Did Lee Tell Ewell To Halt on July 1 at Gettysburg?

by Brett Schulte on February 26, 2012 · 11 comments

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through old issues of the National Tribune, THE Union veterans’ paper after the Civil War.  My main goal is to find articles pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg, but I’ve found a lot of other fascinating things, and I’ve only reached early 1882.  The paper was founded in 1877.  Here’s one I had to share with readers in the hope that some of you might be able to shed a little background on this story.

In the January 7, 1882 issue of the National Tribune, a short article appeared on page 3 in column 1 titled “The Battle of Gettysburg-What General Ewell Wished To Do.”1 In the article, which is mainly composed of a letter purported to have been written by General George G. Meade in 1876, Meade claims that Ewell wanted to attack Culp’s Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863, but Robert E. Lee specifically ordered him not to.  Ewell related that Lee saw Slocum’s Corps approaching and wanted to wait for the rest of the ANV to come up.  Has anyone heard this version of events before?  If so, have historians debunked this as a fiction created by Ewell after Lee died?  I’m eager to hear what readers think.

UPDATE: Reader Dave Jordan pointed out that Meade died in late 1872, so the 1876 date had to be wrong.  Dave investigated further and found that the letter was written in 1870 to the editor of the Burlington (VT) Free Press.  It later appeared in the New York Times as well as making its way into the National Tribune below.  As Dave asks in the comments, was this letter included in The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade?  I searched Google Books and was indeed able to find the letter in that book on pages 352-353, so it is absolutely genuine.

I’ve included the article in its entirety as an image below for interested readers:

Did Lee ORder Ewell Not To Attack Culp's Hill?  Meade Thought So.

  1. Meade, George G. “The Battle of Gettysburg-What General Ewell Wished To Do.” National Tribune 7 January 1882. 3:1.

***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

LetUsHavePeace February 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Meade’s honesty is as unimpeachable as Grant’s; neither man was capable of inventing a “fiction”. In conceding that he would have had to withdraw his troops if Ewell had come up in full force, Meade was hardly telling a story that would enhance his own reputation. There is no reason to think he was lying about what Ewell told him. That leaves the question of Ewell’s own reputation for honesty; and his reputation for integrity was as solid as Meade’s. (The only “lie” that Ewell is alleged to have told is the one that is embarrassing true – namely, that the thieves and looters burned Richmond, not Ewell’s retreating soldiers.) Lee’s order to Ewell 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.” That instruction left Ewell in the position of having to ask for permission to go forward, which is what he told Meade. McPherson and others have wanted to blame Ewell for not being Jackson and take it for granted that Jackson would “have taken the hill”. Perhaps. But Lee’s habit of writing “conditional” orders had given Jackson as much trouble as they gave Ewell. As Longstreet noted, “General Jackson never showed his genius when under the immediate command of General Lee.” Meade and Ewell were both telling the truth; in a world where Lee is cast in perfect marble, that was not something many people then (or now) want to hear.

Reply

Dave Jordan February 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Ewell and Meade were both be very credible sources, however, since George Meade died in November 1872, and Ewell died in January 1872, I doubt that they were sending letters to each other (or anybody else) in 1876.

Reply

Dave Jordan February 26, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Sorry , “were both be very credible…” should have been “would both be very credible “

Reply

Fred Ray February 26, 2012 at 6:35 pm

Mebbe, mebbe not. Ewell may have believed what he was saying 13 years later, but his recollection differs from just about everyone else’s.

Reply

Brett Schulte February 26, 2012 at 7:01 pm

🙂 Dave, good point! I wonder what the editor meant instead of 1876, since all of the Union veterans would have known when Meade died. Assuming the year to be an obvious typo, I wonder if any historian has commented on this article in the past. I’m kind of shocked I’ve never heard of this before considering how over-studied Gettysburg is. Is the letter even real? Has anyone found any record of it except in the pages of the National Tribune? I also wonder if this “conversation” between Meade and Ewell “shortly after the war” happened before or after Lee died.

Reply

Dave Jordan February 26, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Brett:

This story also appears in an 1881 issue of the New York Times, again with the purported 1876 date of the letter.

http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40914F63E5F15738DDDAF0A94DA415B8184F0D3

I guess the NY Times had some fact-checking problems back then as well. 😉

Does this letter appear in the Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade? These were compiled by Meade’s son (his aide and Gettysburg and later a general himself) who should have realized the significance of this letter (if it existed) when he published this collection in 1913.

Reply

Dave Jordan February 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

From the text in the NY Times article, it appears that the letter was written in 1870 to the editor of the Burlington, Vermont Free Press, and that this is only an excerpt of “other highly interesting statements” made by Meade and that other statements were withheld from print.

The Burlington Free Press still exists. Wonder if they have this letter filed away somewhere?

Reply

Dave Jordan February 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm

The letter is dated March 16,1870. Lee died in October of that same year.

Reply

Brett Schulte February 26, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Dave,

Thank you VERY much for all of this fact finding. This is an incredibly interesting story. I realize we’ll probably never know the truth, but as I said before, I’m absolutely shocked I’ve never heard of this before.

Brett

Reply

Mark S February 27, 2012 at 8:44 am

One problem with the scenario seems to be Ewell’s recollection of where all his troops were at 4pm. Johnson’s division was just arriving from the west and was more than 3 miles from Culp’s Hill and in line of march, not in a column of attack. Early’s division was scattered around the town of Gettysburg (mainly southern and eastern portions) after their pursuit of the fleeing 11th Corps. They certainly were not ready to assault Cemetery Hill, let alone Culp’s Hill. Likewise, Rodes’ division was scattered after pursuing the fleeing union troops (primarily 1st corps) and in no position to attack Culp’s Hill. So, the statement that 20,000 men were massed in column of attack to assault Culp’s Hill at 4pm is simply not true – in fact, it wouldn’t have been true even later in the daylight hours.

Another potential problem with the scenario was the immediate suitability of Culp’s Hill to be an effective artillery platform. A few guns may have been able to have suitable open fields of fire towards East Cemetery Hill, but certainly not “batteries”. By the time it could have been prepared as an impressive “artillery platform”, I suspect the fresh 12th Corps would have attacked from the south and southwest. Of course, the result of such an attack is unknowable.

Reply

LetUsHavePeace February 27, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Mark S. makes several very good points. Ewell’s recollection is clearly colored by his belief that he could have changed the fate of the Confederate Army by making a hard push against Culp’s Hill with the forces he had. The question, as Mark S. notes, is what would Meade have done if the Confederates had taken Culp’s Hill and placed cannon on it. Would Meade have known that only a few guns could be placed there? Would he, having lost 6,000 prisoners already, have wanted the 12th Corps to attack in the late afternoon? Those people like Mark S. who know the battle in detail are best qualified to answer the question (it is well beyond my pay grade); but Meade certainly implies in his letter that he would have withdrawn if the Confederates had pushed on. The important point remains the ambiguity of Lee’s own orders – what was his purpose in telling Ewell to “carry the hill” but “avoid a general engagement”, given what Mark S. has written about the terrain?

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: