Lee Reorganizes the Army of Northern Virginia

May 26, 1863 (Tuesday)

Reorganizing an army is not exactly the most exciting task in the world. It involves names, numbers and ranks, seniority and battlefield-readiness. At times, it can be tinged with political intrigue and drama, but mostly that is behind the scenes and hardly apparent.

Usually, it involves such gripping passages like:

“As the case now stands, I perceive that Pender might be promoted to command the Division formed of four Brigades of A.P. Hill’s former Division, and Heth to command a Division to be formed of the Brigades of Heth, Archer and two others; but it would seem hard that Ransom’s Brigade should be one of them.”

Richard "Dick"/"Old Bald Head" Ewell
Richard “Dick”/”Old Bald Head” Ewell

Boring? Yes. But also quite necessary. Following the death of General Stonewall Jackson, who commanded half of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, something had to be done. While Lee trusted his other corps commander, James Longstreet, he did not have such a faith in any of his other officers. They were fine brigade and division commanders, to be sure, but perhaps commanding half of the Southern Army was a bit beyond them.

Even so, for a time, Lee almost considered Jeb Stuart a likely candidate. Stuart had commanded Jackson’s Corps at Chancellorsville with, as Lee put it, “great energy, promptness, and intelligence” and he “conducted the operations on the left with distinguished capacity and vigor.” As fit as Stuart may have been for the job, Lee needed his dashing cavalier in the saddle, especially with the coming campaign to invade Pennsylvania.

Jackson, before he died, wished that General Richard Ewell take his place. Lee was certainly keen on the idea, but wasn’t completely certain that Ewell was well enough to take the field – he had been wounded in August and was, in many respects, a changed man. He was subject to wild mood swings and inexplicably had more eccentricities than Jackson. But his skill upon the field of battle was unquestioned. He was brilliant as a division commander.

Alexander Powell Hill (no hilarious nicknames need apply)
Alexander Powell Hill (no hilarious nicknames need apply)

Lee had been wanting to divide his army into three corps for some time now. The late unfortunate circumstances gave him that opportunity. While Longstreet would retain much of his corps and Ewell would take over much of Jackson’s, A.P. Hill had been selected to head the newly-minted Third Corps.

Hill had commanded the largest division in the army, his famed Light Division. His boys would make up nearly half of the new corps. But Hill was bombastic and had a very short fuse. This led to intense quarrels with both Jackson and Longstreet. In the end, upon his deathbed, Jackson, through the haze of delirium, had called for A.P. Hill to prepare for action. Now Hill was truly getting the chance.

As can be seen from Jefferson Davis’ letter of this date, these kinds of quirks were still being flattened out, but by this time, Lee had a fairly good idea of his army’s new structure. Before the end of the month, it would be official.1



  1. Sources: Jefferson Davis to Robert E. Lee, May 26, 1863, as printed in The Papers of Jefferson Davis, January – September, 1863; Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 25, Part 2, p810-811; A Glorious Army by Jeffry D. Wert. []
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