“It was a moment of critical importance…”: Ewell’s Decision July 1st at Gettysburg- Conclusion

The Conclusion of a series authored by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

“It was a moment of critical importance, more critical to is now, than it would seem to anyone them,’ Smith later wrote. “Our corps commander, General Ewell, as true a Confederate soldier as ever went into battle, was simply waiting for orders, when every moment of the time could not be balanced with gold.”

View of reverse slope of Benner's Hill. Union soldiers would have deployed in the area on the late afternoon of July 1st. These were troops of 1st Division, 12th Corps. Wolf's Hill is in the distance as is the Benner homestead, which is in private hands.

View of reverse slope of Benner’s Hill. Union soldiers would have deployed in the area on the late afternoon of July 1st. These were troops of 1st Division, 12th Corps. Wolf’s Hill is in the distance as is the Benner homestead, which is in private hands.

Ewell determined he could make the attack, but he wanted support from Hill’s Third Corps. He sent Smith back to Lee with his request, then ordered Early and Rodes into position.

It did not take long for Smith to return with word from Lee that Hill had no men to lend in support of the attack. Hill’s third Corps had suffered heavy casualties in its victory over the Federal I Corps. He chose to rest his weary men rather than continue to press them-and he left his third division, under Major General Richard H. Anderson, out of the fight entirely. Ewell was to carry Cemetery Hill alone, if possible-but Lee also reiterated his earlier admonition not to bring on a general engagement if at all possible.

Ewell, it seems, was stuck.

Then came another wrinkle. “[U]p came ‘Freddy’ Smith, son of ‘Extra Billy,’ to say that a heavy force was reported moving up in the rear,’ Campbell Brown recalled. “Extra Billy” was governor-elect of Virginia, who loathed West Pointers, and even the irascible Early showed him deference.

Brigadier General William "Extra Billy" Smith

Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith

According to Campbell Brown, “Early said to General Ewell: ‘General I don’t much believe in this, but prefer to suspend my movements until I can send & inquire into it.’ ‘Well,’ said General Ewell, ‘Do so. Meantime I shall get Rodes into position & communicate with Hill.’” Early responded by sending Gordon’s Brigade to join Smith’s along the York Road.

Ewell and his officers rode to the top of Benner’s Hill to look for themselves. They saw a line of skirmishers they first mistook for Federals who, as it turned out, were men sent out earlier by Smith. The coast was clear it seemed. Early said Smith had filed “an unfounded report.”

Unknown to them, though, Brigadier General Alpheus Williams of the Federal XII Corps saw the mounted Confederate officers on the hilltop, “evidently reconnoitering.” Seeing no signs of artillery or a large force, Williams reported, “I accordingly directed General [Thomas] Ruger to deploy his brigade, under the cover of the woods, and charge the hill, supported by the 1st Brigade under Col. [Archibald] McDougall. I had with me two batteries of artillery, which were put in the road, and directed to follow the assault, come into battery on the rest of the hill, and open on the enemy’s masses.”

The Federals followed a Revolutionary War-era “road” through the woods to the area along the Hanover Road. “[T]he corps was moved to the right across country east of Rock Creek, until it faced Benner’s Hill, where the line was halted and deployed with skirmishers in front,” wrote the commander of the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry. “The country here was open, and mounted officers of the enemy could be seen on the high ground apparently examining the position.”

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Major General Winfield Scott Hancock

Ruger’s Brigade was actually ascending the slope of the hill, Williams said, when he received orders to withdraw his division toward the Baltimore Pike and take position (near Powers Hill) for the night. This, he said, was between 5:30 and 6 p.m.

Early always insisted that Smith had been seeing things along the York Pike. To be safe, Early kept Gordon and Smith along the York Pike all night, tying up valuable men from making any assault on Cemetery Hill. But it seems likely that Smith did see something-elements of the XII Corps coming onto the field at precisely the right moment to serve as a much needed distraction. “The appearance of the division in this position at the time it occurred,” Ruger said in his official repot, “was apparently a timely diversion in favor of our forces, as the farther advance of the enemy ceased.”

During his reconnaissance, Ewell discovered that Culp’s Hill sat unoccupied a quarter of a mile to the southeast of Cemetery Hill. If his men could occupy Culp’s Hill, the Union position on Cemetery Hill would be untenable.

Ewell Suggested to Early that his men occupy Culp’s Hill. Early balked, telling Ewell that Johnson’s men should occupy it instead once they arrived. Johnson, who had arrived on the scene ahead of his men, traded sharp words with Early, but Ewell took Early’s side.

By the time Johnsosn’s men arrived, Federals had already occupied the hill. A 30-man squad from the 42nd Virginia, sent by Johnson to reconnoiter, wound up as Union prisoners. The chance to take the ground without a fight slipped away. Over the next two days, assaults in Culp’s Hill would lead to some 2,500 Confederate casualties during the longest sustained combat on the battlefield.

Major General Edward Johnson

Major General Edward Johnson

Obviously, Early had a vested interest in blaming Ewell for the lack of action on the afternoon and evening of July 1. Ewell had supported Early’s decision not to move to Culp’s Hill, and that decision had catastrophic consequences for the Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war, Early contended that he vigorously supported an assault on Cemetery Hill, yet on the very evening of the battle he claimed his men were too tired and disorganized to occupy unoccupied Culp’s Hill. If his men were in no condition to move unopposed to an empty hilltop, how could they have led an attack against a heavily fortified enemy position? “The discovery that this lost us the battle,” Campbell Brown said, “is one of those frequently recurring but tardy strokes of military genius of which one hears long after the minute circumstances that rendered them at the time impracticable, are forgotten-at least I heard nothing of it for months & months, & it was several years before any claim was put in by Early or his friends that his advice had been in favor of an attack & had been neglected.”

Major General Isaac Trimble

Major General Isaac Trimble

In fact, Early led a vigorous campaign-after Lee’s death, so that Lee could not refute any of Early’s claims-to place blame for the loss at Gettysburg on Ewell and, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Trimble, cavalryman Fitzhugh Lee and others joined in. That scapegoating has since become accepted as a central tenet to the “Lost Cause” mythology. But tactically Ewell did the right thing on the evening of July 1. His decision not to assault Cemetery Hill was sound military judgment based on the evidence that he had at the time weighed against discretionary orders from his commander. Critics have second-guessed Ewell’s judgment about the “practicability” of an assault, ignoring the fact that Lee expressly forbade him from bringing on a general engagement.

In the years since, a well coordinated finger pointing campaign, suppression of facts and a nation’s admiration of a martyred Confederate icon all combined to vilify Ewell and his well-reasoned decision under pressure.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
This entry was posted in Battlefields & Historic Places, Battles, Campaigns, Leadership--Confederate and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “It was a moment of critical importance…”: Ewell’s Decision July 1st at Gettysburg- Conclusion

  1. Meg Thompson says:

    After two years or so in a Master;s program with a Civil War emphasis, I never cease to be astounded by the depth of damage the Lost Cause has done to history. The worst, I personally feel, is that it has taken away many chances for Confederate officers and men to be appreciated for the things they actually did. History will out and, as a “Yankee,” I applaud the effort to provide a “truthier” truth about the men whose efforts to fight were so admired by the North. The Confederacy does not need to repaint them–it never did.

  2. Kris, I had read about General Williams movement toward Benner’s Hill quite some time ago and then heard your talk at the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Round Table. I am happy that you have publicized this action, so maybe some of the pressure will be taken off of General Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1, 1863.

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