I’m a fan of the movie Gettysburg. There, I said it. Why? Well, it’s a long treatment of the battle, many parts were filmed on the battlefield, and in some cases it’s fun to critique its treatment of the Civil War and the battle. One thing we need to remember, though, is that it’s awful history, from the overly well-fed confederate pickets to its lost cause view of what the confederacy was about, to this event, which purports to depict confederate general Isaac Trimble complaining to R. E. Lee about Richard S. Ewell’s failure to “take that hill.”
Trimble himself claimed, in his questionable reminiscences, to have said the words to Ewell, “Give me a division and I will take that hill,” etc. So why am I complaining about this? Because if the viewer isn’t careful, they will become confused about what hill he’s talking about. Lee’s original orders to Ewell were to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable” and “without bringing on a general engagement.” Trimble here is not talking about Cemetery Hill. He’s talking about Culp’s Hill. In his inspection of Cemetery Hill, Ewell judged it to be impracticable to attack and instead Ewell himself hit on the idea of taking Culp’s Hill. It was Ewell who first raised this with Lee and received Lee’s permission to pursue that line of attack if he could do so. “A blind man should have seen it” sounds good on the screen when one is looking for a villain to blame for confederate defeat, but anyone who’s seen the terrain knows Culp’s Hill was wooded and a blind man could not have seen much about it, since a sighted man couldn’t see much in the way of whether or not troops were up there. And in fact, the Iron Brigade was there. That’s why Ewell sent a scouting party up there and. when Early protested his division was fought out and was too exhausted and disorganized to move on the hill, why he wanted Allegheny Johnson to assault the hill with his division.
While some folks believe what Trimble wrote, most historians discount his special pleading as a desperate attempt to lay blame for the loss of Gettysburg on Dick Ewell’s shoulders. Based on what Ewell actually did, I side with the latter group. So when you watch the movie, don’t fall into the “the man is a disgrace” trap about Richard S. Ewell.