One of the most unusual marriages of the Civil War involved a dominating widow and a quirky general in the Confederate army. These first cousins — she born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1820, and he in Georgetown in Washington, D.C., in 1817 — were destined to wed after much had happened in their lives beforehand.
Elizabeth Campbell was the daughter of President James Monroe’s ambassador to Russia, George Washington Campbell. The family called her “Lizinka,” the nickname for Elizabeth in Russian.
Her marriage in 1839to James Percy Brown, a wealthy slave owner and habitual philanderer, led to a sorrowful existence. Her suffering ended when he committed suicide in 1844.
Lizinka inherited a fortune in land and slaves from her family and her husband. An attractive and wealthy widow, she received attention from eligible males, including Maj. Gen. Richard Stoddert Ewell, an officer in the Army of Northern Virginia.
In August 1862, Ewell, dubbed “Old Baldhead,” suffered a wound at the Second Battle of Manassas, and Confederate physicians amputated his right leg. After recuperating, Ewell returned to service as a corps commander in Robert E. Lee’s army; replacing “Stonewall” Jackson following his death at Chancellorsville in May 1863.
As a youngster, Ewell had had a crush on his cousin Elizabeth. Now, years later, they decided to become man and wife.
In the interim, Lizinka had made efforts to advance Ewell’s military career by contacting influential friends in Washington on his behalf. She, however, also recognized his limitations as a military officer.
Another cousin explained, “When executing orders given by a superior, no doubt he would do well, [but if] it became necessary to decide between a certain sacrifice and a possible or probably great recompense, he would be paralyzed.”
As Peter S. Carmichael describes in “‘All Say They Are under Petticoat Government’: Military Commanders and Their Wives” by Bleser and Gordon, Lizinka’s domineering personality prevailed, and Ewell’s soldiers complained that she was influencing his military performance.
As a result, when Ewell’s decision-making on the battlefield was deficient, criticism fell on both him and his wife. That led to the perception of Ewell as weak and eccentric.
Lizinka changed Ewell in other ways as well. The notoriously profane army officer adopted her religious practices and converted into a devoted Christian.
The earlier question posed about Ewell’s decision-making ability was manifested at Gettysburg in July 1863. On the first day of the battle, his hesitation to attack and capture Cemetery Hill, the rallying point for Union troops, brought about a shift in the progression, if not the outcome, of this historic confrontation.
Lizinka continued to express herself in a forceful manner and advised Ewell that other generals were conspiring against him. His men and officers objected when she persisted in accompanying her husband to camp.
Lizinka also implored Ewell to ensure that her son from her first marriage, Campbell Brown, now serving on his staff, would never be exposed to enemy fire. That irked those in his command who did not enjoy the same consideration.
When the Union army captured both Ewell and Campbell Brown at Saylor’s Creek just before Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, they became POWs at Fort Warren in Boston. Lizinka’s strenuous efforts to intervene for their release led also to her arrest.
However, the influential woman not only obtained her own release, but arranged to have dinner with President Andrew Johnson (who took office following Lincoln’s assassination) and lobbied for the release of her husband and son.
She returned to Tennessee to find the land barren, the livestock gone and the buildings rundown. But her efforts to free her husband and son from prison finally bore fruit, and they were reunited in Tennessee.
Post-war life for Elizabeth and Richard was filled with personal confrontations fueled by their volatile personalities. Ewell contracted typhoid fever, which infected her as well — leading to her death, followed by his passing three days later, in January 1872.
Elizabeth Campbell “Lizinka” Brown was a strong-willed and self-righteous woman who defied male-dominant Southern customs. Despite time-honored barriers, she lived according to her principles and paid the price to achieve that goal.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point