slope of the hill, Williams said, when he received orders to withdraw the division toward the Baltimore Pike and take position for the night. This, he said, was between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
Early always insisted that Smith had been seeing things along the York Pike—although with no Confederate cavalry to reconnoiter for them, no one knew for sure. To be safe,
Early kept Gordon and Smith along the York Pike all night, tying up valuable men from making any assault on Cemetery Hill. But it seems likely that Smith did see something—elements of the XII Corps coming onto the field at precisely the right moment to serve as a much-needed distraction. “The appearance of the division in this position at the time it occurred,” Ruger said in his official report, “was apparently a timely diversion in favor of our forces, as the farther advance of the enemy ceased.”
During his reconnaissance, Ewell discovered that Culp’s Hill sat unoccupied a quarter of a mile to the southeast of Cemetery Hill. If his men could occupy Culp’s Hill, the Union position on Cemetery Hill would be untenable.
Ewell suggested to Early that his men occupy Culp’s Hill. Early balked, telling Ewell that Johnson’s men should occupy it instead once they arrived. Johnson, who had arrived on the scene ahead of his men, traded sharp words with Early, but Ewell took Early’s side.
By the time Johnson’s men arrived, Federals had already occupied the hill. A 30-man squad from the 42nd Virginia, sent by Johnson to reconnoiter, wound up as Union prisoners. The chance to take the ground without a fight slipped away. Over the next two days, assaults on Culp’s Hill would lead to some 2,500 Confederate casualties during the longest-sustained combat on the battlefield.
Obviously, Early had a vested interest in blaming Ewell for the lack of action on the afternoon and evening of July 1. Ewell had supported Early’s decision not to move to Culp’s Hill, and that decision had catastrophic consequences for the Army of Northern Virginia.
After the war, Early contended that he had vigorously supported an assault on Cemetery Hill, yet on the evening of the battle he claimed his men were too tired and disorganized to occupy unoccupied Culp’s Hill. If his men were in no condition to move unopposed to an empty hilltop, how could they have led an attack against a heavily fortified enemy position? “The discovery that this lost us the battle,” Campbell Brown said, “is one of those frequently-recurring but tardy strokes of military genius of which one hears long after the minute circumstances that rendered them at the time impracticable, are forgotten—at least I heard nothing of it for months & months, & it was several years before any claim was put in by Early or his friends that his advice had been in favor of an attack & had been neglected.”
In fact, Early led a vigorous campaign—after Lee’s death, so that Lee could not refute any of Early’s claims—to place blame for the loss at Gettysburg on Ewell and, for his actions on July 2 and 3, on First Corps Commander James Longstreet. Trimble, cavalryman Fitzhugh Lee and others joined in. That scapegoating has since become accepted as a central tenet to the “Lost Cause” mythology. But tactically Ewell did the right thing on the evening of July 1. His decision not to assault Cemetery Hill was a sound military judgment based on the evidence he had at the time weighed against discretionary orders from his commander. Critics have second-guessed Ewell’s judgment about the “practicability” of an assault, ignoring the fact that Lee expressly forbade him from bringing on a general engagement.
In the years since, a well-coordinated finger-pointing campaign, suppression of facts and a nation’s admiration for a martyred Confederate icon all combined to vilify Ewell and his well-reasoned decision under pressure.
Kristopher D. White is a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg. Chris Mackowski, who teaches at St. Bonaventure University, is a historical interpreter at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. They are the co-authors of The Last Days of Stonewall Jackson.
Originally Published in the August 2010 Civil War Times.