Richard Stoddert Ewell
He was known to his friends as “Old Bald Head” or “Baldy.” He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Dragoons and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1845. From 1843 to 1845 he served with Philip St. George Cooke and Stephen Watts Kearny on escort duty along the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails. In the Mexican-American War, serving under Winfield Scott, he was recognized and promoted to captain for his courage at Contreras and Churubusco. At Contreras, he conducted a nighttime reconnaissance with engineer Captain Robert E. Lee, his future commander.
Ewell served in the New Mexico Territory for some time, exploring the newly acquired Gadsden Purchase with Colonel Benjamin Bonneville. He was wounded in a skirmish with Apaches under Cochise in 1859. In 1860, while in command of Fort Buchanan, Arizona, illness compelled him to leave the West for Virginia to recuperate. He described his condition as “very ill with vertigo, nausea, etc., and now am excessively debilitated, having occasional attacks of the ague.” Illnesses and injuries would cause difficulties for him throughout the upcoming Civil War.
He had generally pro-Union sentiments, but when his home state of Virginia seceded, Ewell resigned his U.S. Army commission on May 7, 1861, to join the Virginia Provisional Army. He was appointed a colonel of cavalry on May 9 and was the first officer of field grade 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.
Hours after the battle, Ewell proposed to President Jefferson Davis that in order for the Confederacy to win the war, the slaves must be freed and join the ranks of the army; he was also willing to lead the blacks into battle. But Davis considered that “impossible” and that topic never came up between him and Ewell again. Nevertheless, Ewell, like Patrick Cleburne, was one of those few Confederate generals who saw that the Confederacy needed all the manpower it could get, regardless of race.
In late July, Ewell was furious when he heard that his commanding officer, P. G. T. Beauregard, was blaming him for not following orders at Bull Run, when in fact, the orders never reached him in time.
On January 24, 1862, Ewell was promoted to major general, and began serving under Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson during the Valley Campaign. Although the two generals worked together well, and both were noted for their quixotic personal behavior, there were many stylistic differences between them. 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. Ewell was initially resentful about Jackson’s tendency to keep his subordinates uninformed about his tactical plans, but Ewell eventually adjusted to Jackson’s methods.
Ewell superbly commanded a division in Jackson’s small army during the Valley Campaign, personally winning quite a few battles against the larger Union armies of Maj. Gens. John C. Frémont, Nathaniel P. Banks, and James Shields. Jackson’s army was then recalled to Richmond to join Robert E. Lee in protecting the city against Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in the Peninsula Campaign. Ewell fought conspicuously at Gaines’ Mill and Malvern Hill. After Lee repelled the Union army in the Seven Days Battles, Union Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia threatened to attack from the north, so Jackson was sent to intercept him. Ewell defeated Banks again at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9 and, returning to the old Manassas battlefield, he fought well at the Second Battle of Bull Run, but was wounded during the battle of Groveton (or Brawner’s Farm) on August 29, and his left leg was amputated below the knee.
While recovering from his injury, Ewell was nursed by his first cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, a wealthy widow from the Nashville area. Ewell had been attracted to Lizinka since his teenage years and they had earlier flirted with romance in 1861 and during the Valley Campaign, but now the close contact resulted in their wedding in Richmond on May 26, 1863.
After his long recovery, Ewell returned to Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the mortal wounding of Jackson at that battle, on May 23 Ewell was promoted to lieutenant general and command of the Second Corps (now slightly smaller than Jackson’s because units were subtracted to create a new Third Corps, under Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, also one of Jackson’s division commanders). Ewell was given a date of rank one day earlier than Hill’s, so he became the third-highest-ranking general in the Army of Northern Virginia, after Lee and James Longstreet.
In the opening days of the Gettysburg Campaign, at the Second Battle of Winchester, Ewell performed superbly, capturing the Union garrison of 4,000 men and 23 cannons. He escaped serious injury there when he was hit in the chest with a spent bullet (the second such incident in his career, after Gaines’ Mill). His corps took the lead in the invasion of Pennsylvania and almost reached the state capital of Harrisburg before being recalled by Lee to concentrate at Gettysburg. These successes led to favorable comparisons with Jackson.
But at the Battle of Gettysburg, Ewell’s military reputation started a long decline. On July 1, 1863, Ewell’s corps approached Gettysburg from the north and 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. Lee had just arrived on the field and saw the importance of this position. 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.
Ewell had several possible reasons for not attacking. The orders from Lee contained an innate contradiction. He was “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.” Lee also refused to provide assistance that Ewell requested from the corps of A.P. Hill. Ewell’s men were fatigued from their lengthy marching and strenuous battle in the hot July afternoon and it would be difficult to reassemble them into battle formation and assault the hill through the narrow corridors afforded by the streets of Gettysburg. The fresh division under Maj. Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson was just arriving, but Ewell also received intelligence that heavy Union reinforcements were arriving on the York Pike from the east, potentially threatening his flank. Ewell’s normally aggressive subordinate, Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, concurred with his decision.
Lee’s order has been criticized because it left too much discretion to Ewell. Historians such as McPherson have speculated on how the more aggressive Stonewall Jackson would have acted on this order if he had lived to command this wing of Lee’s army, and how differently the second day of battle would have proceeded with Confederate possession of Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill. 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. Other historians have noted that Lee, as the overall commanding general who issued discretionary orders to Ewell and then continued the battle for another two days, bears the final responsibility for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg.
When Ewell’s corps did attack these positions on July 2 and July 3, the Union had had time to fully occupy the heights and build impregnable defenses, resulting in heavy Confederate losses. Post-war proponents of the lost cause movement, particularly Jubal Early, but also Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, who had been assigned to Ewell’s staff during the battle, criticized him bitterly in attempts to deflect any blame for the loss of the battle on Robert E. Lee. Part of their argument was that the Union troops were completely demoralized by their defeat earlier in the day, but Ewell’s men were also disorganized, and decisions such as they were propounding are far simpler to make in hindsight than in the heat of battle and fog of war.
On July 3, Ewell was once again wounded, but this time only in his wooden leg. He led his corps on an orderly retreat back to Virginia. His luck continued to be poor and he was wounded at Kelly’s Ford, Virginia, in November. He was injured again in January 1864, when his horse fell over in the snow.
Ewell led his corps in the May 1864 Battle of the Wilderness and performed well, enjoying the rare circumstance of a slight numerical superiority over the Union corps that attacked him. In the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Lee felt compelled to lead the defense of the “Mule Shoe” on May 12 personally because of Ewell’s indecision and inaction. At one point Ewell began hysterically berating some of his fleeing soldiers and beating them over the back with his sword. Lee reined in his enraged lieutenant, saying sharply, “General Ewell, you must restrain yourself; how can you expect to control these men when you have lost control of yourself? If you cannot repress your excitement, you had better retire.” Ewell’s behavior on this occasion undoubtedly was the source of a statement made by Lee to his secretary, William Allan, after the war that on May 12 he “found Ewell perfectly prostrated by the misfortune of the morning, and too much overwhelmed to be efficient.” In the final combat at Spotsylvania, on May 19, 1864, Ewell ordered an attack on the Union left flank at the Harris Farm, which had little effect beyond delaying Grant for a day, at the cost of 900 casualties, about one-sixth of his remaining force.
Lee reasoned that Ewell’s lingering injuries were the cause of his problems and he relieved him from corps command, reassigning him to command the garrison of the Department of Richmond, which was by no means an insignificant assignment, given the extreme pressure Union forces were applying to the Confederate capital. In April 1865, as Ewell and his troops were retreating a great many fires in Richmond were started, although it is unclear by whose orders the fires were started. Ewell blamed the plundering mobs of civilians for burning a tobacco warehouse, which was a significant source of the fire, but Nelson Lankford, author of Richmond Burning, wrote that “Ewell convinced few people that the great fire had nothing to do with his men or their deliberate demolition of the warehouses and bridges through military orders passed down the chain of command.”These fires created The Great Conflagration of Richmond, which left a third of the city destroyed, including all of the business district. Ewell and his troops were then surrounded and captured at Sayler’s Creek. This was a few days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was held as a prisoner of war at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor until July 1865.
While imprisoned, Ewell organized a group of sixteen former generals also at Fort Warren, including Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and Joseph B. Kershaw, and sent a letter to Ulysses S. Grant about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, for which they said no Southern man could feel anything other than “unqualified abhorrence and indignation” and insisting that the crime should not be connected to the South.
After his parole, Ewell retired to work as a “gentleman farmer” on his wife’s farm near Spring Hill, Tennessee, which he helped to become profitable, and also leased a successful cotton plantation in Mississippi. He doted on Lizinka’s children and grandchildren. He was president of the Columbia Female Academy’s board of trustees, a communicant at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Columbia, and president of the Maury County Agricultural Society. He and his wife died of pneumonia within three days of each other. They are buried in Old City Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of The Making of a Soldier, published posthumously in 1935.
Bet you never even heard of him till now.
An Amazing man!