Saturday, April 8, 2006

Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life by Donald C. Pfanz

Ewell has been much maligned, of course, for not taking Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, the way Jackson surely would have and, of course, his biographer finds fault with that analysis and presents Ewell as one of the better generals on either side in that war. And that makes me wonder. Is that a natural byproduct of biography, that writing about someone in that way makes you write the best about them, or is that a natural byproduct of history, that mistaken impressions get enshrined in hearts and minds and become fact to all but those who take the time to assemble the actual pieces?

It’s an interesting question, and Ewell presents and interesting case study on which to test it. He shone under Jackson in the Valley, and after Stonewall died and Ewell was given the Second Corps, he showed his aggressiveness and ability by chasing Union forces out of his way on the march into Pennsylvania. Gettysburg was a mixed bag for the Confederates in so many more ways than just Ewell’s failure to take a hill that probably no one else—including Jackson—could have taken. And after Gettysburg Ewell began to shine again, especially in the smaller battles against Meade throughout 1863 and at the Wilderness in 1864. And then came Spotsylvania, when it was Ewell in the Mule Shoe and the Southern army was beginning to disintegrate. Lee lost confidence in Ewell after the Wilderness, but more on the basis of what others had reported to him and less on what he had observed with his own eyes, and replaced him shortly thereafter. It’s a compelling story about someone who had the fortunes of war and history work against him. But how much of it is true and how much is Pfanz’s interpretation?

When I’m looking for a new story idea I should go back and read page 424 about the two companies of black troops the Confederacy raised, but who never saw any action because Richmond fell into Union hands while they were still drilling, “and the companies dissolved in the chaos surrounding the city’s last hours.” Who were these men, these black soldiers who were being trained to fight for the South? Who were they fighting for? What were they hoping for?

I really enjoyed this biography of Ewell more than I thought I would. Makes me want to read biographies of other corps commanders from the Civil War. Hancock might be next. Men who haven’t been elevated to godhood the way Jackson and Grant have, but real men with flaws who did and saw a lot in their lives and in those four years.

Surgeons removed Ewell’s left leg above the knee at 2:00 PM that afternoon. In contrast to his attitude the previous evening, Ewell initially opposed the operation, having been informed by one physician that the limb could be saved. “Tell the [expletive] doctor that I’ll be [expletive] if it shall be cut off, and that these are the last words of Ewell,” he supposedly swore in a moment of passion. Ultimately reason prevailed, however, and the operation took place as planned. McGuire performed the surgery, assisted by the chief medical officer of Ewell’s division, Dr. Samuel B. Morrison, and Dr. William A. Roberson of the Sixth Louisiana Infantry. McGuire amputated the leg just above the knee, working as rapidly as possible in order to minimize the loss of blood. Throughout the operation Ewell muttered orders to troops and spoke hurriedly of their movements. He seemed unconscious of pain until McGuire sawed into to bone, when he threw up his arms and groaned, “Oh, My God!”

To remove any doubt that the amputation had been necessary, Robertson took Campbell Brown aside after the operation and in his presence cut open the amputated limb along the track of the bullet. “When the leg was opened,” remembered Brown, “we found the knee cap split half in two, the head of the tibia knocked into several pieces, and that the ball had followed the marrow of the bone for six inches breaking the bone itself into small splinters, and finally had split into two pieces on a sharp edge of bone. These pieces I took out and gave to my Mother, but have always avoided letting the General know that I had them.” Brown and a servant, John Frame, wrapped the bloody limb in an oil cloth and buried it in a corner of Buckner’s garden.

Why did this passage affect me? I don’t know. It says something about the tribulations people faced back then and the way that they faced them. It is both unbelievable that people would react so and at the same time it is perfectly understandable. The circumstance is so horrific and alien to us now, having your leg sawed off without any anesthetic, but their reaction to it is so human and predictable. If I lost my leg would I not also figure our a way to get back up on my horse and lead my troops into battle?

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