- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

CONFEDERATE GENERAL R.S. EWELL: ROBERT E. LEE’S HESITANT COMMANDER

By Paul D. Casdorph, University of Kentucky Press 496 pages, $26.37

The death of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in May 1863 after the great Confederate victory at Chancellorsville presented Gen. Robert E. Lee with a critical decision. How was he to replace the mighty Stonewall, who had been the key to so many Confederate victories?

One possibility was Gen. A.P. Hill, one of Lee’s most aggressive division commanders. Another was the colorful cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, who had performed splendidly on the third day of Chancellorsville following Jackson’s wounding.

Lee, however, chose neither Hill nor Stuart, but Gen. Richard Ewell, who had served under Jackson and was rumored to be Jackson’s personal choice as his successor. Ewell is the subject of an extensively researched biography by Paul D. Casdorph.

Born in Washington, Ewell was raised in Prince William County, Va. He graduated from West Point in 1840 and was commissioned in the 1st U.S. Dragoons, with which he served in the American West for much of the next two decades.

In a series of frontier campaigns, Ewell gained a reputation as a fine combat commander. In later years, he would assert that before the Civil War “he had learned all about commanding fifty United States dragoons, and had forgotten everything else.”

Ewell was opposed to secession, but when Virginia left the Union, he resigned his commission and accepted appointment as a colonel in the Confederate army. Although he saw no action in 1861, Ewell’s good reputation brought promotion to major general and his assignment to Jackson’s command in the Shenandoah Valley.

In the spring of 1862, Jackson and Ewell advanced down the Valley, winning victories at Front Royal and Winchester and outmaneuvering much larger Federal forces. At the end of the campaign, the Valley was largely clear of the enemy and Ewell had established himself as one of the ablest division commanders in the East. Modest in demeanor and thoughtful of the troops under his command, Ewell was known affectionately as “Old Bald Head.”

Ewell served capably in the Seven Days campaign outside Richmond, and there he first came to Lee’s attention. During the Second Manassas campaign that followed, however, Ewell was severely wounded and lost his leg below the knee. After several months of convalescence, he rejoined the Army of Northern Virginia at the close of the Chancellorsville campaign.

Mr. Casdorph believes Ewell was never the same after this critical wound, but Lee thought he was the best prospect to succeed Jackson. The commanding general seems to have overlooked that whereas Jackson was brilliantly flexible on the battlefield, Ewell required precise instructions and followed orders to the letter. Promoted to lieutenant general in June 1863, Ewell led Jackson’s legendary 2nd Corps in the Gettysburg campaign and thereafter.

Ewell was preparing to attack Harrisburg, Pa., on June 30 when an urgent order from Lee directed him to Gettysburg. His performance the following day would be the most controversial of his career. Ewell pushed his men hard and, together with Hill’s corps, drove the Federals out of the town.

Lee sent an aide to tell Ewell to press ahead and take Cemetery Hill “if practicable”—a fatal qualifier for an unimaginative subordinate. Influenced by cautionary advice from his ablest division commander, Gen. Jubal Early, Ewell declined to attack and busied himself processing Federal prisoners.

He would later cite troop fatigue, disorganization and the lateness of the day as grounds for inaction, but Cemetery Hill — a vital link in the Federal line — was largely undefended at the time.

In the Overland campaign of 1864, Ewell initially rendered sterling service. At Spotsylvania, Ewell’s command received the brunt of Ulysses S. Grant’s assault on the famous “Mule Shoe” salient but retrieved most of the lost ground. A staff officer wrote his wife, “Gen. Ewell sleeps and stays in the trenches, but he will not let any of his staff sleep where there is any danger if he can help it.”

Ewell’s star was setting, however. Some of his tactical dispositions were suspect, and Lee believed his faithful lieutenant was no longer physically fit for field command. When Ewell was injured in a fall from his horse, Lee seized the opportunity to replace him with Early. Ewell did not go gracefully and lobbied for a return to his command. The most Lee would do was entrust him with the defenses around Richmond.

Following the April 2, 1865, evacuation of Richmond, Ewell and what remained of his command were captured on April 6 at Saylor’s Creek. Ewell was briefly imprisoned but soon was released and lived out his life on his wife’s plantation in Tennessee.

Ewell stands out as an example of the Peter Principle: a person promoted a step above his competence. Mr. Casdorph pulls no punches in detailing his subject’s shortcomings.

Here is a teaser: What if the aggressive Stuart, rather than the cautious Ewell, had succeeded to Jackson’s corps? Lee’s cavalry would not have roamed off the reservation during the Gettysburg campaign, and Stuart almost certainly would have captured Cemetery Hill.

John M. Taylor of McLean, Va., is the author of several books on the Civil War period.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide