Should Ewell have taken “That Hill”?

by Matthew Young on July 10, 2008 · 5 comments

Last weekend was my second trip to Gettysburg. Living in the deep south, some 13 hours away by car, it is sometimes difficult to get to places that we really want to go. That being said, it was my very FIRST time to Culp’s Hill. The first time I went (three years ago), I went with my family who were slightly tired of hearing all my Civil War stories, so my Mom cut our tour short and I never made it to this part of the battlefield.

As my friend Brian and I ascended the observation tower last Thursday (a week ago today), I thought to myself…this is a really steep hill. As we reached the top and looked out over the town of Gettysburg, it became immediately obvious to my why this was the “barb” in the fish hook that was the defensive position at Gettysburg for the Union. Without a doubt, this position commands the entire area.

This is the view looking West towards the town. The hill has a steep slope in this direction towards Rock Creek, but the terrain is not impassable.

So, the question remains, should Ewell have ordered Johnson’s Division to take the hill? Johnson sent a scouting party up the hill late in the afternoon of the first day, where they encountered elements of the 7th Indiana, part of the I Corps, which was digging in. Other Federal units were beginning to head in that direction, but the 7th Indiana, for a time, was all alone at the top of the hill. Johnson’s scouting party got so close, they were almost captured. They ran back down the hill and reported that the Federals were in strength at the top. But WHAT IF…they had reported that there was only one lone Union regiment at the top of the hill?

Johnson had some 6,000 men in four brigades in his division which had not yet been engaged in the fighting of the first day, including the famed “Stonewall brigade”. Could these men have stormed up the slope of Culp’s Hill, dislodged the 7th Indiana, and set up a defensive line to protect Ewell’s flank from new Federal troops that were showing up in the XII Corps under Slocum? Would the Stonewall brigade have gained even more fame and glory on July 1, 1863 for forcing the Federal Army to retreat from Cemetery Hill and take another defensive position further south of Gettysburg?

My best answer is…yes. Ewell was too timid, and Johnson was not aggressive enough. If Trimble had been allowed to lead an assault up the slope of Culp’s Hill as the sun set on July 1, 1863…it is very possible that we would be talking today about the one day battle of Gettysburg as a complete Confederate victory, and after that, it’s anyone’s guess!


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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave July 10, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Interesting conjecture which I largely agree with, but a couple of caveats:

— IIRC, Ewell had received conflicting reports of Union troops coming from the east, not just the south. Had he lined up his forces to assault the hill, there existed a danger that he’d be flanked in mid-assault by newly arriving Union troops. Again, yet another reason why you don’t let your cavalry leave you while in enemy territory ;-).

— Don’t forget how Ewell got his job. Just two months previously the Confederacy had lost its best corps commander in the confusion of a night attack. After the first day’s success at Gettysburg, not only were Confederate forces elated by their success (they smashed two Union corps), they were probably reluctant to press the issue. “Enough fighting for one day, if those boys in blue are stupid enough to stick around until the morning, we’ll just kick their behinds tomorrow. ”

Far better to settle down for the evening and avoid a potentially bloody mess of an attack over broken terrain up a hill in the dark with no idea of what Union forces may be in the area.

In hindsight– and certainly to wise observers like Trimble– this seems like an inexcusable offense. At the time, however, I can see Ewell making that judgment call.

— Finally, Ewell himself. Many observers agree that the effective division commander had given way to a much more cautious and reluctant corps commander. Reasons are myriad, but most fixate on Ewell’s injury at Second Manassas (losing a leg) and getting married soon before the Gettysburg campaign. Bottom line, he wasn’t the same aggressive commander that he was in the past. Combine that with the newfound stress of higher command, and I can understand his timidity– *especially* in the absence of clear orders from Lee (who can be faulted for leaving that much discretion to his corps commanders on the first day of Gettsyburg; let’s be honest, Hill and Ewell were not the trusted subordinates that Jackson was, and Lee should be blamed for not paying closer attention to them that day (Hill got them into the fight he probably should not have fought, and Ewell didn’t push hard enough when confronted with commanding terrain).

Anyway, Ewell was wrong not to take Culp’s Hill. But it was an honest mistake, and far more understandable than the mistakes of the 2nd day, and the utter catastrophe of the 3rd day.

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Stephen Graham July 10, 2008 at 11:34 pm

Ewell made the right decision.

Any attack on Culp’s Hill would have been made in the dark by exhausted troops in the face of opposition – a recipe for disaster. And it most likely would have been one. Then what do you do?

Tell me, what have you read on the subject? Have you read Pfanz’s First Day or Gallagher’s essay “Confederate Corps Leadership on the First Day at Gettysburg” in Three Days at Gettysburg?

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Matthew Young July 11, 2008 at 7:18 am

I have actually read quite extensively on the subject and have reached a different conclusion then you. Not to say that I am right, or you are right, we have just reached different conclusions.

Johnson’s Division was not engaged in combat that day, and my point is that they were not exhausted, certainly not like Rodes or Early’s men were from marching AND fighting. As far is “in the dark”, it stays light until almost 9:00pm in July in that part of Gettysburg, and believe it or not, its very light by 5:30am.

I read Pfanz several years ago, but have not read Gallagher. I have reviewed the OR’s for the 1st days battle (nothing like a primary source), and also read David Martin’s “Gettysburg July 1” which is very detailed even down to the regimental level. Hope that helps! Thanks.

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Stephen Graham July 12, 2008 at 12:11 am

Johnson’s division had marched 23 miles that day, if I’m not mistaken. That’s a long march on any day, moreso on a hot summer’s day.

If you check the description in Pfanz, it describes Johnson’s division as arriving close to sundown and then deploying after sundown and by the light of the moon. I believe Martin also matches this description, though I don’t have that volume at hand.

As it was, Johnson’s division would have been attacking in isolation: no help was forthcoming from Longstreet or Hill’s troops, Rhodes wasn’t willing, and Early seemed unenthused, as well as having two brigades diverted elsewhere.

So what happens if Johnson attacks and it’s a disaster?

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Mike Gronski December 2, 2008 at 3:35 pm

If you read Pfanz, it was not only 7th IN (I corps) but by late afternoon, 12th Corps was coming up Rock Creek up Benners Hill, which would put Johnson between artillery from Cemetery and Culps Hill and 12th Corps.
With regard to scouting, Ewell was worried from reports of Union 5th coming at his left flank.
All this happened well before dark, before Johnson had even reached the field.
Ewell’s only opportunity to attack Culp’s Hill came earlier with Early’s div, but the worry of Union coming at his flank discouraged him without support from Johnson which was not available until dark. (without daylight savings, it would be dark earlier than 9PM- orders were not able to be read at 7:30 PM.)

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