Richard S. Ewell and the Battle of Gettysburg – Does He Deserve the Bad Rap?
We all know that Richard S. Ewell gets a bad rap for at least one of his decisions on the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg. He had the Yankees on the run – and chose not to push them off the high ground at Cemetery Hill…allowing them to secure their defenses on the hill while the rest of the Union army moved into position. Well – we have no way of knowing what would have happened had Ewell gone after the hill – but let’s see if can shed a little light on why he didn’t at least go for it.
On July 1, 1863, Ewell’s corps more or less routed the Union XI and part of the I corps and chased them through the town of Gettysburg forcing them to take up defensive positions on Cemetery Hill. Lee, arriving on the scene, ordered Ewell to take the hill “if practicable.” But there was more to it. Lee’s orders were kind of confusing: 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.”
What??? How do you attack the Union army without bringing on a general engagement? Plus, there were some other things to contend with. Ewell’s troops were tired from the day’s fight, they needed reinforcements that Lee was unwilling to provide, and Ewell knew that the rest of the Union army was heading his way. Yikes!
But the real problem here was Lee himself (Lee supporters prepare to attack in 3…2…1). His orders left too much discretion. Historians have speculated that more aggressive commanders, such as Jackson, would have gone for it. Ewell, new to corps command was not Jackson…and Lee knew it. Lee also knew that Jackson and his other principle lieutenant, James Longstreet, worked well with discretionary orders. Ewell was untested in this regard.
Apparently, Ewell got to the hill, and did not find an attack “practicable” after all. And you know what…he was probably right. Maybe Lee should have just said – take the freakin’ hill.