Such a big day for Civil War nerds. On this day 150 years ago, Confederate general A. P. Hill sent two divisions into the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg to brush aside whatever annoying Union presence had shot at his men the day before. What they found, just west of town, was the stiff back of Union general John Buford, whose horsemen were determined to hold the town until the nearby First Corps could arrive.
Anyway, the fighting turned pretty fierce and Heth was shot in the head. Don’t worry; he survived. Union general John Reynolds was not so lucky, however, and the Virginian John Newton eventually assumed command of Reynolds’s old corps. By the end of the first day, Hill and his comrade Jubal Early had sent Union forces skedaddling through town and into the hills beyond.
Things looked good, right? Well, where Gettysburg is concerned, there’s always going to be controversy. And here, the controversy revolves around the decision of the one-legged Confederate general Richard Ewell not to immediately attack Union troops in those hills. “Old Bald Head,” as his men called him, had taken over for Stonewall Jackson when the great hero had fallen at Chancellorsville a few months earlier, so maybe he would always be seen to fall short. Whatever the case, a lot of people like to play “what if,” and this is one of those moments. What if he had attacked? Could the battle have been won? Or what if Jackson had survived? Certainly he would have attacked, right?
Some folks, though, forge that there was another commander on the field that day: Robert E. Lee. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Here’s what our entry says:
Lee’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill has been a source of controversy ever since. Some historians have suggested that Ewell was not nearly as aggressive as Stonewall Jackson would have been. Others have blamed Lee for issuing orders that were vague, contradictory, and overly discretionary. Ewell was to attack Cemetery Hill, according to Lee, “if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement.” As historian Stephen W. Sears has written, “The decision was left entirely in Ewell’s hands, and he was urged to start a fight but not to start a battle.”
We report, you decide.
IMAGE: Union and Confederate veterans at Gettysburg, 1913 (Library of Congress)