Why Ewell Did Not Attack – Part 3

The Union Plan of Battle

Credit Hancock, and to an extent Howard, and before them, Reynolds and especially Buford for working out the general plan for the battle, and for recognizing that they would hold the best ground and invite attack by Lee, and with that ground they would frustrate and defeat Lee.  Buford saw the ground around the town and realized there was a good chance of success, with some sacrifice, at holding long enough to stall Hill and Ewell, and ‘occupy their time’ long enough for the rest of the Army of the Potomac to come up and fill in the lines on the elevations and ridges southeast of town.  It was, indeed, the best ground around.  Buford, in a consultation with Reynolds shortly before the latter was killed on the morning of July 1st, had his concept ratified by Reynolds.  When Hancock and Howard met on Cemetery Hill that afternoon, both had to realize what the sacrifice of Buford’s, Reynolds’, and Howard’s troops meant.

July 1, 1863, Evening

In the early evening, Lee sent an order to General Ewell by messenger.  The order was, “Take those hills if practicable.”

On the left of the Army of Northern Virginia, General Ewell was getting reports of Union Cavalry to the east out the Hanover Road, on which his Headquarters were located.  He was also aware of the presence earlier of General Alpheus Williams’ Division of 12th Corps, Army of the Potomac, which earlier had almost crested Benner’s Hill, less than a half mile to Ewell’s left along the Hanover Road.  [Coddington, p. 314]

At that point, Lee was without one of Ewell’s Divisions and all of Longstreet’s Corps.  That is almost half his army.  That likely played in Lee’s mind when he gave the “if practicable” order to Ewell.  Ewell certainly knew that.

  • With the uncertainty of where the rest of the Army of the Potomac was,
  • With valid reports of Union Cavalry and Infantry [Williams’ Division] on his left,
  • With Lee having little in reserve to throw in because there simply was no one else in the area or close enough to get there in time to help and because A.P. Hill declined to allow any of his force to be used to aid Ewell,
  • With only 2 of his 3 Divisions and both of them played out from the march, the fight, and the chase through town, and also still disorganized,
  • Without his supply trains to feed and re-equip and re-arm his troops, and,
  • With the sound of axes ringing from the heights in his front as First Corps and Eleventh Corps dug in on the heights of Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill,

Ewell made the only decision he could legitimately make: not to attack Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. 

 Hancock’s Second Corps

Clearly, had there been any further action the night of the first, Hancock could have ordered his men up from about an hour away.  Hancock could have assaulted Ewell on Ewell’s left, or at that point, marched up behind Ewell’s troops while they were assaulting the two hills.  Ewell, of course, had no way of knowing this but the presence of Williams’ Division, from a Corps that had not been present in the fight of that day, signaled that the rest of the Army of the Potomac was on its way, or had already started to arrive.  Hanover Road was a likely avenue of approach for those troops.

The late Lieutenant General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson

It is difficult to believe that Jackson would have decided any differently.  Many of Jackson’s “brilliant maneuvers” were made on familiar ground, or ground with which the locals helped make him familiar, and with the enemy already in place.  This would have been not only less than familiar, but so was the disposition of the Union Troops.  On high ground, with artillery that commanded all the approaches, no matter how badly they had been beaten up earlier in the day, and the knowledge that only two full Union Corps had faced them that day and the arrival of part of a third [Williams/12th Corps] signaling still more enemy troops entering the Battlefield, and von Steinwehr’s fresh men still dug in on west Cemetery Hill, also with artillery support, made the decision not to attack an easy one, and a prudent one.  Jackson was an artillerist, and he knew sending infantry to scale those heights in the face of the artillery placed there was suicidal without their own artillery suppressing that fire.  They attempted to provide that the next day with Latimer’s Artillery Battalion on Benner’s Hill, but it was a bad spot and Latimer was mortally wounded ordering his men off the hill.

Confederate criticism of Ewell’s Decision

Much criticism of Ewell’s decision was generated after the war and it became a part of the “Lost Cause Mythology” created by men like Jubal Early and Isaac Trimble to enhance the reputation of Robert E. Lee, at the cost of Generals James Longstreet and Richard S. Ewell.  Making matters worse are the constant comparisons with Ewell’s predecessor, the late General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson,” and how he would have succeeded at taking “those heights.”  While the “Lost Cause Mythology” was exposed and debunked over the past fifty years, it is difficult to correct a century of misinformation and outright untruths the “Mythology” contained, and that “Mythology” became the prime source for what happened during the Civil War on the Confederate side.  One should always remember, when viewing the history of the Civil War, to look at the sources of the “take” on events and decisions, and people, and apply some common sense and “consider the source.”  Two historians that set the record straight are Alan Nolan and Gary Gallagher [see “Sources” page].

Confederate Strategy Resulting From the Decision

Taking this a step further, it is also hard to believe that later assaults by Ewell on Cemetery and Culp’s Hills were expected by Lee to succeed.  More likely, they were in fact, meant to pull troops from other parts of the battlefield, which they did, or at least pin down the troops being assaulted so they could not be used elsewhere to plug holes in the Union lines.  This was clearly demonstrated when the surprised men of Johnson’s Division walked into the empty emplacements on the lower crest of Culp’s Hill on the night of the 2nd-3rd, and did not turn the flank to press General Green’s forces, which were under attack on the main crest of the hill, nor did they go forward to get into the rear of the Army of the Potomac.  Instead, they stayed in the works and waited for the Union troops to return, figuring they would eventually be driven off to return to the Confederate lines on the other side of Rock Creek.

In other words, there was, in reality, no real hope of taking either or both of the hills, unless Ewell had, under different intelligence and circumstances, made a different decision, and considered the assault practicable.  But that was simply not the case.

So Lee had likely lost any hope of the primary objective falling into his hands by assault from Ewell’s command.  Instead, he focused on Cemetery Ridge the 2nd and 3rd of July, with perhaps a vestige of hope, albeit forlorn one, of taking Cemetery Hill from the south.

About wgdavis

Mr. Davis is an historical researcher and NPS Volunteer living in the Gettysburg area.
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