The Richard Ewell Rules

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Richard Ewell became a Lieutenant General after Stonewall Jackson was killed in May 1863. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Ewell was commander of the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia

On July 1, 1863, Robert E. Lee arrived in Gettysburg. After he assessed the situation, he ordered Ewell to capture Cemetery Ridge “if practicable.”

Ewell did not take the ridge. He decided that taking the ridge was not practicable.

Many military historians think that cost the South a victory at Gettysburg, and perhaps, the chance for victory in the American Civil War. Some historians blame Ewell for not being aggressive, as Stonewall Jackson might have been. Others fault Lee for issuing an order that didn’t state his true intent. The historians can argue about that. I think there are two learning points here for any leader.

Richard Ewell had been a brave and successful commander under Stonewall Jackson. But Jackson always told Ewell exactly what he wanted.

Lee was different than Jackson. He preferred to give orders that let subordinates use their judgment. That worked well with Generals Jackson and James Longstreet. But it didn’t work well with Ewell.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Ewell Rule Nr 1: Know your people and structure your communications in a way that works for their ability and style.

Ewell Rule Nr 2: If in doubt, state precisely and clearly what you expect to be done.

Reading Suggestions

The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results
Stephen Bungay used the history of the reforms of the Prussian Army under Helmut von Moltke to analyze military decision making and the application to business.

Gettysburg has a special place in American history and it also has a special place in my childhood. My father often went there in the summer for a meeting or a preaching clinic and I sometimes got to go along. When he was free we explored the battlefield. We found the place where my great great grandfather’s battery unlimbered their guns.

We walked the route of Pickett’s charge under a hot July sun. That gives you a sense of the bravery of Pickett’s soldiers that no book can convey. They walked three quarters of a mile, mostly uphill, to assault Union positions fortified on Cemetery Ridge. They walked through Union artillery fire, under the blazing sun. Despite the heat and friends falling all around, Pickett’s soldiers kept going. In the end, three quarters of Pickett’s soldiers were killed or wounded.

There are hundreds of books about the Battle of Gettysburg and the people who fought there. Recently, Michael Wade recommended Edward P. Coddington’s The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command to me and now I recommend it to other military history buffs. Fully 300 pages of this 800-page book are rosters, footnotes, and other details. That’s probably overkill if you don’t love military history or aren’t really, really interested in the Battle of Gettysburg.

But if all you want is to understand one of the most-studied battles in history, I suggest Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. It is true to the facts of the battle and superbly written and one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read.

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