The Ewell Option

We have a tendency to view history as if through a rear view mirror, looking back along the path taken and framing what happened by how it turned out.  Since we know that in May and June of 1862 General Thomas Stonewall Jackson led a famous campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, the events leading up to that campaign tend to be told with Jackson as the focus. But for a brief time General Robert E. Lee, directing operations in Virginia that spring, considered other plans including what I refer to as the ‘Ewell Option’.1

When General Joe Johnston moved the bulk of his army to Yorktown in April 1862, he left three subordinate commands in an arc across northern Virginia: General Charles Field near Fredericksburg, General Richard Ewell at the rail crossing of the Rappahannock River, and Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. Johnston’s final instructions had been defensive in nature but Ewell was restless for action. On April 16 he proposed an offensive north up the rail line. Johnston was supportive though cautious; Lee was more enthusiastic and wrote to Field, asking him to communicate with Ewell about a combined movement.  This was the seed of the ‘Ewell option’ but events to the west would keep it from sprouting.

On April 17 General Banks began driving Jackson up the Shenandoah Valley.  In accordance with his instructions from Johnston, Jackson headed for Swift Run Gap and wrote to Ewell for support.  Over the next several days Jackson retreated up the Valley to Harrisonburg then turned east out of the Shenandoah Valley to take shelter in the Blue Ridge.  Ewell started receiving messages from Jackson on the 18th asking Ewell to come to his aid. As a result, Ewell set aside any idea of attacking northward and instead moved south to be closer to Jackson.  On the 20th Ewell wrote to army headquarters that responding to Jackson’s requests had prevented him from making any offensive move of his own.

With Jackson falling back, Lee was ready to give up on the Valley — he wrote to Generals Ed Johnson and Harry Heth, who had small commands in the mountains to the west, that they may need to fall back to the line of the Blue Ridge —  but he was not ready to give up on action in northern Virginia.  On the 21st he wrote to Jackson telling him that if he was going to use Ewell to attack Banks that would be fine, but if Banks was too strong to be attacked at this time he wanted Ewell to move east to work with Field and attack the enemy near Fredericksburg.  He did not want Ewell to be passively held in place.  After a few days passed, Lee wrote again this time to both Jackson and Ewell to emphasize that he wanted Ewell used aggressively, either with Jackson or with Field. Days went by with no action as Jackson rebuilt his command and kept Ewell nearby for support. Jackson asked for more troops in order to take the offensive; but Lee was redirecting men to Field instead.  In Lee’s view, if Jackson couldn’t accomplish anything with what he had, Ewell should go to Fredericksburg.

After a visit from General Ed Johnson, Jackson decided to unite with Johnson in order to attack Fremont’s forces in the mountains to the west.  He wanted Ewell to take his place in Swift Run Gap in order to watch Banks and the Valley. Bad roads delayed Jackson and by May 5th he had only made it as far as Staunton. Lee accepted Jackson’s new plan but he was frustrated at the delays and the imposed inactivity for Ewell.  Two weeks had gone by since Lee wrote that he wanted action against US forces, but so far precious little had been done. When Lee learned that Banks had withdrawn down the Valley, he wrote to Ewell that “I see no necessity for your division at Swift Run Gap”. Lee also redirected the brigades of Generals Branch and Mahone to reinforce Ewell in order to built a larger force for action east of the Blue Ridge — he gave specific instructions that they were not to be taken to the Valley but instead used for attacking north.  Lee was not giving up on the ‘Ewell option’.

A few days later, on May 8th, Lee wrote again to Ewell that he didn’t need to stay in Swift Run Gap but should move east.  But Jackson had been writing Ewell asking him not to leave and Ewell wrote to Lee that Jackson needed him. Lee relented, acknowledging to Ewell that he should stay if it was necessary for Jackson. Frustrated, Lee mentioned in a message to Gen Joseph Anderson, now in command of the Confederate forces near Fredericksburg, that his hope for a coordinated offensive in northern Virginia was delayed by Jackson’s side trip into the mountains. At this point General Joseph Johnston, nominally still in command of Ewell and Jackson, stepped in and directed Jackson to return and unite with Ewell in order to implement what Lee had directed three weeks ago — either attack Banks or move east to Fredericksburg. Lee likewise wrote Jackson to return to Ewell.  Unable to accomplish anything further in the mountains, Jackson began his return journey.

A few more days went by until on May 17th commanders to the east were growing anxious as the US pressure on Richmond increased.  Anderson wrote Ewell asking him to come help him and Johnston wrote Ewell telling him to either do something productive or move east.  Meanwhile, the reinforcements sent to Ewell were stripped away — there were pressing needs which couldn’t justify idleness.  Branch was sent to Hanover Courthouse and Mahone was redirected to Drewry Bluff. But Jackson told Ewell not to follow what Lee, Johnston, or Anderson were asking. For the final time Jackson kept Ewell from partaking in operations east of the Blue Ridge, demanding that Ewell unite with him in the Valley as the only way they could strike an effective blow against Banks. Ewell chose to stick with Jackson.

What I have called the ‘Ewell Option’ was an idea, advocated for about a month, that Ewell should strike north in conjunction with the forces near Fredericksburg in order to disrupt US arrangements in northern Virginia. It never came  to be, but in the end Ewell’s partnership with Jackson would deliver what Lee was looking for. While there was anxiety at how long it took to get an effective offensive going, Ewell’s decision to stand by Jackson made a critical difference in how the 1862 campaign played out.

  1. The information referenced in this post can be found in The war of the rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. ; Series 1 – Volume 12 (Part III).   The events described are also covered somewhat in books on the 1862 Valley campaign generally within a Jackson-focused framework, though Robert Tanner’s Stonewall in the Valley has a chapter titled Ewell’s Dilemma


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