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?