The Ewell Contribution

A few days ago I wrote about the ‘Ewell Option ‘ — a plan for General Richard Ewell to strike at US forces in northern Virginia in April or May 1862 — and how instead Ewell decided to stick with Stonewall Jackson and support his efforts in the Shenandoah Valley. The resulting campaign became famous and elevated Jackson to heroic, even mythological, status. I feel that Ewell has not gotten his due; that he deserves more credit than he typically gets. So I offer this post in praise of Ewell’s contribution to the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862.

In his book Stonewall in the Valley Robert Tanner wrote “Had Jackson instead of Johnson taken a bullet at McDowell, Stonewall would have come down through the years in a much different light: one of the many eccentrics who crowd the war’s history, a good brigadier promoted beyond his competence”.  I think this idea could be extended all the way to May 21st. It was the events that followed that made Jackson famous.

As Jackson was returning from the Allegheny Mountains to the Shenandoah Valley in mid-May he directed Ewell to meet him at New Market so that they could attack US General Nathaniel Banks. In the past writers have attributed great insight to Jackson regarding how the campaign unfolded, but in an appendix to the second edition of his book Tanner wrote “compelling contemporary documents dispute the venerable view that Jackson always plotted to destroy Banks as he did and suggest a different initial plan.” While he was still to the west, Jackson was uninformed about Banks position, writing Ewell on May 15th  “Do you know where Banks is and what his force is?” Jackson just knew that he wanted to attack Banks. He ordered Ewell to join him at New Market because he intended to attack Banks head on at Strasburg. However, his cavalry and reconnaissance by some of his staff brought word that Banks was fortifying at Strasburg. The orders Jackson had received from General Johnston said it would be too hazardous to attack if the position was fortified and the high command in Richmond continued to call for Ewell to come east. As a result, Jackson was uncertain of how to proceed until, according to one of Ewell’s staff officers, Ewell proposed an alternative.

Ewell had spent the past few weeks along the Blue Ridge and had become familiar with the area. His scouts identified that the village of Front Royal was held by only a small force.  Front Royal could be reached quietly by moving down the Luray Valley between Massanutten Mountain and the Blue Ridge.  This would enable Jackson to avoid Banks’ fortified position, defeat a small US detachment and threaten Banks’ rear at Winchester. Jackson now had a plan and the army began to move on May 21st with Ewell’s division in the lead.

In the May 23nd attack on Front Royal and the subsequent march toward Winchester the next day, it was Ewell’s men  — especially Taylor’s brigade and Flournoy’s cavalry — that played key roles.  At Winchester on May 25th Ewell used a portion of his division to occupy half of Banks force on the east side of town while the rest of his division was sent to support Jackson.  Jackson struggled to make headway on the west side of town until he sent Ewell’s men, specifically Taylor’s brigade, in a flank attack which decided the battle in the Confederate’s favor.

A few days later it was learned that US General Charles Fremont was advancing from the west.  It would be a disaster for Jackson if Fremont got to Strasburg while the Confederates were north of there.  So Jackson sent Ewell to block Fremont. As Jackson raced his army south, Ewell held off Fremont near Strasburg and again near Harrisonburg.  On June 8th Ewell won the battle of Cross Keyes through skillful use of terrain and timing, waiting until the right moment to spring an attack that routed several of Fremont’s regiments. The following day Jackson engaged portions of US General James Shields’ division outside Port Republic.  The battle did not start out well.  Tanner wrote that “Ewell salvaged the day” and “Old Bald Head would not have realized it, but his arrival signaled a turn of the tide.”

As summarized above, Ewell provided the support, manpower, and leadership that produced results for Jackson.  Throughout the campaign he handled his responsibilities well. I think he deserves much greater credit than he typically has received for his contribution to this campaign.


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