Raised in Virginia and trained at West Point, Richard Ewell resigned his U.S. military commission when the Civil War broke out in 1861. That July, he was promoted to major general in the Confederate Army and served as a trusted subordinate of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during the latter’s Shenandoah Valley campaign. Wounded near Manassas in mid-1862, he recovered and fought at Chancellorsville, after which he was given command of a corps in the Army of Northern Virginia. After the Confederate loss at the Battle of Gettysburg, Ewell was criticized for his hesitation in attacking Union defenses on Cemetery Hill on the first day of fighting.
Richard Ewell: From West Point to Bull Run
Born in 1817 near Washington, D.C. and raised on a farm in Prince William County, Virginia, Richard Ewell graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1840. During the Mexican War (1846-48), he fought with distinction in battles at Contreras and Churubusco and earned a promotion to captain. Ewell resigned his U.S. Army commission in 1861, after Virginia seceded from the Union. After serving in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) that July, he was promoted to major general and became a trusted subordinate of leading Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862.
That summer, Ewell was transferred along with the rest of Jackson’s men to help defend Richmond against the advance of Union General George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac in the Seven Days’ Battles. During the second Manassas campaign that August, he performed well at Kettle Run but was seriously wounded at Groveton. As a result of the injury, Ewell’s right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Richard Ewell: Corps Commander
After several months of recovery, Ewell returned to the Army of Northern Virginia (using a wooden prosthesis) in time to serve in its great victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in late April and early May, 1863. During that battle, Jackson was shot accidentally by his own troops and mortally wounded. On May 23, General Robert E. Lee promoted Ewell to lieutenant general and placed him in command of Jackson’s old corps. As Lee launched his invasion of the Shenandoah Valley that June, Ewell’s corps performed well, capturing some 3,500 enemy troops in the Union garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg.
On July 1, as Lee’s troops advanced through Pennsylvania, Ewell marched his 2nd Corps into the small town of Gettysburg. By late afternoon, the Confederates had been able to drive back Union troops into a defensive position at Cemetery Hill. Lee then gave Ewell discretionary orders to attack the hill “if practicable;” Ewell chose not to send his troops forward on that first day. This controversial decision was later pointed to as one of the factors in the eventual Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Ewell led the 2nd Corps against Cemetery Hill on July 2 and 3, but the delay had given Union troops time to fortify their defenses, and the assault was turned back with heavy Confederate losses.
Richard Ewell: End of the War
After Gettysburg, Ewell led his troops well during the Battle of the Wilderness in early May 1864. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House later that month, however, Ewell’s hesitation frustrated Lee, who subsequently relieved Ewell from his command and replaced him with Jubal Early. His health faltering due to the stress of the campaign, Ewell was sent to aid in the Confederate defense of Richmond.
During the retreat of Lee’s forces from that city in early April 1865, Union troops surrounded and captured Ewell and his men at Sailor’s Creek. Ewell was imprisoned at Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, for the remainder of the war, and released in early July.
After the Civil War, Ewell settled in Tennessee with his wife (and first cousin), Lizinka Campbell Brown, who had nursed him back to health after Second Bull Run (Manassas) and whom he married in 1863. Ewell and his wife died several days apart from each other in 1872.