Reared in the rolling hills of North Carolina Piedmont region, young Ramseur--known as "Dodson" to his friends and "Dod" to his intimates--impressed his friends with a unique combination of personal gentleness ("womanly tenderness of feeling," one called it) and reckless daring. Raised in a devout Presbyterian home, Ramseur attended Presbyterian Davidson College, where he befriended the mathematics professor, Daniel Harvey Hill. With former West Pointer Hill's recommendation, Dodson Ramseur won appointment to the Academy, and graduated 14th out of 41 cadets in the class of 1861, the last class to graduate before the Civil War began. He chose the artillery so that he could stay in the East, where he had the best chance of meeting girls.
When the first Deep South states seceded, Ramseur did not wait for his native state to follow them, but rushed to Montgomery, Alabama to join the Confederate army. However, he was soon elected to captain of the Ellis Light Artillery of Raleigh, North Carolina, and he rushed back to join his new unit in time to fire the opening salute--one hundred cannon blasts--on the lawn of the state capitol when the Tarheel State voted to leave the Union.
In the spring of 1862, the 49th North Carolina Infantry regiment was mustered in near Ramseur's home. Ramseur, always ambitious, successfully pursued an appointment as its colonel, and he left his artillery battery to take command of the new regiment. After two months of drill--but before the worried Colonel Ramseur thought his men were ready--the regiment was summoned to Richmond to help drive McClellan's Union army away from the Confederate capital. There they saw their first heavy combat at Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days' Battles. Ramseur led his regiment forward in a futile charge into a "fire the intensity of which is beyond description," and was hit in the right arm, mangling it above the elbow. Ramseur at first refused to leave his men, but was finally removed to a hospital.
He then returned home to heal his paralyzed, useless arm. Meanwhile, casualties at the battle of Sharpsburg in September brought an opportunity for promotion. Brig. Gen. George B. Anderson had been mortally wounded there, and Lee, on the basis of Ramseur's performance at Malvern Hill and his superlative training of his artillery and infantry units, selected Ramseur to take command of Anderson's brigade of four North Carolina regiments. Promoted to brigadier general on November 1, Ramseur found himself, at twenty-five, the youngest general in the Confederate army. Convalescing back in Carolina, he also met his future wife Nellie, a small attractive brunette of similarly strong Presbyterian faith.
By January 1863, Ramseur felt strong enough to join his new brigade in Virginia, though his right arm hung in a sling. As one of his colonels later remembered, Ramseur "at once disarmed criticism by his high professional attainment and great amiability of character, inspiring his men, by his own enthusiastic nature, with those lofty martial qualities which distinguish the true Southern soldier." The young general indeed cut an inspiring figure, carrying his slim, slight frame with a martial erectness; he attempted to disguise the boyishness of his face by growing a great, bristling black beard and wearing his hair in a buzz cut. A magnificent, graceful horseman, he would be called the Chevalier Bayard of the war by the Richmond Press. His speech was direct and brisk. Though intensely ambitious, he hid his vanity from public view--he had only one photograph taken during the war. "He abhorred newspaper puffs, gotten up to make a false reputation for those not worthy of it," reported a friend. Ramseur, however, was not indifferent to newspapers. In letters home, he asked friends to clip all his notices. Ramseur remained profoundly devout; once, at a moment of battlefield crisis, Ramseur turned to his courier and in a sudden outburst shouted, "Damn it, tell them to send me a battery! I have sent for one a half a dozen times." He then stopped short, threw up both arms, looked upward and in the hearing of his entire brigade said, "God Almighty, forgive me that oath."
At the battle of Chancellorsville, Ramseur's brigade spearheaded Jackson's flank attack on May 3. Leading his brigade forward against the advice of fearful fellow officers, Ramseur strode over the prostrate bodies of fellow Rebels who had lost the heart for attack. His command plunged into sheets of fire, running over Yankee breastworks with a shout. However, the brigade soon ran short of ammunition, exposed and alone in front. Ramseur's predicament finally galvanized the Stonewall Brigade to come to his support and consolidate the gains made by his men. Jeb Stuart, temporarily in command of Jackson's Corps, ordered cheers for Ramseur's North Carolinians when they emerged from the fighting, and declared that Ramseur deserved a major general's commission.
Ramseur's Brigade lost more than half its men in the Chancellorsville fighting, the heaviest casualties of any Rebel brigade in the battle. Ramseur himself was hit in the shin by a shell fragment on the evening of May 3, painfully hobbling him. In return for this bravery and sacrifice, Ramseur and his brigade won plaudits from Lee, Jackson, Stuart, A.P. Hill, Anderson, Rodes, and Pender--all had come away deeply impressed by Ramseur's handling of his command.
Furthermore, Chancellorsville exhibited the astonishing proficiency in drill of Ramseur's regiments. One of Ramseur's colonels thought Ramseur handled troops under fire with more ease than any other officer he knew. As a result of these assets, and his renown after Chancellorsville, Ramseur was one of the brightest lights in Lee's army as it approached the field at Gettysburg. Though still able to use only one arm, he was fully aware of the great expectations surrounding him, and was sure he could meet them. Harvey Hill stated that Ramseur "reveled in the fierce joys of strife," and that "his whole being seemed to kindle and glow amid the excitements of danger"--here was a true war lover. His only distraction was his constant struggle against the urge to return home to Nellie. "I must overcome these longings," he wrote. Duty, "stern and high, must reign supreme."
| Being last in the line of march, Ramseur's Brigade was in reserve when
Rodes's Division moved onto Oak Hill about 1:00 in the afternoon of July 1.
The two brigades immediately ahead of him in the front line, Iverson's and
O'Neal's, both collapsed after their attacks against Robinson's Division at the
northern end of the Union line on Seminary Ridge. Ramseur then pushed his
North Carolinians forward about 3:00 against the disorganized, exhausted, and
ammunition-depleted Yankees who had repulsed the earlier assaults. Rather than
hitting the enemy head-on, he took the time to swing his brigade around to the
left and take the Federals in their right rear. By that time, only Paul's
Brigade had been left to cover the retreat of the remainder of Robinson's men,
and after being hit by Ramseur, the Yankees "ran off the field in confusion,
leaving [their] killed and wounded and between 800 and 900 prisoners in our
hands." Ramseur pursued the routed enemy through the west side of town, but to
the dismay of his men, Rodes ordered Ramseur to halt before he could assault
the enemy rallying point on Cemetery Hill. The first day's fighting had come
to a close, and Ramseur's men camped in the streets of the town.|
Ramseur would fight no more at Gettysburg. In the late afternoon of July 2, Rodes wheeled the entire division from the streets of the town into the Long Lane to the southwest, facing Cemetery Hill, the target of the attack, about 500 yards away. The maneuver was so time-consuming that it was dark before all the brigades were in position. At that point Rodes told Ramseur that the other brigades would form on his, and that he, Ramseur, was effectively in command of the attack. After advancing about halfway to the Union lines, Ramseur halted, conferred with Doles and Iverson, and all agreed the situation did not favor success. Ramseur informed Rodes, and Rodes called for them to return to the Long Lane.
The attack would never be made. Two brigades were detached from the division during the night, and Ramseur, along with Doles and Iverson, were too weak to do anything but man their line in the Long Lane on July 3.
After the battle, Ramseur was remembered for the glory of the first day's triumph. One of three brigadiers commended by Rodes in his report, Ramseur's career was still on the rise. He left the army to be married in the fall, but the next June, after the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania, Ramseur was promoted to major general and put in command of Early's Division. It was as a division commander that he was shot through both lungs and killed at the battle of Cedar Creek in October 1864.
For further reading:
Cox, William R. "Major General Stephen D. Ramseur: His Life and Character." Southern Historical Society Papers 18; reprint, Wilmington, 1990
Gallagher, Gary "One of the Best of Lee's Young Generals: Stephen Dodson Ramseur at Chancellorsville." Civil War Quarterly 6, 1986
_____. Stephen Dodson Ramseur: Lee's Gallant General. Chapel Hill, 1985
Taylor, Michael W. "Ramseur's Brigade in the Gettysburg Campaign: A Newly Discovered Account . . . ." Gettysburg Magazine 17, Jul 1997