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Lee's Order to Ewell

Discussion in 'Battle of Gettysburg' started by hoosier, Oct 29, 2003.

  1. hoosier

    hoosier 1st Lieutenant Forum Host

    Feb 20, 2005
    Dillsburg, PA
    It's fairly well known that, on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee sent an order to Richard Ewell to "Take that hill, if practicable." Ewell did not take the hill, and it has generally been presumed that he dithered about deciding whether it was practicable or not.

    No written copy of Lee's order exists, for the simple reason that, by that stage of the war, Lee rarely put orders in writing. After the infamous lost cigars incident that preceded Antietam/Sharpsburg, Lee was ever mindful of the fact that written orders could get lost, and that such a circumstance had the potential to lead to disaster, so he generally preferred to give his orders verbally.

    I had the pleasure of taking a tour with Gettysburg park ranger Troy Harmon recently. According to Troy, Lee's order to Ewell contained not one, but two caveats. Not only did the order say to take the hill "if practicable," it also said to take the hill only if it could be done "without bringing on a general engagement." Shelby Foote's book also indicates that the order directed Ewell "to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army."

    It's possible that Ewell may have felt that it was practicable to take the hill, but did not see how he could do so without bringing on a general engagement. Confederate cavalry scouts (even though JEB Stuart wasn't present, the South wasn't entirely without cavalry on the first day) could clearly see Alpheus Williams' division of the Union XII Corps advancing toward the hill along the Hanover Road, so a Confederate attempt to take the hill would almost certainly have brought on a considerable engagement.

    Anyone else remember hearing about this part of Lee's order to Ewell? Any opinions as to whether Ewell's failure to take the hill was due more to doubts about (1) whether it was practicable or (2)whether he could do it without bringing on a general engagement?

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  3. gary

    gary Captain

    Feb 20, 2005
    Yep. I read that somewhere too. But having read over 200 plus books, I'm not sure which one.
    MRB1863 likes this.
  4. aphillbilly

    aphillbilly Guest


    I know one source that leads me to believe a bit differently. From Robertson's book on A.P. Hill, I find first, Hill's final warning to Heth at 5 am on the 1st, right before Heth moved out. "Do not bring on an engagement." Although at this time all the commanders believed there nothing but cavalry in front of them. But as a safety precaution Hill ordered Pender to follow Heth’s division at a distance. His plan that morning, as he informed Lee the night before was “to advance the next morning and see what is in my front.” So while cavalry was available it appears they were not where they needed to be. Especially if infantry in force is having to do the scouting.

    Well as we know, the battle was indeed on. Lee and Hill were watching the fight most of the day when about 2:30pm Ewell showed up on the Union right flank. Heth, who had been pretty well mauled earlier, rushed up and asked permission to attack. Lee replied "No, I am not prepared to bring on a general engagement today. General Longstreet is not up." Yet as Rodes pressed the Federals and the battle did indeed become general it appears Lee saw the battle as opportunity. Lee then ordered Hill to attack again. The Federal lines broke. “A broad tumultuous stream of panic stricken men.” At this point, about 5pm, Lee asked Hill if his men could advance from their present position and march across the town valley and seize the opposite hills. In Robertson’s words “At no time in the civil war did anyone question Hill’s pugnacity; but he was also one of the most solicitous commanders where the condition of his men were concerned. The divisions of Heth and Pender had taken frightful losses. Those still in the line had been marching and fighting since 5 that morning. In addition they were almost out of ammunition and no replenishment in sight. Anderson’s division was still miles away and would not get up before dark. No, sir, Hill replied to Lee, my men have had all they can take for one day.”

    It was then Lee turned to Ewell and told him to take the hill if practicable. It would seem really odd at this point for Lee to start in again about not wanting to start a general engagement. Knowing Lee, and the fact it was obvious the importance of the hill to him, after fighting so hard to get through the union resistance, to not want to fight for them. I mean Hill’s Corp had taken a beating for what?

    Why semi-order Ewell to take the hill but also counter the order by telling him not to fight for it? That seems to me to be a paradox. I always thought “practicable” meant what it did to A.P. Hill. If your men are in position and able etc, then take the hill. Which they were. And he didn’t.

    Hope that helps. I’m sure there are many countering opinions.

    FarawayFriend and W. Richardson like this.

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