Here’s another what-if scenario from the Battle of Gettysburg.This one involves Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and Robert E. Lee’s imprecise orders to him. Many historians point out the wide latitude that Lee allowed his subordinates and the fact that he employed fewer staff officers than his Union counterparts.
Lee employed several staff officers during his command of the Army of Northern Virginia. The most well-known members of his immediate staff were Lt. Col. Robert Hall Chilton, Maj. Walter H. Taylor, Maj. Charles S. Venable and Maj. Charles Marshall. There were several others who assisted General Lee but these four were his principal aides.
Lee’s General Staff had additional officers with responsibilities that included the artillery, quartermasters, the medical corps, commissary, ordinance and judge advocate general. However, Lee wrote or dictated orders himself and at Gettysburg his orders to Ewell were imprecise at best.
Richard S. Ewell was 46-years old at the time of Gettysburg. A native of Georgetown in the District of Columbia, he had been raised near Manassas in Prince, William County, Virginia. He had graduated from West Point in 1840 and was assigned to the dragoons. He served with distinction during the Mexican War where he was promoted to captain. Until the beginning of the Civil War Ewell was stationed in the Far West in New Mexico and Arizona.
Ewell resigned his commission and joined the Virginia Provisional Army in May 1861. He was appointed a colonel of cavalry on May 9 and was one of the first senior officers wounded in the war, at a May 31 skirmish at Fairfax Court House. He was promoted to brigadier general in the Confederate States Army on June 17 and commanded a brigade in the (Confederate) Army of the Potomac at the First Battle of Bull Run, but saw little action.
Ewell proposed to President Jefferson Davis that the slaves be freed immediately and that he was willing to lead them in battle. Davis considered it an impossibility and he never spoke to Ewell about it again. Only Ewell and General Patrick Cleburne ever proposed freeing the slaves in order to use them in combat. Both realized that the South was outnumbered.
Ewell was promoted to major general and assigned to the Shenandoah Valley under the command of “Stonewall” Jackson. Although they got along well together, the two men could not have been more different. Jackson was stern and pious, whereas Ewell was witty and extremely profane. Jackson was flexible and intuitive on the battlefield, while Ewell, although brave and effective, required precise instructions to function effectively. This failing would have tragic results at Culp’s Hill.
Ewell was under Jackson’s command throughout the Valley Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles. Ewell was the victor at the the Battle of Cedar Mountain but at Groveton he was severely wounded and lost his left leg below the knee.
Ewell had a long recovery and didn’t return to the Army of Northern Virginia until after the Battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson had been mortally wounded and subsequently died in early May. Up until this point the Confederate Army had consisted of two corps commanded by James Longstreet and Jackson. Lee created a third corps with divisions from the first two. Jackson’s command was given to Ewell and the new Third Corps was given to Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill.
At the start of the Gettysburg Campaign, Ewell’s corps performed superbly at the Second Battle of Winchester where they captured 4,000 Union troops and 23 cannon. His corps led the invasion of Pennsylvania, almost reaching Harrisburg before being recalled to Gettysburg by Lee. His initial assaults smashed the Union XI Corps and part of the I Corps, driving them back through the town and forcing them to take up defensive positions on Cemetery Hill south of town.
Then both Lee and Ewell made mistakes that would have a fatal impact to the Confederates’ fortunes at Gettysburg. Lee, always known for allowing his commanders wide latitude, gave Ewell an order that he did not have to obey.
Arriving on the field, Lee realized that the Union position on Cemetery Hill was the key to the battlefield. He sent discretionary orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken “if practicable.” Historian James M. McPherson wrote, “Had Jackson still lived, he undoubtedly would have found it practicable. But Ewell was not Jackson.” Ewell chose not to attempt the assault.
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Lee’s orders were imprecise at best. He ordered Ewell “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.” He also refused the aid Ewell had requested in the form of troops from A.P. Hill. Ewell’s men were tired from their long march and strenuous fighting in the July heat.
Discretionary orders were customary for General Lee because Jackson and James Longstreet, his other principal subordinate, usually reacted to them very well and could use their initiative to respond to conditions and achieve the desired results. Ewell’s critics have noted that this failure of action on his part, whether justified or not, in all likelihood cost the Confederates the battle. Others say that Lee was responsible as the overall commander.
By the time Ewell’s corps attacked on July 2nd and 3rd, the Union positions had been heavily reinforced because General George Meade and his commanders could read a map as well as General Lee. Ewell was heavily criticized by Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, one of his subordinate commanders and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, who had been assigned to Ewell’s staff during the battle. Both were proponents of the lost cause movement and sought to deflect criticism from Lee.
If Ewell’s forces had taken Cemetery Ridge, the Union Army’s position would have been totally disconnected. The position guarded the Union right flank and kept the Confederates from taking their army in the rear. A successful assault by Ewell’s forces would have probably ended the battle after the first day with a Union defeat.
It is doubtful that the larger Union Army could have been completely smashed. More than likely they would have withdrawn to a the East and set up defensive positions at another location.