Our Best Men: Stephen Dodson Ramseur


General Stephen Dodson RamseurThe American Civil War is filled with stories of promising men who had their lives cut short. One such man was Maj. Gen. Stephen Dodson Ramseur of North Carolina. At one point, he was the youngest general in the Confederate Army.

Dodson Ramseur (he rarely used his given name) was born on May 31, 1837 in Lincolnton, North Carolina. He came from a somewhat prosperous family. He began his studies at Davidson College under future Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill. He continued them at West Point, graduating in 1860. Commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the artillery, his career in the U.S. Army was short-lived.

Ramseur resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Army in Alabama. He quickly transferred to the 10th North Carolina Militia. He became the lieutenant colonel of the 3rd North Carolina Infantry on May 27, 1861. He was injured with a broken collarbone while being thrown from his horse in July and was out of service until the following spring.

At the start of the Peninsula Campaign Ramseur was assigned to the artillery in Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder‘s division, but he was elected colonel of the 49th North Carolina Infantry on April 12, 1862. Ramseur saw significant action at the Battle of Malvern Hill where he led a futile charge against the strong Union defenses.

He was severely wounded in the arm which was paralyzed. He would not return until after the Battle of Antietam when he was given command of a brigade of four North Carolina regiments in Brig. Gen. Robert E. Rodes‘ division.

 Ramseur was promoted to brigadier general in November 1862 even though he has missed a number of battle. Robert E. Lee had been impressed by his aggressive performance at Malvern Hill and wanted to reward him.

At Chancellorsville, Ramseur’s was the lead brigade on Jackson’s famous flank march on May 2, 1863. After Jackson was mortally wounded, J.E.B. Stuart ordered three cheers for the brigade’s aggressive assault and recommended that Ramseur be promoted to major general.

Actually, Ramseur’s brigade was too aggressive and moved out in front of the other brigades too quickly. They became too exposed and ran out of ammunition. This required reinforcements from the other brigades to help them consolidate their gains. The brigade suffered more than 50% casualties; by far higher than any other Confederate brigade. The following day Ramseur was wounded once again and came to Robert E. Lee’s attention:

I consider its brigade and regimental commanders as among the best of their respective grades in the army, and in the battle of Chancellorsville, where the brigade was much distinguished and suffered severely, General Ramseur was among those whose conduct was especially commended to my notice by Lieutenant General Jackson, in a message sent to me after he was wounded.

— Robert E. Lee, Official Report on Chancellorsville

Ramseur’s brigade was only engage on the first day at Gettysburg. Initially, they were in reserve but when the attack against the right flank of the Union I Corps began to peter out Rodes ordered them to attack the attack the Union positions in the rear. Ramseur was ordered to halt the pursuit at the foot of Cemetery Hill. This was their last action in the battle.

After Gettysburg, Ramseur returned home to marry Ellen E. “Nellie” Richmond and they spent three months together in the Confederate army winter encampment.

At the start of the Battle of the Wilderness, Ramseur’s brigade was once more held in reserve. On May 7, 1864, his brigade was called forward and smashed into Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside‘s IX Corps, which was attempting to outflank Ewell’s Corps. Both Lee and corps commander Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell wrote in admiration of his gallant attack, which drove Burnside’s troops back over a half mile.

At Spotsylvania Court House, his brigade was involved in intense combat against Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps when they attacked the Mule Shoe Salient at the “Bloody Angle.” The fighting lasted 20 hours and Ramseur was wounded once again in the arm. Despite being shot from his horse, he refused to leave the field.

After Spotsylvania, Ramseur was promoted to major general and given command of Jubal Early’s division when he took over for the wounded Ewell. He thus became the youngest West Point graduate to ever be promoted to major general in the Confederate Army. Following that accomplishment, he led his division at Cold Harbor where they thwarted Ulysses S. Grant’s attempt to take Petersburg.

In late June of 1864, Lee dispatched Early’s Corps to the Shenandoah Valley. Their objective was to draw off Union forces from the siege at Petersburg and also secure supplies in the Valley needed by the Confederate Army to survive the Union siege. Early’s Corps conducted a series of successful raids down thew Valley, into Maryland and to the outer defenses of Washington itself.

Grant responded by sending one of his favorites Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to the Valley. Sheridan met Early’s Corps on September 19, 1864 at at the Battle of Opequon, also known as the Third Battle of Winchester. The Confederates were outnumbered by more than 3-to-1 and were suffered severe casualties, although the Union Army suffered more.

Ramseur’s division was routed by a strong Union assault near Stephenson’s Depot. Ramseur allegedly wept openly and immaturely blamed his men for the retreat. His former commander Robert Rodes was mortally wounded. Early’s Corps was forced into a headlong retreat. The Battle of Opequon marked a turning point in the Shenandoah Valley in favor of the North. Early’s army for the most part remained intact but suffered further defeats at Fisher’s Hill and Tom’s Brook.

One moth after the Battle of Opequon, the two armies met at Cedar Creek. Outnumbered 3-to-2, Early devised an aggressive plan. They hoped to catch the Union soldiers when they least expected it, in the very early morning. To complicate matters, Sheridan had gone to Washington and had intended to send his Cavalry Corps to raid the Virginia Central Railroad.

But Early outsmarted himself when he sent signals that Lt. Gen James Longstreet’s Corps was on the way to reinforce him. Sheridan recalled the infantry that he had sent back to Petersburg and the cavalry. He himself was at Winchester awaiting events.

Early’s initial attack was a complete surprise. Most of the Union troops were routed and fled north but a few isolated units held the field. The Union corps commanders regrouped their commands and held off the Confederate attacks.

The hungry Confederate troops stopped to eat the Union soldiers’ breakfasts and pillage their tents. This slowed down the entire momentum of the attack. Ramseur managed to corral a few hundred soldiers out of his division and stood with them in the center of the line as Sheridan counterattacked. They held off the Union assault for an hour and a half.

Ramseur displayed great bravery in rallying his troops, but he was mounted conspicuously on horseback and drew continuous fire. He was wounded in the arm and his horse was shot out from under him. A second horse was also killed. On his third horse, he was struck through both lungs and fell, later to be captured by Union soldiers of the 1st Vermont Cavalry.

The mortally-wounded Confederate was taken to Union headquarters at Belle Grove. He found out the day before the battle that his wife had given birth to his baby daughter. At Belle Grove Dodson Ramseur was comforted by his former classmates from West Point: George A. Custer, Wesley Merritt and Henry DuPont, as he lay dying. He died the following day at 10:20 AM. His last words were, “Bear this message to my precious wife—I die a Christian and hope to meet her in heaven.”

Jubal Early summed up Stephen Dodson Ramseur in his report to General Lee:

Major-General Ramseur fell into the hands of the enemy mortally wounded, and in him not only my command, but the country suffered a heavy loss. He was a most gallant and energetic officer whom no disaster appalled, but his courage and energy seemed to gain new strength in the midst of confusion and disorder. He fell at his post fighting like a lion at bay, and his native State has reason to be proud of his memory.

— Jubal Early, Official Report from Cedar Creek

Nellie Ramseur never remarried; she remained with her family at Woodside, and wore black mourning clothes for the rest of her life.

You can read more about Dodson Ramseur in Gary Gallagher’s book: Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee’s Gallant General

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