Richard S. Ewell may be one of the Confederacy’s overlooked and overshadowed infantry corps commanders. By the time he took over the Second Corps, Army of Northern Virginia, there were big boots to fill; following in “Stonewall” Jackson’s footsteps was not easy. Still, during the Gettysburg Campaign, Ewell scored a major victory and his troops and the local civilians genuinely believed he was the next legendary general for the Second Corps and the Shenandoah Valley.
What went wrong? Why does Ewell usually fall in the category of forgotten corps commanders? And what did he really accomplish at the Second Battle of Winchester – arguably one of his finest military moments?
According to my observations, Ewell fell out of popularity in memory and history for five major reasons. First, he was not Jackson, and “Stonewall” had a legacy and legend that choked out successors. Second, Ewell became one of the Gettysburg scapegoats despite a magnificent showing from his corps on July 1 and heavy fighting on July 2 and 3; Culp’s Hill is a lesser-known part of the battle, and both Lee-defenders and pop-culture found Ewell an easy target for not attempting to secure Culp’s Hill in the first evening. Third, Ewell squabbled with his staff officers, particularly in the autumn of 1863; they were already inclined to compare him to Jackson, and when he failed to take initiative and then seemed to let his wife run headquarters, he managed to alienate the officers who could have been his best fan club and memory defenders. Fourth, Ewell struggled with health issues; his amputated leg did not heal properly, and by May 1864, he asked to be relieved from active duty, factors which may have limited his effectiveness during his later field campaigns. Fifth, Ewell is bookended by two very colorful characters of corps command – Jackson and Early, aka “Stonewall” and “Lee’s Bad Old Man”; it’s easy to skip over Ewell, but he was a really interesting character, too – just “Old Bald Head” is not as cool of a nickname as his predecessor or successor.
However, many of those troubles for Ewell and how he would be remembered were not factoring into his actions and experiences during the early part of the Gettysburg campaign. We have to peel back those lenses and see this remarkably interesting man as his officers and men saw him on those hot June days when he orchestrated and scored a smashing victory at Winchester.
Richard Stoddard Ewell – forty-six years old during summer 1863 – had graduated West Point, fought in the Mexican-American War, resigned his U.S. Army commission, and joined the Confederacy as a brigadier general in June 1861. By January 1862, he promoted to major general and fought – reluctantly at first – with Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and Seven Days Battles. At Second Manassas, he was badly wounded left leg and suffered an amputation shortly after; during his recovery, Ewell “got religion” and married his cousin Lizinka Campbell Brown, a wealthy widow from Tennessee. When he returned to the army shortly after the wedding, Ewell’s men noticed a change in his behavior and wondered if their general could still fight after his injury, new found faith, and marriage. As they soon found out, Ewell had a steady focus and determination to win during this campaign.
Ewell’s Chief of Staff, Major Alexander S. Pendleton explained in early June:
“The more I see of General Ewell the more I am pleased with him. He resembles Gen. Jackson very much in some points of his character, particularly his under disregard of his own personal comforts & his inflexibility of purpose. Yesterday he rode 20 miles on horseback, often at full speed & exhibited no signs of fatigue last night. He is so thoroughly honest, too, and has only one desire, to conquer the Yankees. I look for great things from him, and am glad to say that our troops have for him a great deal of the same feeling they had towards General Jackson. I am thankful to say he likes our old staff & has great confidence in me which I, of course, feel complimented at.”[i]
On June 3, the first Confederate movements of the Gettysburg Campaign started. During the next week, Ewell and his Second Corps, positioned as the lead elements of the Army of Northern Virginia, pushed steadily northward with the objective of entering the Shenandoah Valley and clearing a path for the rest of the army while the cavalry offered a protective screen for their march. They crossed into the Valley at Chester’s Gap, not far from Front Royal and headed for Winchester.
The men of the Confederate Second Corps had a particular connection to the Shenandoah Valley. Some called it home. Most called it familiar battleground by 1863. Many had fought in the region with Jackson or Ewell in 1862. The successes of the 1862 Valley Campaign still reigned in the soldiers’ and civilians’ minds as the example of Confederate leadership. The door was open for Ewell to be the next famed commander.
His chances improved significantly too, given the historic location of his first major battle as corps commander. Winchester. The prominent town in the lower part of the Shenandoah Valley had been the scene of one of Jackson’s most memorable victories. On May 25, 1862, Stonewall had sent Yankee General Nathaniel Banks reeling out of town and secured the admiration of the pro-Southern civilians in a sweeping military, morale, and civilian loyalty moment.
Ewell approached his personal crossroad with history as his army marched down toward Winchester. As the new commander of the Second Corps, he must have known his ability and reputation were under scrutiny. Fortunately for him, the imagery of a Confederate victory at Winchester – still fresh and exciting – could be repeated and possibly with even more glory. A hated Yankee waited in the famous town. If Ewell defeated him, his own legend could be firmly established – or so it seemed.
To be continued…
[i] Sandie Pendleton to his mother, June 9, 1863 – quoted in: Bean, W.G. Stonewall’s Man: Sandie Pendleton. (1959) University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: NC. Page 133.