American Civil War: Lieutenant General Richard Ewell

Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Richard Ewell - Early Life & Career:

The grandson of the first US Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert, Richard Stoddert Ewell was born in Georgetown, DC on February 8, 1817. Raised in nearby Manassas, VA by his parents, Dr. Thomas and Elizabeth Ewell, he received his initial education locally before electing to embark on a military career. Applying to West Point, he was accepted and entered the academy in 1836. An above average student, Ewell graduated in 1840 ranked thirteenth in a class of forty-two. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he received orders to join the 1st US Dragoons which were operating on the frontier. In this role, Ewell assisted in escorting wagon trains of traders and settlers on the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails while also learning his trade from luminaries such as Colonel Stephen W. Kearny.

Richard Ewell - Mexican-American War:

Promoted to first lieutenant in 1845, Ewell remained on the frontier until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War the following year. Assigned to Major General Winfield Scott's army in 1847, he took part in the campaign against Mexico City. Serving in Captain Philip Kearny's company of the 1st Dragoons, Ewell took part in operations against Veracruz and Cerro Gordo. In late August, Ewell received a brevet promotion to captain for his heroic service during the battles of Contreras and Churubusco. With the end of the war, he returned north and served at Baltimore, MD. Promoted to the permanent grade of captain in 1849, Ewell received orders for the New Mexico Territory the following year. There he conducted operations against the Native Americans as well as explored the newly-acquired Gadsen Purchase. Later given command of Fort Buchanan, Ewell applied for sick leave in late 1860 and returned east in January 1861.

Richard Ewell - The Civil War Begins:

Ewell was recuperating in Virginia when the Civil War began in April 1861. With the secession of Virginia, he resolved to leave the US Army and seek employment in the Southern service. Formally resigning on May 7, Ewell accepted an appointment as a colonel of cavalry in the Virginia Provisional Army. On May 31, he was slightly wounded during a skirmish with Union forces near Fairfax Court House. Recovering, Ewell accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army on June 17. Given a brigade in Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard's Army of the Potomac, he was present a the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21, but saw little action as his men were tasked with guarding Union Mills Ford. Promoted to major general on January 24, 1862, Ewell received orders later that spring to take command of a division in Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's army in the Shenandoah Valley.

Richard Ewell - Campaigning in the Valley & Peninsula:

Joining Jackson, Ewell played key roles in a string of surprising victories over superior Union forces led by Major Generals John C. Frémont, Nathaniel P. Banks, and James Shields. In June, Jackson and Ewell departed the Valley with orders to join General Robert E. Lee's army on the Peninsula for an attack on Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac. During the resulting Seven Days Battles, he took part in the fighting at Gaines' Mill and Malvern Hill. With McClellan contained on the Peninsula, Lee directed Jackson to move north to deal with Major General John Pope's newly-formed Army of Virginia. Advancing, Jackson and Ewell defeated a force led by Banks at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Later in the month, they engaged Pope in the Second Battle of Manassas. As the fighting raged on August 29, Ewell had his left leg shattered by a bullet near Brawner's Farm. Taken from the field, the leg was amputated below the knee.

Richard Ewell - Failure at Gettysburg:

Nursed by his first cousin, Lizinka Campbell Brown, Ewell took ten months to recover from the wound. During this time, the two developed a romantic relationship and were wed in late May 1863. Rejoining Lee's army, which had just won a stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Ewell was promoted to lieutenant general on May 23. As Jackson had been wounded in the fighting and subsequently died, his corps was divided in two. While Ewell received command of the new Second Corps, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill took command of the newly-created Third Corps. As Lee began moving north, Ewell captured the Union garrison at Winchester, VA before driving into Pennsylvania. The lead elements of his corps were nearing the state capital of Harrisburg when Lee ordered him to move south to concentrate at Gettysburg. Approaching the town from the north on July 1, Ewell's men overwhelmed Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps and elements of Major General Abner Doubleday's I Corps.

As Union forces fell back and concentrated on Cemetery Hill, Lee sent orders to Ewell stating that he was "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." While Ewell had thrived under Jackson's command earlier in the war, his success had come when his superior had issued specific and precise orders. This approach was counter to Lee's style as the Confederate commander typically issued discretionary orders and relied on his subordinates to take the initiative. This had worked well with the bold Jackson and the First Corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, but left Ewell in a quandary. With his men tired and lacking room to re-form, he asked for reinforcements from Hill's corps. This request was refused. Receiving word that Union reinforcements were arriving in large numbers on his left flank, Ewell decided against attacking. He was supported in this decision by his subordinates, including Major General Jubal Early.

This decision, as well as Ewell's failure to occupy nearby Culp's Hill, were later severely criticized and blamed in causing the Confederate defeat. After the war, many argued that Jackson would not have hesitated and would have captured both hills. Over the next two days, Ewell's men mounted attacks against both Cemetery and Culp's Hill but with no success as Union troops had time to fortify their positions. In the fighting on July 3, he was hit in his wooden leg and slightly wounded. As Confederate forces retreated south after the defeat, Ewell was wounded again near Kelly's Ford, VA. Though Ewell led Second Corps during the Bristoe Campaign that fall, he later fell ill and turned command over to Early for the subsequent Mine Run Campaign.

Richard Ewell - The Overland Campaign:

With the beginning of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign in May 1864, Ewell returned to his command and engaged Union forces during the Battle of the Wilderness. Performing well, he held the line at Saunders Field and later in the battle had Brigadier General John B. Gordon mount a successful flank attack on the Union VI Corps. Ewell's actions at the Wilderness were quickly offset several days later when he lost his composure during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Tasked with defending the Mule Shoe salient, his corps was overrun on May 12 by a massive Union assault. Striking his retreating men with his sword, Ewell desperately attempted to get them to return to the front. Witnessing this behavior, Lee interceded, berated Ewell, and took personal command of the situation. Ewell later resumed his post and fought a bloody reconnaissance in force at the Harris Farm on May 19.

Moving south to the North Anna, Ewell's performance continued to suffer. Believing the Second Corps commander to be exhausted and suffering from his previous wounds, Lee relieved Ewell shortly thereafter and directed him to assume oversight of the Richmond defenses. From this post, he supported Lee's operations during the Siege of Petersburg (June 9, 1864 to April 2, 1865). During this period, Ewell's troops manned the city's entrenchments and defeated Union diversionary efforts such as attacks at Deep Bottom and Chaffin's Farm. With the fall of Petersburg on April 3, Ewell was forced to abandon Richmond and Confederate forces began retreating west. Engaged at Sayler's Creek on April 6 by Union forces led by Major General Philip Sheridan, Ewell and his men were defeated and he was captured.

Richard Ewell - Later Life:

Transported to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, Ewell remained a Union prisoner until July 1865. Paroled, he retired to his wife's farm near Spring Hill, TN. A local notable, he served on the boards of several community organizations and also managed a successful cotton plantation in Mississippi. Contracting pneumonia in January 1872, Ewell and his wife soon became gravely ill. Lizinka died on January 22 and was followed by her husband three days later. Both were buried in Nashville's Old City Cemetery.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General Richard Ewell." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). American Civil War: Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Lieutenant General Richard Ewell." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).