‘Old Bald Head’ Ewell was a much better general than his notoriously eccentric image sometimes suggested.

By B. Keith Toney

With the possible exception of World War II, the American Civil War has been written about more often than any other war. Certainly it can be argued that no army in any time period has had more written about it than the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. And for students of the Civil War, no work has done more to influence perceptions about the Army of Northern Virginia’s officers than Richmond, Virginia, author Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants. Published in 1942, Freeman’s three-volume study of the commanders of the Confederacy’s premier army remains for many historians and buffs the final word on the subject.

There is only one problem with this: In many instances, Freeman was wrong. Like most people, Freeman was a product of his time, a time when the “Lost Cause” mentality created and fostered by the Southern Historical Society was very much alive and well. Fortunately, time has dulled many of the old axes that were still being ground in Freeman’s era, and historians in recent years have been able to look at the people and events of the Civil War years with much more objectivity. As a result, a number of recent biographies have been published presenting new outlooks on the war with a clarity that simply was not possible in Freeman’s time, muddied as it was by the myths created by men only a generation removed from the war. One of the latest and best of these recent biographies is Donald C. Pfanz’s Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1998, $39.95 hardcover).

Born in the Georgetown neighborhood of the District of Columbia in 1817, Ewell graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1840, beginning a military career that made him one of the most misunderstood major figures in the Civil War. Appointed to command Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s old II Corps after Jackson’s death at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Ewell was the third-ranking officer in the Army of Northern Virginia, behind General Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. In fact, Ewell commanded the army on two separate occasions during the winter of 1863-64 when Lee was ill and Longstreet was absent, having been sent west with his corps just before the Battle of Chickamauga.

Known affectionately as “Old Bald Head,” Ewell is described by Freeman as presenting the image of a slight, balding eccentric whose high-pitched, lisping voice and habit of carrying his head cocked to one side reminded onlookers of a bird. Freeman’s Ewell provided more comic relief than inspired leadership, performing adequately while under the strong hand of Jackson but finding himself entirely beyond his abilities when asked to exercise semi-independent command of a corps.

As Pfanz points out, nothing could be further from the truth. With a significant amount of research and historical expertise–no doubt learned in part from his father, well-known historian Harry Pfanz–the author presents a much different picture of Ewell. His Ewell is not some comical character but a flawed, intriguing human being who struggles to master his chosen career, worries over financial security, endures occasional bouts with jealousy and anger and, improbably, makes a successful search for love.

That Ewell could be considered eccentric can hardly be questioned. Rather than try to evade the issue, Pfanz demonstrates that Ewell, like many who march to a slightly different drummer, lived a life that was basically as normal as the next person’s. His service in the pre-Civil War Army was distinguished, if not spectacular, and by the time he resigned his commission to join the Confederacy, he had gained a reputation as one of the best and most experienced Indian fighters in the U.S. Army.

Ewell wasted no time in applying his talents in defense of his adopted cause, serving as a brigade commander at First Manassas and subsequently joining Jackson prior to Stonewall’s famed Valley campaign of 1862, during which time Ewell became one of Jackson’s favorite subordinates. Pfanz credits Dr. Hunter McGuire, Jackson’s chief medical officer and attending physician at the time of his death, as the source of the oft-repeated story of Jackson’s deathbed wish that Ewell be given command of his corps. True or not, the story illustrates the respect that Jackson had for Ewell’s abilities and belies many of the less flattering opinions of Ewell as a commander.

Pfanz does a good job of exposing a number of myths about Ewell, such as the general being responsible for the burning of Richmond at the war’s end. It may or may not be true that Ewell said he learned all he needed to know about commanding troops while leading 50 dragoons on the western Plains. Certainly, it sounds like something Ewell would have said, but the underlying truth of his statement regarding the personal responsibilities of a commander is often overlooked.

Given Pfanz’s careful research, however, it is disappointing that he reiterates many of the same old myths surrounding Ewell’s conduct at Gettysburg. While Pfanz does an adequate job of defending Ewell against most of the unfair charges leveled against him in connection with the Gettysburg campaign, he still largely accepts the version perpetuated by Jubal Early, William Jones and other former Confederate generals who founded the Southern Historical Society. One has to question why the author would fall prey to such old myths when his father is one of the most respected authorities on Gettysburg alive today.

But if Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life falls short of perfection, it is still a solid book. Well written, meticulously researched and splendidly balanced, it stands as a much-needed antidote to Freeman’s debunking views. “By stressing the general’s idiosyncrasies,” writes Pfanz, “Freeman obscures the fact that Ewell was an intelligent, hard-working professional who knew his business and did it well.” On balance, that seems like a fair assessment of Old Bald Head. Ewell would probably accept Pfanz’s judgment with gratitude, if not good grace.