Discussion Opinions on Richard Ewell, Overly Maligned, Competent Commander?

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Opinions on Richard Ewell, Overly Maligned, Competent Commander?

220px-Richard_S_Ewell.png


A few weeks ago, @frontrank2 put up a very interesting thread on "Who Gave the Worst Performance at Gettysburg" It had me thinking about Richard Ewell, whether he belonged on the list and his role in the war. After thinking it over a bit I have taken the positive viewpoint of Ewell. I think he is an overly blamed figure and was actually a pretty good commander. Ewell, like General Longstreet, was a victim of the Lost Cause which largely sought to explain the defeat at Gettysburg by blaming Lee's subordinates. Unlike Longstreet however Ewell reputation hasn't seen as much of an upswing. The film Gettysburg rightly helped to improve people's opinion of Longstreet but repeated the same old criticisms of Ewell. Historian James McPherson as well plays into this speculating that "Had Jackson still lived, he undoubtedly would have found it practicable. But Ewell was not Jackson."

What's your opinion? Do you think he is overly maligned? Was he a competent commander? How does he compare to Lee's other top commanders such as Longstreet, Jackson, A.P. Hill, Gordon, Early and Anderson?

Historian Donald Pfanz in his book Richard Ewell: A Soldier's Life gives a balanced view of his generalship:
"An analysis of Ewell's career shows him to have been a remarkably talented officer who knew how to handle troops in combat. In addition to being a stubborn fighter, he was an able administrator and arguably the best marcher in the army. Recent tactical studies confirm his ability. In the Shenandoah Valley and the Wilderness, at Seven Days and Second Winchester, he performed well and sometimes brilliantly. Even his performance at Gettysburg does not appear to have been as flawed as previously thought, certainly it was no worse than those of Lee, Longstreet, Stuart or A.P. Hill. As to his supposed incapacity for independent command, one needs only to examine the record. Of the four major engagements in which Ewell exercised field command, he won decided victorious at three: Cross Keys, Second Winchester and Fort Harrison. The remaining battle, Sailor's Creek, found him overwhelmed by Union force more than twice his size. Even then he surrendered only after his crops was surrounded. That is not to say that Ewell made no mistakes. He stumbled at Gettysburg, his tactics at Groveton lacked imagination and his performance at Spotsylvania was riddled with flaws. But when weighted against his many accomplishments, these shortcomings appear small. When the balance sheet is tallied up, Ewell's successes as a general far outweigh his failures."

Also a very interesting article on Ewell's actions at Gettysburg:
http://www.historynet.com/did-lt-gen-richard-ewell-lose-the-battle-of-gettysburg.htm
 
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ivanj05

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What is often overlooked when discussing Ewell's performance at Gettysburg on July 1 in particular is just how well he did in the weeks leading up to it. He did very well handling his corps in the Shenandoah, and handed in a fine performance at Winchester.
 
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Bruce Vail

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I don't feel qualified to comment of Ewell's overall career, but the Gettysburg criticism never seemed entirely fair to me. The criticism seemed to be "He should have known about weaknesses in the Union line that none of the other Confederate leaders knew. And he should have taken bigger risks now that hindsight indicates the risks might have been justified."

Jeez, you could say that about almost any commander at any time.
 

jackt62

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As noted in these posts, I think Ewell was a solid, competent commander, whose historical legacy is unfortunately framed by the "Lost Cause" proponents who blamed him for failing to assault Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. It also didn't help his historical reputation that his physical condition caused Lee to remove him from corps command after Spotsylvania.
 
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amweiner

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I also feel that Ewell got an unfair shake after Gettysburg. What's bothered me most has been the almost formulaic approach to July 1st: If Jackson is present, he attacks Cemetery Hill as ordered. If Jackson attacks as ordered, he is completely victorious and sweeps the AOP from the field. I've heard many people make that argument, but think that TJ (if he had been there and had attacked) might have had his hands full.

Everyone blames Ewell for not finding it "practicable" to attack, because Lee did think it so. However, Ewell was on the field, doing the best he could with the information he had available. It's not like the ANV's Second Corps spent the day making garlands out of daisies....they had fought ferociously.
 
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Thanks for the comments thus far. I'll post this interview with Pfanz for additional info:
http://www.historynet.com/general-ewells-corner-interview-donald-c-pfanz.htm

Asked to present a paper on the 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign at a Civil War Roundtable some years ago, National Park Service historian Donald Pfanz initially planned to focus on Southern General Turner Ashby rather than Ashby’s counterpart, Richard Ewell. But he soon became intrigued by the man most often blamed for the South’s loss at Gettysburg in July 1863—for “failing” to take Cemetery Hill the first day of the battle. In 1998 he penned the definitive biography of the much-maligned general, Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life, and last year he edited The Letters of General Richard S. Ewell: Stonewall’s Successor (reviewed in CWT ’s June issue). Like his father, Gettysburg chief historian Harry W. Pfanz, Donald made a career in the park service, retiring this spring after 32 years—the last 22 at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Though he admits he still hasn’t managed to sell most of his colleagues on Ewell (“You just can’t shake the views some people have grown up with”), Pfanz is adamant that Ewell was not at fault for Gettysburg, and overall was a “pretty darned good general, one of the Confederacy’s best.”

Why has history been so unkind to Ewell’s memory?

It comes in part from some of Ewell’s associates writing to justify their own conduct in the war. Jubal Early and Isaac Trimble both said some negative things about him after he had died and couldn’t defend himself, and John B. Gordon wrote one of the most self-serving memoirs I can think of. It also came from soldiers who saw that the Confederacy suddenly wasn’t winning and were trying to figure out why. They had won under Stonewall Jackson—and of course Longstreet and Lee couldn’t be blamed—so it had to be Ewell. Douglas Freeman didn’t help either. He echoed Early and others in writing that Ewell was indecisive, incapable of independent command.

What about the generally unfavorable opinion people have of Ewell?

I don’t want to pretend that Ewell didn’t make his share of mistakes— in fact after the war he supposedly commented that it took a good dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg and he had made several of them. No one would argue he had a flawless battle, but when you look at what he did as a corps commander, his record is pretty outstanding. At Second Winchester, his very first battle, he basically pried Robert Milroy’s command out of that strongly fortified town with few losses and captured a good bit of Milroy’s command. He then led the march to Harrisburg, gathering supplies for the Army of Northern Virginia. On July 1 [at Gettysburg], he routed the Union army, capturing 3,000 to 4,000 prisoners. But he’s criticized for that sole decision to not attack Cemetery Hill. He did want to take that hill, but he wanted to do it in the least bloody way possible, which was to take Culp’s Hill first. He gave [Maj. Gen. Edward] Johnson orders to do that, but he had to wait for Johnson’s division to come up. Because of a misunderstanding of orders, Johnson didn’t take the hill—he kept waiting for another order from Ewell, and it never came. It was just the typical confusion of battle that ultimately resulted in Ewell not being able to seize those hills.

What were some of his successes?


In the 1862 Valley Campaign, he was brilliant in all those battles—he was literally Stonewall’s main weapon. His troops were the ones responsible for the victories, and Ewell was personally the one on the field leading the way. At Gaines’ Mill, he showed unbelievable bravery holding his position as reinforcements worked their way to the front. He was magnificent at the Wilderness holding back 21/2 Union corps with his one corps, but he never gets any credit for it—in fact, Gordon claims in his self-serving memoir that he told Ewell to make a flank attack and Ewell wouldn’t because he was indecisive.

Did his men love him?

Ewell didn’t have the following some of the others had. Some generals were gallant and looked the part, but he didn’t. He rode a flea-bitten horse, looked flea-bitten himself. In battle, he often cursed and was excitable. He wasn’t the sort you’d look at and say, “There’s a great general,” and cheer as he rode by. But he was extremely competent, always energetic. On the frontier before the war, he was in the saddle sometimes for weeks at a time, riding hundreds of miles, chasing down Indians. During the war, it was the same: never any complaints about him from an administrative standpoint. He was very devoted to duty. At Fort Harrison, while riding with Lee, he bashed his head when his horse slipped. Lee says, “General, go to the rear and take care of yourself.” A couple of hours later, he’s right back in the field, looking like a mummy, his head wrapped in bandages. Same thing at Mine Run: He goes to Charlottesville to have his false leg replaced, but when he hears there’s a battle brewing at Mine Run, he rushes back because he knew it was his duty. Even though he had a distaste for war and its carnage—as he wrote once to his niece, “Nobody could ever like to see the mangled forms of men out on the battlefield”—the excitement of battle attracted him. He always wanted to do his part.

Did you find Ewell’s letters revealing?


Reading his letters gives you a better feel for his personality. One of the things that comes across is that not only does he have a quirky sense of humor, but he’s also a practical, common-sense sort of officer. He called things as he saw them—he may not have been a brilliant man, but he had more common sense than a lot of officers on either side. He had very good military judgment and a good eye for terrain. He also had great intuition. For instance, before the explosion at the Petersburg Crater [July 30, 1864], he wrote to his wife, Lizinka, saying how he had a strange feeling that the Federals were going to do something unexpected, something never tried before—and that very day they exploded dynamite in a mine under their lines.

Did losing his leg at Second Manassas and his marriage to Lizinka in 1863 change Ewell?

A lot of people focus on a quote by Eppa Hunton, saying Ewell was not the same man after his wounding and his marriage than he was before, when he was a whole man and a single one. One of those who picked up on that quote by Hunton—who, by the way, didn’t even fight under Ewell for most of the war—was Douglas Freeman, and as I’ve said, once Freeman accepts it, the world accepts it. Several changes come into Ewell’s life at that time. His marriage, of course, was the primary one. But I don’t believe he was more cautious and eccentric when he returned. He was already, I think, by 1862 becoming more religious. He had grown up in a reasonably religious household but had been an officer on the frontier, and like a lot of people who are out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of soldiers, tended to start becoming profane. But I think once he got back to the East during the Civil War—thanks in part to Lizinka’s influence, and also due to Jackson and other people in the army—he was starting to once again be drawn toward God. He does seem to be much more outspoken in his faith, at least in his pronouncements, than he was before. But I don’t think that affected him as a general at all. I think he’s the same person in ’63-’64 that he was in ’61-’62.
 
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Jamieva

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As noted in these posts, I think Ewell was a solid, competent commander, whose historical legacy is unfortunately framed by the "Lost Cause" proponents who blamed him for failing to assault Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg. It also didn't help his historical reputation that his physical condition caused Lee to remove him from corps command after Spotsylvania.
His removal at Spotsylvania was about his mental condition, not physical. He was whacking retreating soldiers with the blunt of his sword and Lee got very upset about that behavior.
 

Jamieva

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Really good division commander. I will take some away from his 2nd Winchester victory as he was leading a veteran corps that had veteran division commanders, and facing a force that had not fought much and was poorly led and poorly deployed for battle. In fact, they weren't even supposed to be there they had been ordered by Washington to leave and the commander was too stubborn to go. Read @Eric Wittenberg book on the battle that came out in the last year its really well done.

Wildnerness he performed very well. Certainly better than Hill. He got too much blame at Gettysburg.
 
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rpkennedy

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I don't feel qualified to comment of Ewell's overall career, but the Gettysburg criticism never seemed entirely fair to me. The criticism seemed to be "He should have known about weaknesses in the Union line that none of the other Confederate leaders knew. And he should have taken bigger risks now that hindsight indicates the risks might have been justified."

Jeez, you could say that about almost any commander at any time.
You nailed it. The Gettysburg criticisms are based almost entirely on 20/20 hindsight. Based on what he knew at the time and constricted by his orders, Ewell made the right choice on July 1st. He did fairly well for the rest of the battle.

Overall, Ewell was an outstanding division commander (he was Jackson's chosen successor), performed very well during the Gettysburg Campaign, did well at the Wilderness, but lost his head at Spotsylvania.

Ryan
 

amweiner

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but lost his head at Spotsylvania
And I can empathize with him and other commanders who just had had too much by that point. The physical and mental strain had to be unbelievable by that stage of the War, and we start seeing more and more of those signs of breakdown as the campaign wears on. Warren, Hancock...how many others?
 

mofederal

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War weariness was a real thing to enlisted men and officers alike. Everyone who had been at war for over two years were probably thoroughly sick of war. Being wounded, and slow healing wounds at that would have contributed. Ewell had fought well, but he went a little crazy at Spotsylvania, as men in war sometimes do. Maybe he should have been shifted to another command. Coming back does not always help. Even though he was assigned to the Richmond defenses I doubt it was a rest enough for him, but he did perform well in his assignment actually. Upon evacuation of Richmond, he still had command of his Corps, though smaller than it had been. Ewell fought as best he could against large odds. He was captured at Sailor's Creek along with most of his men.. I think he was glad to have been captured, to end his war. He only lived a short time after the war, dying in 1872.
 
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War weariness was a real thing to enlisted men and officers alike. Everyone who had been at war for over two years were probably thoroughly sick of war. Being wounded, and slow healing wounds at that would have contributed. Ewell had fought well, but he went a little crazy at Spotsylvania, as men in war sometimes do. Maybe he should have been shifted to another command. Coming back does not always help. Even though he was assigned to the Richmond defenses I doubt it was a rest enough for him, but he did perform well in his assignment actually. Upon evacuation of Richmond, he still had command of his Corps, though smaller than it had been. Ewell fought as best he could against large odds. He was captured at Sailor's Creek along with most of his men.. I think he was glad to have been captured, to end his war. He only lived a short time after the war, dying in 1872.
Interesting points. I've read that Ewell actually wanted to join his close friend Joe Johnston out West but his petition got rejected. A change of scenery probably would have done Ewell some good. However It would have been bad for Lee, Ewell was brilliant at the Wilderness, I don't see his stand in Jubal Early doing as well.
I also feel that Ewell got an unfair shake after Gettysburg. What's bothered me most has been the almost formulaic approach to July 1st: If Jackson is present, he attacks Cemetery Hill as ordered. If Jackson attacks as ordered, he is completely victorious and sweeps the AOP from the field. I've heard many people make that argument, but think that TJ (if he had been there and had attacked) might have had his hands full.

Everyone blames Ewell for not finding it "practicable" to attack, because Lee did think it so. However, Ewell was on the field, doing the best he could with the information he had available. It's not like the ANV's Second Corps spent the day making garlands out of daisies....they had fought ferociously.
I'd like to add Pfanz also gives a realistic appraisal of what Ewell would have been facing on Cemetery Hill: "The Union army had an estimated 12,000 soldiers on Cemetery Hill that afternoon. Sixteen hundred of these men belonged to Col. Orland Smith's brigade which had not yet engaged.".... "To make the attack Ewell had available two brigades of Early's division together numbering roughly 2,500 men and whatever troops Rodes could have contributed."

It would not have been easy going and it seems like Ewell would have been rebuffed with heavy losses. If Jackson really would have gone charging up the hill, without knowing the size of the enemy force, I would probably deem it overagressive. It might be pushing it but some people actually seem to have thought Ewell was a more well rounded general than Jackson. "Major Henry McDaniel of Georgia: Ewell is considered Jackson's equal, even in dash, and by many persons as his superior in ability"
 

novushomus

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Interesting points. I've read that Ewell actually wanted to join his close friend Joe Johnston out West but his petition got rejected. A change of scenery probably would have done Ewell some good. However It would have been bad for Lee, Ewell was brilliant at the Wilderness, I don't see his stand in Jubal Early doing as well.


I'd like to add Pfanz also gives a realistic appraisal of what Ewell would have been facing on Cemetery Hill: "The Union army had an estimated 12,000 soldiers on Cemetery Hill that afternoon. Sixteen hundred of these men belonged to Col. Orland Smith's brigade which had not yet engaged.".... "To make the attack Ewell had available two brigades of Early's division together numbering roughly 2,500 men and whatever troops Rodes could have contributed."

It would not have been easy going and it seems like Ewell would have been rebuffed with heavy losses. If Jackson really would have gone charging up the hill, without knowing the size of the enemy force, I would probably deem it overagressive. It might be pushing it but some people actually seem to have thought Ewell was a more well rounded general than Jackson. "Major Henry McDaniel of Georgia: Ewell is considered Jackson's equal, even in dash, and by many persons as his superior in ability"
I had not read that. However, when Polk was killed, and when Johnston heard nothing of his request for Alexander P. Stewart to be promoted to take Polk's old corps, he assumed Davis had rejected his recommmendation. Johnston's next choice after Stewart was Ewell.
 
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rpkennedy

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Interesting points. I've read that Ewell actually wanted to join his close friend Joe Johnston out West but his petition got rejected. A change of scenery probably would have done Ewell some good. However It would have been bad for Lee, Ewell was brilliant at the Wilderness, I don't see his stand in Jubal Early doing as well.


I'd like to add Pfanz also gives a realistic appraisal of what Ewell would have been facing on Cemetery Hill: "The Union army had an estimated 12,000 soldiers on Cemetery Hill that afternoon. Sixteen hundred of these men belonged to Col. Orland Smith's brigade which had not yet engaged.".... "To make the attack Ewell had available two brigades of Early's division together numbering roughly 2,500 men and whatever troops Rodes could have contributed."

It would not have been easy going and it seems like Ewell would have been rebuffed with heavy losses. If Jackson really would have gone charging up the hill, without knowing the size of the enemy force, I would probably deem it overagressive. It might be pushing it but some people actually seem to have thought Ewell was a more well rounded general than Jackson. "Major Henry McDaniel of Georgia: Ewell is considered Jackson's equal, even in dash, and by many persons as his superior in ability"
Perhaps as important as the 12,000 men around Cemetery Hill were the 40-odd cannon on the hill. Any attack that Ewell ordered would have had to form up under their muzzles and charge into the teeth of that fire. Any attack on the evening of July 1st is almost doomed to failure.

Not to mention that Ewell was still operating under Lee's orders not to bring on a general engagement.

Ryan
 
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Jamieva

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Interesting points. I've read that Ewell actually wanted to join his close friend Joe Johnston out West but his petition got rejected. A change of scenery probably would have done Ewell some good. However It would have been bad for Lee, Ewell was brilliant at the Wilderness, I don't see his stand in Jubal Early doing as well.


I'd like to add Pfanz also gives a realistic appraisal of what Ewell would have been facing on Cemetery Hill: "The Union army had an estimated 12,000 soldiers on Cemetery Hill that afternoon. Sixteen hundred of these men belonged to Col. Orland Smith's brigade which had not yet engaged.".... "To make the attack Ewell had available two brigades of Early's division together numbering roughly 2,500 men and whatever troops Rodes could have contributed."

It would not have been easy going and it seems like Ewell would have been rebuffed with heavy losses. If Jackson really would have gone charging up the hill, without knowing the size of the enemy force, I would probably deem it overagressive. It might be pushing it but some people actually seem to have thought Ewell was a more well rounded general than Jackson. "Major Henry McDaniel of Georgia: Ewell is considered Jackson's equal, even in dash, and by many persons as his superior in ability"

I've read that desire to go west from Longstreet but never from Ewell
 

István.AT

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I do not think that Ewell alone could've taken Cemetery Hill on the 1st of July. A joint attack from both his and Hill's corps would make more sense, but organizing it was a little above his pay grade. I may be wrong, but I think that General Lee himself was at that moment at the positions of 3rd corps and made no attempt to organize an attack on Cemetery Hill. Can we blame Ewell for not trying if Lee himself didn't try?
Ewell also recognized the importance of Culp Hill and gave Edward Johnson orders to attack it. Johnson, when he got there, incorrectly appraised the number of federal forces on the Culp Hill and didn't attack. Here we can scorn Ewell for failure to give more precise and deliberate orders to Johnson.

I agree what Ewell's performance on 1st of July was much better than it is usually painted. The problems of AoNV in Pennsylvania Campaign were a little above Ewell and came from the recent major reorganization. Some time was needed to make all officers and commanders (not excluding Gen. Lee) to accustom themselves to the new structure.
 
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