The argument over how and why the Army of Northern Virginia lost the Battle of Gettysburg has been debated since the southern army withdrew from the small Pennsylvania town. A blame game of sorts has been played for the last 150 years. It is fair to say that most critics of the Confederate battleplan and actions at Gettysburg tend to steer the blame away from General Robert E. Lee. While the loss at Gettysburg is ultimately his responsibility, contemporaries and modern day arm chair generals tend to shift the blame onto a number of Lee’s subordinates.
Blame has been laid at the feet of Robert E. Lee’s second-in-command James Longstreet. It was erroneously claimed by some that Longstreet was to launch dawn assaults, on the Federal left, on the morning of July 2nd. While it is true that Longstreet’s heart was not into the July 2nd or 3rd assaults, he did put forth a solid effort and nearly rolled the Federal left flank in on July 2nd. Still, his postwar enemies mixed fact and fiction, which has skewed the understanding of his role in the battle to this day. These post-battle machinations by Longstreet’s adversaries have further tarnished Longstreet’s not so clean Civil War record.
Blame too has been laid at the feet of Lee’s cavalry leader Major General Jeb Stuart. Stuart, who Lee gave the green light to make a nuisance of himself during the Federal march north, was not collecting intelligence on the enemy, nor was he even in constant contact with his army commander. Thus, many have claimed that Lee’s army groped blindly across the Pennsylvania countryside. While Stuart did fail Lee to a point, Lee did have three full brigades of cavalry to utilize in the absence of Stuart. (It is noteworthy that Stuart took the cream of the crop with him during his ride around Hooker/Meade’s army, and left Lee with the second stingers.)
And then there is the tale of Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell. Ewell was the newly minted commander of Lee’s hard marching, hard hitting, Second Corps, which until May 2nd, 1863 had been ably led by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Ewell’s failure to secure Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill on July 1st at Gettysburg is arguably the most scrutinized “what if” at the battle, if not the entire Civil War. The reactions of Civil War buffs and historians to this question has fascinated me for years. I have heard the often absurd Stonewall Jackson apologists state that if Jackson were there he would have captured Culp’s Hill and captured Cemetery Hill, with one arm tied behind his back (yes, pun intended).
Others have pointed to the fact that they feel Ewell was incompetent and in over his head as a leader of men.
Then there were the handful of Ewell’s contemporaries that put pen to paper after the deaths of both he and Robert E. Lee. Obviously the two men could not defend their actions on the afternoon/evening of July 1st, they also could not point out some of the factual errors that men like Isaac Trimble spewed as they either tried to defend the “marble man” Lee, or looked to blame Ewell for their own inaction’s on the occasion, as was the case of Jubal Early.
In any case Jackson was not at Gettysburg, the heights south of town were not taken by the Confederates, and Ewell is saddled with the blame by many with the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.
The truth of the matter is that a chain of events had been set in motion even before Henry Heth and John Buford sparred along the Chambersburg Pike on July 1st. Events that ultimately hindered Dick Ewell’s ability to carry Cemetery Hill. A combination of marching orders, the leadership failure of three Confederate officers, and a seemingly phantom Union presence all led to the Confederate failure to seize the heights south of Gettysburg on July 1st.
A close and fair examination of what led to Ewell’s crucial decision NOT to assault Cemetery Hill and seize Culp’s Hill is called for. In my estimation three men are ultimately responsible for the failure to take these hills on July 1st; Jubal Early, who I lovingly call the Curmudgeon; Richard Ewell, our eccentric; and Robert Rodes, who Douglas Southall Freeman described as “ a Norse God.” While there will be a number of lesser players in this drama, in my estimation, these three men above all shaped the events of how we perceive Richard Ewell today and the Battle of Gettysburg forever more.