Authored by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White
On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, after a bruising fight north of town sent portions of the Union Army of the Potomac into retreat, General Robert E. Lee ordered his Second Corps commander, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, to attack the new Federal position on Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” Ewell chose not to attack, allowing the Federals to reform on the hill and dig in. The position then served as the linchpin for the entire Union Line. Armchair generals have since had a field day with what is seen as his failure, often arguing that “Stonewall “ Jackson would not have been so “timid” and the legendary commander would have found it “practicable” to attack and would have swept the Union forces from the field.
But Ewell, who had taken command of Second Corps after Jackson died a month and a half earlier, had several good reasons for not attacking the Union position-reasons frequently ignored or overlooked because of postwar scapegoating. As a result, modern students of the battle get only part of the story. They see Ewell as someone who failed to live up to his predecessor rather than a newly minted corps commander who made a militarily sound decision.
Stonewall Jackson looms over July 1 at Gettysburg because his career as Ewell’s predecessor shapes the way people have looked at the latter general’s performance. Jackson earned a reputation for aggressiveness and independence; if ordered to do something, Jackson did it. It is a small leap, then, to assume that he would have found it practicable to take Cemetery Hill. Oh, for the presence and inspiration of Old Jack for just one hour!” lamented Jackson’s former chief of staff, Major Alexander “Sandie” Pendleton, who went on to serve on Ewell’s staff.
There are two major flaws behind that assumption, however. “It is a fact not generally known….that in all his famous flank movements Gen. Jackson was careful to examine the ground to learn the exact position of the enemy, wrote southern war correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander for the Charleston Mercury, “and hence his blows were always well aimed and terrible in effect.”
Jackson had learned a hard lesson at Kernstown in March 1862, when faulty intelligence about the enemy’s position led to his only true battlefield defeat. Thereafter he made an effort to discern his opponent’s dispositions. In fact, it was in the midst of one such attempt at gathering information that Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men at Chancellorsville. To assume that he would have stormed Cemetery Hill or Culp’s Hill, without any idea of what truly lay beyond it places too much emphasis on Jackson’s aggressiveness at the expense of his good sense as a tactician.
The second problem that undermines assumptions about Jackson lies in the wording of Lee’s order. Over the years, much attention has been given to Lee’s particular wording: “General Ewell was, therefore, instructed to carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable….” Ewell, however, had plenty of legitimate reasons to think that an assault on Cemetery Hill wasn’t practicable.
It is important to note that those words-“if practicable”-never appeared in print until Lee filed his revised report on the battle in January of 1864, more than six months after the fight. In fact, Ewell biographer Donald Pfanz carefully avoids offering any direct quotes from Lee concerning his specific orders because no written record seems to exist.
Certainly, though, the intent behind Lee’s orders on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, seems unmistakable. He urged Ewell to attack if his corps commander thought it advantageous to do so. But Lee also placed a very important qualification on his order-best understood by looking at the complete passage from Lee’s 1864 report: “Without information as to its proximity, the strong position which the enemy had assumed could not be attacked without danger of exposing the four divisions present, already weakened and exhausted by a long and bloody struggle, to overwhelming numbers of fresh troops. General Ewell, was therefore, instructed 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, which were to hasten forward.” Unfortunately, in the years since the battle, much emphasis has been placed on the phrase “if practicable”-words that Lee may have uttered-and the warning about avoiding a general engagement has been ignored.
Major General Isaac Trimble, attached to Ewell’s command during the battle, was among those who tried to dismiss Lee’s warning. Writing for the Southern Historical Society (SHS) years after both Lee and Ewell had died, Trimble recalled, Ewell called attention to Lee’s order not to bring on a general engagement. “[T]hat hardy applies to things,” Trimble responded, “as we fought a hard battle already, and should secure the advantage gained.”
In Trimble’s version, he urged Ewell to take not Cemetery Hill, where the Union army was trying to reform, but Culp’s Hill, a higher peak just to the southeast of Cemetery Hill. “General, there is an eminence of commanding position, and not now occupied, as it ought to be by us or the enemy soon. I advise you to send a brigade to hold it if we are to remain here,” Trimble said, adding, “it ought to be held by us at once.” Ewell replied, “When I need advice from a junior officer, I generally ask it.”
Trimble never forgot the insult in front of Ewell’s staff. Recounting his experience in the SHS papers, Trimble mad an effort to paint Ewell as being “far from composure” and “under much embarrassment” and said Ewell “moved about uneasily, a good deal excited” and “undecided what to do next.”
“[F]ailure to follow up vigorously on our success…was the first fatal error committed,” Trimble wrote. “It seemed to me that General Ewell was in a position to do so. But he evidently did not feel that he shuld take so responsible a step without orders from General Lee…”
Nowhere in Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels (or the related film Gettysburg), which covers Trimble’s encounter with Ewell, Ewell doesn’t get to tell his side of the story, so modern audiences typically accept Trimble’s version as the one sided truth. What really happened on the northern end of the battlefield late on the afternoon of July 1?