If Practicable …

Well, it’s July 1, and that means Gettysburg, right?

When one visits the Gettysburg battlefield, one tends to see the engagement on July as quite separate from what follows (indeed, the NPS once made it an “optional” trip, taking away from the usual favorites to the south of the town).  While for various reasons I remain drawn to July 2’s fighting, I’ve spent a lot of time on the July 1 battlefield, and I’ve come to explore it with some care, including the fighting at Oak Ridge.  This is one of the areas most visibly affected by the NPS’s recent efforts to restore the terrain to its appearance in July 1863, and even then the impact of park roadways and the like mean that we’ll never quite get there (the road that runs just to the west of the Oak Ridge tower has flattened out the crest of the ridge, complicating efforts to interpret the deployment of Baxter’s brigade there as it prepared to repulse Iverson’s advance).

That said, one of the major decisions subject to second-guessing is Richard S. Ewell’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863.  Recall that Ewell’s two divisions on the scene had already had a day’s worth of action, marching and fighting, with Robert Rodes finding his division roughly handled south of Oak Hill while Jubal Early overran Francis C. Barlow’s command at the knoll that now bears Barlow’s name.  A third division was making its way to the battlefield but was not present when Ewell received orders from Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable” without bringing on a general engagement.

When assessing a command decision, it often helps to place oneself, at least in one’s imagination, in the position of the commander in question.  It was late afternoon: the Confederates, although victorious, were somewhat disorganized, and would be running at least partly on adrenaline (if not fumes) after the events of the day to that moment.  The Yankees were indeed rallying and reforming on Cemetery Hill, and a successful attack would require reforming east of the town proper (one was not going to advance down the streets of Gettysburg, especially in the face of Union artillery).  Ewell had also received word of a possible Union presence to the east (and the XII Corps was making its way to the field).  And now he has an order before him to attack “if practicable” … without bringing on a general engagement.

Of course Ewell would not know whether he’d be bringing on a general engagement unless he attacked … and he wasn’t quite sure what he’d meet if he did so.

Yet Ewell considered the directive and the discretion it gave him.  Back went word to Lee: would the Confederate commander make available Richard Anderson’s division for such an attack?  Lee’s response — that Anderson had to be kept in reserve lest it be needed in case of a disaster — could not have inspired Ewell with confidence.  After all, if this final blow could carry the day and serve as a fitting climax to a fine day of fighting, why was Lee hesitant to commit Anderson?  What was this about a possible disaster?

And so Ewell, knowing what he knew, made his decision.  He saw in Culp’s Hill to the east a better way to get at the Union position by taking it in flank.  He would do so once Edward Johnson’s division arrived.  He had exercised the discretion Lee’s order had allowed him.  Lee did not object.  At least not on July 1, 1863.

Of course, by the time Johnson’s division arrived, it was too late.  Union forces were now deploying along Culp’s Hill as well.  It was dark.  Time to make plans for tomorrow.

I find Ewell’s decision understandable and defensible.  Mark Grimsley and I said so in our battlefield guide to the battle, and I said so in an essay about command relationships at Gettysburg.  I’ve seen nothing persuasive to counter that assessment.  I did come across a book by Scott Bowden and Bill Ward that attempted to take me to task for my reasoning, but I found their argument unpersuasive.  Their complaint was grounded upon a fundamental misreading of what I had said … they claim that my “stunning hypothesis” concerning the use of Anderson’s division “is at odds with physical reality,” because I was “suggesting that Ewell should have waited on Anderson’s division, which was more than six times the distance from Cemetery Hill than his own troops.”  I said no such thing.

Funny that Lee didn’t point that out in denying Ewell the use of Anderson’s division.  However, what’s truly amazing about the claim by Bowden and Ward is that I never said what they claim I said.  Not at all.  Were that that desperate in constructing their lawyerlike apologia for Lee that they had to fabricate evidence?  So it seems.  I simply pointed out that in making up his mind whether to attack Ewell might have taken Lee’s response concerning Anderson as a sign of indecision of Lee’s part.  Surely if Lee wanted the attack made, period, it was incumbent on him to offer it full support, and that would have involved moving Anderson forward in support.  To hold back Anderson and muse about the possibility of disaster was no way to inspire Ewell.

The fact remains that Lee gave Ewell a discretionary order, one inherently flawed, and Ewell exercised that discretion … and no amount of special pleading on Lee’s behalf (especially special pleading based upon a fundamental misrepresentation of scholarship) can avoid that fact (Bowden and Ward wisely avoid the rest of my argument, which just weakens their case all the more).  But it is amusing to read how Bowden and Ward are at pains to make excuses for Lee (and the failure to move Anderson) while suggesting that Ewell needed to waive a magic wand as ordered to by Lee and all would be done (you can see this in their efforts to parse “if practicable,” while ignoring the rest of the order).  Gettysburg’s not Harry Potter, even if Bowden and Ward inhabit a fantasyland not all that different from the Fantasyland that once was on the battlefield itself.

(Amusingly, having derided my mention of Anderson, Bowden and Ward take pains to criticize Anderson for not moving up, and defend Lee in that case, too … and the whole book needs to be read in light of the evidence above that neither man treats evidence or arguments contrary to their thesis fairly.)

What do you make of Ewell’s decision?

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17 thoughts on “If Practicable …

  1. i’ve always thought that the decision has to be assessed in light of three factors: (1) it was at least phrased as semi-discretionary and directed Ewell to make a partly subjective determination as the guy on the spot; (2) to paraphrase Pickett, what were the Yankess doing; and (3) IMHO most important, at the time when (2) may not yet have been a significant factor, Ewell had two divisions available – Rodes’s, which had been battered and was in poor condition to be collected and make an assault, and Early’s, which had its own sorting out to do and whose commander was basically suggesting to Ewell that he look elsewhere. As you note, by the time Johnson arrived, (2) had come into play in a significant way. I’ve heard all of the Lost Cause analysis and the input of those who push the fictional Stonewall hypothetical, as if they are unaware of Cedar Mountain, Brawner’s Farm, and Second Manassas Day 2. I still believe that Ewell made the correct decision. I also believe that there is absolutely no historical basis for believing that Jackson would have acted differently. There are parts of Bowden and Ward which have some utility if you accept that what they wrote is driven by their agenda. The subject of Ewell and Cemetery Hill is not one of them.

  2. It was a typical Lee order, it seems the only time he was ever firm was with Longstreet on the 2nd and 3rd.

    His orders were always filled with “if practicable” or “can be done without much loss” this gave Lee an out to blame the commander for any result, Ewell for not attacking on the 1st, or the opposite in blaming Magruder for attacking at Malvern Hill.
    And Ewell did follow Lee’s orders correctly because an attempt on Cemetary Hill would have clearly brought on a major engagement as the AoP had no intention of retreating.

    Everything I’ve ever read tells me that troops were good for one attack, if you wanted a second assault fresh troops are generally needed. yes there are exceptions, but they are rare. Ewell’s men had had a long day, they’d marched up to 10 miles. fought for hours on what is recorded as a 90+ degree day. to expect them to reform and start what would be a new battle was out of the question even if Rodes had moved up in support.

    The Ewell would have taken the hill is a mantra of the “Rebs could do anything” school who think a good shout and volley would always cause the Yankees to skedaddle off.
    I don’t see an attack as having any real chance of success. Fresh Union troops were arriving,breastworks were being thrown up and in the darkness coordination becomes difficult and also prevents a force seeing it’s been outflanked or their line has been penetrated so they tend to stay in a position they might otherwise abandon had they been able to see what was going on and thus end up “winning”.

    As for Lee holding back Rodes, A.P.Hill didn’t quite have the same success as Ewell and Heth’s Division was the most knocked about of any AoP or ANV, on the field, it was basically ‘hors du combat’ until the 3rd and then it made a half hearted advance in the great charge.
    So Lee not wanting to weaken his right , which was the direction he’d have to go to get back home should things go bad was just being prudent.

    The real Union position was the Fishhook, July 1st fighting was spent just getting in position where it could be attacked the next day . the CSA has spent its energy and had captured what was an outlying position, while Ewell’s troops had a superficially good day it was the Union that really succeeded in holding onto to the key position when the day ended.

    So I guess I’m saying Ewell had done as well as could possibly be expected and he made the right call.

  3. I think Ewell made the right call, especially given that night was coming on. About the only thing he might have done was deploy a line of skirmishers, under orders to advance until they “felt” the enemy, then fall back if serious resistance is encountered. All that would have accomplished, probably, is to add a few men to the casualty lists. The notion that some kind of golden opportunity was lost is mythology.

  4. Was the order Lee gave Ewell similar in wording to orders he gave Jackson? Did Lee not take into account that Ewell was in a new role and, though eccentric, was not the same soldier as Jackson was? My apologies for asking questions instead of answering them, but I think that type of change has to be considered, at least in terms of how Lee expressed his expectations in the order. Did he just assume Ewell would be as aggressive as Jackson may have been?

    • Well, the odd thing is that after the war Lee was quite critical of Ewell’s inability to make good use of discretionary orders. Now, if that impression was already in place, then the orders look bad from Lee’s point of view. Even if they were not, Lee comes under criticism for assuming that Ewell would take that discretion and attack. That’s why Bowden and Ward make such an issue of the phrase: to me, it’s “without bringing on a general engagement” that’s at least as problematic.

      Moreover, you have to consider the decision as it was made at the time, not in light of what would happen over the next 48 hours. Ewell’s decision seems to have gained much in importance in retrospect.

        • The Jackson at Gettysburg fantasy also relies on the ANV being still organized as two Corps , I believe Lee was already contemplating creating a third Corps anyway which means either Ewell or A.P.Hill still gets a Corps. Maybe Jackson’s “legendary” boldness leads him to far astray and too far North and presents Meade with a golden opportunity to destroy an isolated portion of the ANV. it’s pointless to think the campaign plays out the same but that Stonewall then appears magically on July 1st coming down the road from Middletown and Heidlersburg .. Maybe the new IIIrd Corps doesn’t have the Ist Corps show up on it’s left and save it’s butt from the morning spanking the Union 1st Corps gave it.

          It’s like Rick Pitino once said “Larry Bird and Robert Parish ain’t coming through that door”

  5. I agree with you. I read the first five chapters or so of the book and grew tired of their defense of Lee to the detriment of others. I’m surprised that they didn’t blame Jackson for dying too soon.

  6. I totally agree with your assessment of Ewell. He did his job on July 1 and excelled during the campaign the month beforehand.

    The one area I might fault Ewell, although I guess it was actually Rodes’ responsibility, was that he probably should have personally led Rodes’ division on July 1 or had Rodes replaced for the day by Daniel or Ramseur. Rodes was very sick from what I’ve read and probably shouldn’t have been in the field that day.

    I also think Richard S. Ewell was one the best Confederate commanders during the Civil War. A lot of his success was due to the two Louisiana brigades he commanded. Geaux Tigers!

    • I don’t think that it was impossible for Cemetery Hill or Culp’s Hill to have been taken that day, but it for that who have happened some other stuff outside of Ewell’s control needed to happen, like Lee clearing up the bottle neck of troops coming through Cashtown.

      Ewell could have maybe used his cavalry better by not worrying about his rear, although I guess protecting his rear with the cavalry detached to him was solid tactics. His cavalry could have also been used, if available and fit, to watch Early’s left flank, and would have allowed Early to use Smith’s brigade for a dash on Culp’s Hill while it was still unattended to.

      Whatever mistakes Ewell did make; they weren’t severe by the standards of the day, I think.

  7. Wasn’t it Hancock who was asked about this decision after the war and essentially said, “I wish they had tried it”? I think Ewell would have been in deep trouble had he tried to go up that hill that ev’g.

    I think that the popular understanding of the battle tends to focus too much on the Confederate performance.

  8. What Brooks said about the Jackson hypothetical. But anyone who is seduced by it ought to study Ol’ Jack’s tactical performances, especially at the three battles which I mentioned – in two of which he had a substantial numerical advantage and fumbled it away. (I’ll leave out his abysmal tactical performance on the Peninsula in deference to those who believe that it was entirely due to fatigue). The :”operational” Stonewall was, to be sure, a top performer (mostly by driving his troops and his subordinates without mercy, and generally keeping the latter in the dark). The “tactical” Stonewall was something far less. Even if you put aside all of the other problems with the hypothetical (three corps instead of two, etc.), what in Jackson’s tactical record plausibly suggests that he would have done what Ewell did not do on the evening of July 1? . Nothing, other than the mythology which has come down to us.The thought of Jackson quickly and efficiently rehabbing Rodes’s division, getting Early’s organized, and launching a successful attack at that point is jarring from an historical standpoint.

  9. Ray makes the point that Nineteenth Century “leg” infantry probably can not be asked to make more than “one” attack per day against a similarly constitued force; give the defenders good ground and it hardly seems the odds would have been in the CSA’s favor.

  10. That’s a good point regarding the “one” attack per day theory. This one would have been particularly difficult, given the exertions and condition of the two available divisions (especially Rodes’s). Had the success of Rodes and Early been relatively quick and efficient, maybe an effective attack could have been unleashed. What actually happened makes a successful attack seem highly improbable. As for Jackson, I can easily envision a piecemeal assault which would have been brought to a bloody standstill – Brawner’s Farm Redux (again playing the hypothetical game so that everything is the same except that we have Ewell replaced by Stonewall).. By the time Jacksonl got his act together, many more blue uniforms would have been at the ,line. “Bring up (some) of your men, gentlemen…”

  11. Reposted from another forum 8>)

    My opinion is that Ewell was absolutely correct in his decision not to assault Culp’s and Cemetery Hills late on the First Day. Regardless of what Jackson might have done…and there is no clear answer as to how successful he would have been…the tactical situation was:

    1. Union forces were clearly digging in on Culps and Cemetery Hill and Stevens Knoll, which lies between them, was prepared for artillery which would be able to cover the northern approach to Culps hill and the eastern aproach to Cemetery hill, both of which were essentially over the same ground, and would be covered by Stevens Battery, as well as Batteries located on East Cemetery Hill.

    2. His troops had just finished thirty mile marches begun the previous day just to get to Gettysburg, followed immediately by a pitched battle, which in turn was followed by a very disorganized route of the retreating Union troops through the streets and alleys of the town. They were still reorganizing with many troops not physically under the command of their brigadiers [or in many cases, even their colonels or company officers], still needed rest, as well as re-arming, re-supplying, feeding and most of all, receiving water. And one full division of Ewell’s Corps was not present until late on the night of the 1st.

    3. Union cavalry was on his left–not just rumors, but actual troopers. As was evidenced on the morning of the second, and all that day, Union Cavalry harrassed and held in position the Stonewall Brigade in Edward “Allegany” Johnson’s Division, late arrivals on the evening of the first. Two days before, Custer had pushed Stuart out of Hanover ten miles to the east along the very road on which the entire Corps was positioned, forcing Stuart to continue northward to find an open path west to rejoin Lee. [He would be interupted the next day on that route when Custer lured some of his men into an ambush just south of Hunterstown. Lee was therefore deprived of Stuart until the third day, on which Custer frustrated his attempt to gain the rear of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.]

    4. The ground over which he would approach his objectives was open for the most part, then to be followed by very steep approaches to the summits of both hills. Difficult enough for rested, men who had water and food and plenty of ammo, but extremely hazardous for tired, overheated, hungry, thirsty men in the looming darkness.

    5. At that hour, First, Eleventh, parts of Twelfth and Second Corps had arrived on the Battlefield, and there was no current intelligence on where the remaining Corps were, or how soon they would arrive. Indeed, there was no intelligence that they had not arrived in the area already.

    6. Elements of the Twelfth Corps had attacked up the east slope of Benner’s Hill late on the afternoon/early evening of the 1st of July, almost gaining the crest before being ordered to withdraw and rejoin the main body on Baltimore Street to the south.

    7. Lee’s orders clearly left him the option to decline to attack.

    He made the right choice

  12. Pingback: How Drones Would’ve Altered The Course Of The Civil War «

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