Richard Stoddert Ewell was a prominent Confederate general during the American Civil War whose reputation has been tarnished by questions about his performance on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Richard Stoddert Ewell was born in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., on February 8, 1817. Raised on his family’s estate near Manassas, Virginia, Ewell was the third son of Dr. Thomas and Elizabeth Stoddert Ewell.
U.S. Army Officer
Ewell attended the United States Military Academy and graduated thirteenth in his class in 1840. He then received a commission as a second lieutenant with the 1st U.S. Dragoons. Ewell served the next six years on the western frontier, during which he rose to the rank of first lieutenant.
Like many future American Civil War officers, Ewell took part in the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). He received a brevet promotion to captain for his courage at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco.
After the Mexican-American War, army officials promoted Ewell to captain in 1849 and assigned him to the New Mexico Territory. In 1859, Apache warriors led by the famous American Indian leader Cochise wounded Ewell during a skirmish.
In 1860, Ewell fell ill and returned to Virginia to recuperate. While there, his home state seceded from the Union. Forced to choose between his country and his state, Ewell resigned his commission in the United States Army on May 7, 1861, and joined the Virginia Provincial Army as a cavalry colonel. By June 17, Ewell received a commission as a brigadier-general in the Confederate Army. Ewell served with General P. G. T. Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac and saw limited action at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Jackson’s Valley Campaign
On January 24, 1862, Confederate officials promoted Ewell attained to the rank of major general and transferred him to the Shenandoah Valley to serve under General Stonewall Jackson. Ewell performed well during Jackson’s Valley Campaign and earned Jackson’s trust as his most valuable subordinate.
In June 1862, the Confederacy transferred Ewell and his division to Richmond, Virginia, where they took part in the Battles of Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill, and the Seven Days’ Battles during the Peninsula Campaign. After Union Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac retreated down the Peninsula, Ewell accompanied Jackson to Northern Virginia and defeated Major General Nathaniel Banks’s Army of Virginia at the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862).
Wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run
During the Northern Virginia Campaign, Ewell received severe wounds at the Second Battle of Bull Run on August 28, 1862. Doctors amputated Ewell’s left leg below the knee, causing him to be away from his division for nine months. In 1863, doctors fitted Ewell with a wooden leg, which enabled him to return to service.
During Ewell’s absence, a volley of friendly fire mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). After Jackson’s death on May 10, Confederate officials promoted Ewell to the rank of lieutenant general and gave him command of Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia on May 23, 1863.
Three days after the effective date of his promotion, Ewell married his first cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, who had nursed him back to health during his convalescence.
Battle of Gettysburg
Ewell is, perhaps, most famous or infamous for his failure to attack Union troops on Cemetery Ridge during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. His indecision gave the Union forces precious time to entrench themselves and enabled reinforcements to arrive. By the time Ewell’s forces attacked on the second day of the battle, Union soldiers repulsed Ewell’s Corps. Some historians claim that Ewell’s indecision lost the Battle of Gettysburg for the South. Others have pointed out that General Robert E. Lee’s instructions to Ewell were confusing, if not contradictory. Lee ordered Ewell “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.”
Lee’s Loss of Confidence
After Gettysburg, Lee appeared to lose confidence in Ewell. At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, on May 12, 1864, Lee personally assumed Ewell’s position as field commander and sent Ewell to the rear to prepare for the defense of Richmond.
Capture and Imprisonment
As Federal troops approached Richmond toward the end of the war, they captured Ewell at the Battle of Sayler’s Creek while he was retreating on April 8, 1865. They imprisoned the Confederate general at Fort Warren, Massachusetts until August 19, 1865.
Post-war Life and Death
After the Civil War, Ewell retired to his wife’s plantation in Maury County, Tennessee, near Spring Hill. He died there, of pneumonia, on January 25, 1872, just three days after his wife succumbed to the same ailment. Ewell was buried in the Old City Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.