The Oddest, Most Eccentric Genius: Lt. General Richard Ewell

Richard-Ewell

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell C.S.A.

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am continuing to periodically intersperse and publish short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg on the site. These all are drawn from my student text and may become a book in their own right.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them.

Today’s article is about Lieutenant General Richard Ewell who commanded the Confederate Second Corps at Gettysburg. He is another complex character, whose actions at Gettysburg are surrounding in controversy. This article does not go into those but instead focuses on the man and his leadership qualities, character, particularly his struggle with faith and depression.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

Dick Ewell was a modest man and “had maintained a reputation for solid competence.” [1] Freeman wrote:

“In part, the appointment of Dick Ewell was made because of sentimental association with the name Jackson, and in part because of admiration for his unique, picturesque, and wholly lovable personality. Of his ability to lead a corps nothing was known. Ewell had never handled more than a division and he had served with Lee directly for less than a month.” [2]

Richard Ewell was native of Virginia on February 8th 1817 in the District of Columbia. His father, Thomas Ewell, was a physician and scientific writer whose works created controversy with both the Catholic and Episcopal Churches. Though a gifted writer and editor, his finances declined even as the size of his family increased, plunging the family into poverty. The elder Ewell struggled with depression and alcoholism and died at the age of forty in in 1826 when Richard was nine years old. Ewell’s maternal grandfather was Benjamin Stoddert who served in the Revolutionary war and as the first Secretary of the Navy by John Adams. Stoddert helped create the Navy that rose to greatness. “In just three years he purchased land for six navy yards, acquired fifty ships, and recruited 6,000 sailors, including a corps of talented young officers that included David Porter, Isaac Hull, Oliver Perry, and Stephen Decatur.[3]

When his father died, the family remained in poverty on the family farm, albeit poverty with a distinguished heritage that his mother ensured that her children understood. She also instilled a strict religious faith in her son. With one brother at West Point and another having died of a liver infection, possibly caused by typhoid, Richard took over the management of the family farm. His mother, who sought more than a rudimentary education for him worked for several years to get him an appointment to West Point. Through her efforts he was finally admitted to the academy in 1836.

The young Ewell was an eccentric in many ways like his father, mother and grandfather:

“In him one could see the practical, precise mind of his grandfather Benjamin Stoddert and, negatively, the cynicism and sharp tongue of his mother, Elizabeth. The similarities to his deceased father were more pronounced. Richard possessed Thomas Ewell’s violent temper, high intellect, nervous energy, and love of alcohol.” [4]

In 1836 Ewell entered West Point, from which he graduated in 1840 along with his classmates, William Tecumseh Sherman and George Thomas. Some of his seniors in his cadet company included Joseph Hooker, John Sedgwick, P.T.G. Beauregard, Henry Halleck, Jubal Early and Henry Hunt, all of whom served as General officers in either the Union or Confederate armies during the Civil War. Some of the underclassmen who served under him included both James Longstreet and Ulysses S. Grant. By the end of his time at West Point Ewell had “developed into not only an impressive student but an impressive soldier.[5] He graduated thirteenth in a class of forty-two and chose to be commissioned in the Dragoons.

Upon graduation and his brevet promotion to Second Lieutenant the young officer reported to the First Dragoons and served on the western territories and plains of the rapidly expanding nation. Ewell was picky as far as relationships went and seeing the often sad examples of men who married on the frontier he elected to wait, which caused him not to marry until after the Civil War began.

On the frontier his Christian faith began to wane. He still believed in God, but he was a skeptic, did not own a Bible and found little solace in region, even as his mother converted to Catholicism and entered a novitiate with a Catholic religious order. His antipathy was deepened as he observed the behavior of Christian missionaries working among the various Indian tribes. Of the missionaries he observed “wife beating, fornication, theft and adultery.” He was taken by surprise when his younger brother William decided to become a missionary. Ewell wrote: “I have seen so much injury done the Indians here by them that I am rather skeptic[c]al of their utility. Some of the greatest scamps we have are missionaries.[6] Despite this he never completely lost faith. Stonewall Jackson had a marked influence on his return to faith. One night before a battle he heard Jackson praying inside his tent and later remarked that “he had never before heard a prayer so devout and beautiful; he then for the first time, felt the desire to be a Christian.[7]

When war came with Mexico Ewell, now a First Lieutenant went with his company. He fought at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Puebla and Churubusco. While he suffered no physical harm in combat, he developed malaria. He lost his older brother Tom, who while serving with the Mounted Rifles was mortally wounded at Cerro Gordo. Likewise his cousin Levi Gannt, was killed at Chapultepec. Following Mexico, he served in various duties became a noted Indian fighter on the western frontier. Those duties showed that “he had proved his mettle and established his credibility.” [8]

As secession drew near, Ewell was very sick again with fever and was returned to Virginia, some thought to die. However, that did not stop him from offering to fight a group of secessionists in Texas who were threatening to attack a Federal installation. He returned to health and on April 24th 1861 he resigned his commission in the U.S. Army, an act that he wrote “was like death to me.” [9] He was commissioned in the new Confederate Army as a Lieutenant Colonel of Cavalry shortly after his resignation.

Completely bald, and speaking with a lisp, Ewell’s oddities “endeared him to his officers and men,” [10] and by January 1862 he was a division commander and Major General serving under Jackson in the Valley campaign. John Gordon noted that Ewell “had in many respects the most unique personality I have ever known. He was composed of anomalies, the oddest, most eccentric genius in the Confederate Army….” [11] During that campaign he distinguished himself. During the campaign “Next to Jackson himself, Ewell stood out. Every act of Ewell’s in the campaign had been the standard of a competent, alert, and courageous lieutenant.” [12]

William C. Oates wrote of Ewell:

“Ewell was a first-class lieutenant, but he did not have enough confidence in himself to make him successful with an independent command…He hesitated…Therein was Ewell’s deficiency as a general. He had a splendid tactical eye, capable of grand military conceptions, and once resolved quick as lightening to act, yet never quite confident of his own judgment and sought the approval of others before he would execute.” [13]

Ewell had been an effective and dependable division commander under Jackson but had been wounded at Groveton where he was severely wounded and lost a leg, which meant the “absence for long months of the most generous, best disciplined, and in many soldierly qualities, the ablest of Jackson’s subordinates.” [14] Longstreet “regarded him as a superior officer in every respect to Hill.” [15]However, Ewell, though serving long with Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley had served “only briefly under Lee” [16] before being wounded at Groveton. The result was that neither Lee nor Ewell fully knew or understood each other. Lee knew Ewell’s excellent reputation among the soldiers of Second Corps and “may have heard rumors that on his deathbed Jackson expressed a preference for Ewell as his successor” [17] but he had little familiarity with Ewell.

In sending the recommendation on to Richmond Lee termed Ewell “an honest, brave soldier, who has always done his duty well.” [18] It was not a resounding recommendation, but then Lee barely knew Ewell. Lee wrote after the war that he recommended Ewell “with full knowledge of “his faults as a military leader- his quick alternations from elation to despondency[,] his want of decision &c.” [19]

Three days after his promotion Ewell married his widowed cousin, Lizinka Campbell, who he had long admired. Lizinka was the daughter of a Tennessee Congressman and had inherited he first husband’s estate. The couple had renewed their relationship during Ewell’s recovery from his wounds suffered at Grovetown. However, the marriage did not help Ewell. Lizinka was domineering and attempted to extend her “domination to the operations of 2nd Corps.” This “created animosity all around.” [20] One colonel noted that Lizinka’s conduct:

“very seriously injured old Ewell, and the very cleverness, which at other times would render her agreeable has only tended to make her more unpopular. She manages everything,” he complained, “from the General’s affairs down to the courier’s, who carries his dispatches. All say they are under the petticoat government.” [21]

Many questions hovered around the appointment of Ewell including how the loss of his leg, his recent marriage, newness to corps command, and unfamiliarity with Lee’s style of command would have on him.

The latter was even more problematic than any residual mental or physical effects of his wound and change in lifestyle. The fact was that Ewell was unfamiliar with Lee’s methods of command in large part because he “had served directly under Lee something less than a month, and then always subject to Jackson’s guidance. Lee never had an opportunity of the lack of self-confidence in Ewell.” [22] Had Lee known that the humble Ewell had reservations of his own about assuming command of a corps and going back to battle after the traumatic amputation of his leg he might have reconsidered his choice.

Ewell had written “I don’t feel up to a separate command” and he had “no desire to see the carnage and shocking sights of another field of battle.” [23] Ewell admitted to his new bride Lizinka that he was “provoked excessively with myself at times at my depression of spirits & dismal way of looking at everything, present & future….” [24] Lee did speak privately about his concerns to Ewell, but no record exists of the conversation, regardless Lee was not concerned enough to remove Ewell from command or to assign his corps to important tasks. However, Ewell was “never the same man in body or mind after the loss of his leg at Groveton.” [25] His decision making on the battlefield became clouded and he was often indecisive.

After Gettysburg Ewell continued to command Second Corps through the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, “after which his health compelled his temporary retirement from active field duty.” [26] He was reassigned to be the commander of the Department of Richmond and was captured at Sayler’s Creek in April 1865. After the war Ewell was honest about his shortcomings as a corps commander, especially of his actions at Gettysburg. He told one officer “it took a dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg he committed a good many of them.” [27]

He retired to his wife’s dilapidated farm in Tennessee, which he rehabilitated through much hard work. He was active in his community and did not become immersed in the conflicts of various commanders. In January 1872 he and his family were stricken with fever, Lizinka died and he followed a few days later.

In his final days, the faith that he had so long avoided sustained him remarked to a former subordinate he said “I don’t know how it all is, but the mercy of God is greater than the mercy of men.” [28] He dictated that he wanted a simple funeral and no monument over his grave. “Above all, he insisted that nothing disrespectful to the United States Government be inscribed upon his tomb.” [29]

Unlike his former subordinate the bitter, hate filled and arrogant Jubal Early, the reserved and humble Dick Ewell reconciled with his country and owned his mistakes.

Peace

Padre Steve+

Notes

[1] Ibid. Taylor, John Duty Faithfully Performed p.130

[2] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.322

[3] Pfanz, Donald. Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London 1998 p.9

[4] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.11

[5] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.24

[6] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.33

[7] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.266

[8] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.99

[9] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.121

[10] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.172

[11] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.209

[12] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.220

[13] Ibid. Girardi. The Civil War Generals p.209

[14] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.322

[15] Ibid. Wert A Glorious Army p.214

[16] Gallagher, Gary. Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg: A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell in a Difficult Debut in The First Day at Gettysburg edited by Gallagher, Gary W. Kent State University Press, Kent Ohio 1992 p.47

[17] Ibid. Gallagher Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.47

[18] Ibid. Gallagher Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p.48

[19] Ibid. Gallagher Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg p..49

[20] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.25

[21] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.356

[22] Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee an abridgment by Richard Harwell, Touchstone Books, New York 1997 p.305

[23] Ibid. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion p.23

[24] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.279

[25] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.720

[26] Ibid. Warner Generals in Gray p.85

[27] Ibid. Freeman Lee’s Lieutenants p.605

[28] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell pp.495-496

[29] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.496

[30] Ibid. Pfanz Richard S. Ewell p.268

 

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