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Controversies of Gettysburg – “Give me a regiment and I’ll take that hill!”

Probably the greatest controversy specifically concerning the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg revolves around the perceived failure of the Confederate army to follow up on their early success after they drove the Army of the Potomac’s First and Eleventh Corps out of their positions north and west of the town and back through the town itself to Cemetery Hill. This is where the legendary “what-if” of Stonewall Jackson at Gettysburg is often postulated; the theory goes that Jackson, had he been at Gettysubrg, would have aggressively pushed an attack on the Union forces while they were still demoralized and seized the heights, effectively making Gettysburg a one-day battle.

The target for criticism in this telling is often Army of Northern Virginia Second Corps commander Richard Ewell. Ewell was Jackson’s successor in command of this corps, (although the Third Corps of the army under A. P. Hill was partially formed out of Jackson’s old command as well) and Ewell, who had a much less commanding presence than Jackson and an increasingly poor relationship with Robert E. Lee during his tenure in command, did not fare well in Lost Cause historiography of the war. However, historians of Gettysburg since the 1960s, particularly Edwin Coddington, author of what is still often considered the best single volume on the battle, have generally been sympathetic to Ewell, at least for his performance on the first day.

Notably, this sympathy did not make it into the 1993 film Gettysburg based on the historical novel written by Michael Shaara. A Confederate general, Isaac Trimble, visits Lee in the movie and gives an angry outburst about Ewell’s failure to pursue the Federals. In a scene that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut, Lee confronts Ewell over this. This was not terribly good history on the movie’s part; Trimble, who did not actually have a command of his own at this time in the army, was indeed critical of Ewell, but that’s hardly the whole story, and in truth, Ewell acted in perfect accordance with the somewhat nonsensical instructions he received from Lee late on the first day.

Ewell’s situation, around four-thirty or so when he rode through a Gettysburg that had largely been cleared of federal forces, was as follows. One of his divisions under Jubal Early had just routed the Union Eleventh Corps and his other division, commanded by Robert Rodes, had taken relatively heavy casualties against the Union First Corps before achieving success there as well. Rodes’ men were tired and bloodied, with the exception of one of the five brigades of that division, commanded by Doles. Early’s troops were in considerably better condition, having achieved a far easier victory against the poorly positioned troops of the Eleventh Corps. Ewell’s forces were badly disorganized from the pursuit into the town itself, which severely retarded Confederate forward progress. Nevertheless, Ewell consulted with his division commanders, and was, in point of fact, in favor of renewing the attack if at all possible. Jubal Early, his senior division commander present, was in favor as well, and told Ewell he could use four of Early’s brigades, plus Doles’ from Rodes’ division. This would amount to an attack force of around 6,000-7,000 men.

Against this force that Ewell could muster, about 12,000 Federal soldiers were now on the strong heights around Cemetery Hill. Most of these troops of course, were tired and demoralized from their sudden retreat. However, slightly under 2,000 of these troops were from the fresh brigade of Orland Smith. Further, the Union forces were quickly being rallied and reorganized by the now-present Winfield Scott Hancock, who had been sent by George Meade to assume command at Gettysburg, following the death of John Reynolds.  Even more challenging for the Confederates, the Union forces had over forty guns deployed on the heights in a commanding position. Ewell had no decent position to deploy his own artillery to engage the Federal positions.

Despite these difficulties, Ewell was fully willing to make the attempt. Before he could organize this attack however, two things happened that severely hampered both his ability and inclination to do so. His available force was cut by effectively a third when a Union threat to the flank was reported. Despite not really believing the report, Jubal Early detached a brigade to go reinforce the brigade he already had watching that flank. This meant that two brigades that Ewell would otherwise have almost certainly used for any attack on the Union positions on Cemetery were no longer available, reducing his available force to maybe 4,000 at most. Rodes’ division was both shot up and occupied in dealing with Union prisoners, so there was nothing more Ewell could draw from there.

Secondly, Ewell sent a message to Lee, requesting support from A. P. Hill’s Third Corps for an attack on Cemetery. The answer he got back from Lee was not encouraging; despite the presence of a full fresh division of Hill’s troops, and two other brigades which could have been tasked to support Ewell, Lee preferred to keep all of HIll’s men in reserve. Further, while telling Ewell to take the heights if practicable, he also reiterated an earlier order about not bringing on a general engagement. This was a rather puzzling thing to tell a subordinate commander if you actually wanted him to launch a major assault on the enemy’s central position. Given all of these difficulties, Ewell decided to wait for the arrival of his third division, commanded by Edward Johnson, and use that division to seize Culp’s Hill, on the end of the Union line, which should render Cemetery impossible to hold, since Culp’s Hill had a dominating overview of the center of the Union position.

Another point to raise about a potential Ewell attack on Cemetery Hill; if the odds against him, given the number of Union troops, artillery, and lack of support, already seemed daunting, it should be further taken into account that the Union was being reinforced by 5 P. M. According to Coddington, even acting with utmost speed and energy to organize an attack, it is unlikely Ewell could have attacked before that time. At that point, about eight hundred fresh troops from the First and Eleventh Corps joined the ranks, and right on their heels, the brigade of George Stannard, 2,100 strong, arrived. Arriving shortly after were Twelfth Corps troops commanded by Thomas Ruger, and then two brigades of the Twelfth Corps division of John Geary. All of these units were present before six P. M. Given all of the difficulties confronted by Ewell, and the increasingly steady flow of reinforcements beginning around five, the earliest Ewell could have attacked, it seems eminently reasonable to conclude that Ewell had no realistic chance at taking Cemetery Hill.

It’s often additionally stated that Ewell should have at least tried for Culp’s Hill, which was reported as unoccupied to him. While 1,600 Union soldiers from the First Corps were sent to Culp’s before Ewell could have attacked, it’s certainly true he stood a much higher chance of success there. However, in consulting with his division commanders, Rodes didn’t see the point of making an attempt on the hill, and Early, while in favor, didn’t want to use any of his own men for the task. With the power of hindsight, Ewell should have overridden them and attempted to seize Culp’s. However, given the context of what he had been advised to do and Lee’s baffling orders, he decided to wait for Johnson’s division; however, that unit did not arrive before darkness fell on the battlefield.

If resoonsibility must rest with anyone for the Confederate failure not to take Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 1st, that person should be Robert E. Lee. He had the opportunity, using A. P. Hill’s fresh troops, to support an attack by Ewell on Cemetery. He also had compelling reasons to be satisfied with what he had gained so far however; he had scored a clear tactical victory on the first day for a battle that he hadn’t really planned on. To his eyes, from Seminary Ridge, the Union position looked formidable, and he couldn’t know what strength it was held with, since the ridges shielded any Union reinforcements from Confederate sight. Richard Ewell, and indeed, Robert E. Lee, acted perfectly reasonably given the situation that they were confronted with.


Sources: The Gettysburg: Campaign A Study in Command, by Edwin Coddington.

Gettysburg by Stephen Sears.

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