Times Past, Pausing to Remember

General Isaac Ridgeway Trimble

An aging Isaac Trimble entered the American Civil War in his late fifties and quickly proved himself a ferocious fighter. Never faint of heart, he endeared himself to his superiors and delighted them with his aggressiveness. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson said of him, after the second battle of Bull Run, "After a day's march of over 30 miles he ordered his command . . . to charge the enemy's position at Manassas Junction. This charge resulted in the capture of a number of prisoners and 8 pieces of Artillery. I regard that day's achievement as the most brilliant that has come under my observation during the present war."

Isaac Trimble Jackson himself was a relentless commander who knew no fear and so was favorably disposed towards Trimble, who told him, "Before this war is over, I intend to be a major general or a corpse."

He got his wish, and it was the promotion not the fatality that he won. Badly wounded in the leg and long in healing, he was not able to assume his own command and was instead assigned to assist Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. The two strong personalities clashed repeatedly, and by the opening day of the battle of Gettysburg seemed to be waging war with each other, as well as with the Federals.

Late in the day, the Union Army was preparing a well-defended position on Culp's Hill, which Trimble saw as crucial. He argued with Ewell that it should be assaulted and the Federals driven off. "Give me a division," he said, according to one witness, "and I will engage to take that hill." When this was declined, he said, "Give me a brigade and I will do it." When this was declined, Trimble said, "Give me a good regiment and I will engage to take that hill." Ewell snapped back, "When I need advice from a junior officer I generally ask for it." Trimble warned that Ewell would regret following his suggestions for as long as he lived, threw down his sword, and stormed off, saying he would no longer serve under such an officer.

It may be he was right, for General Ewell was one of the scapegoats taking the blame for Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, along with General Longstreet. A popular game of "What if" has been played and continues to occupy the minds and pens of historians and Civil War enthusiasts. What if Ewell had sent troops to take "that hill" on July 1, 1863?


The next day was one of relative inactivity for General Trimble; he was given no important assignment. The third day was different. Lee had temporarily lost the services of several commanders injured, and permanently lost a number who had been killed. He planned an assault on a grand scale, aiming for the center of the well-entrenched and defended Union lines on Cemetery Hill. This was the famous "Pickett's charge," a misnomer. It was not Pickett who was in command; it was Longstreet. It was also a steady advance up that mile-long gentle slope, not what one imagines a charge - moving ahead at speed - to be. Historians who have studied all the records now believe the total number of Confederate troops making that advance to have been about 11,000. With so many men, and so many separate units, attempting to take the strong Union position, Lee's only chance of success, if any, lay in excellent leadership and perfect coordination. He had neither.

He did have Isaac Ridgeway Trimble, strong of heart and will. General Trimble was assigned two brigades that he knew not at all, and to whom he was a stranger. Part way to the goal, Trimble was shot in the leg and had to give over his command and drop out of the battle.

Isaac Trimble was carried to a field hospital and his leg amputated. Now in Union hands, the war was over for him. One can only imagine the frustration he experienced, sitting on the sidelines in captivity. He was released in February of 1865, just two months shy of Lee's surrender in April.

Major General Trimble lived another 23 years to age 85.

He probably never knew it, but Isaac Trimble was a descendant of royalty, and that made him distant kin of many of the men he fought with and against in those three days at Gettysburg. One of those was General Robert E. Lee. He was also kin to another Civil War notable, Ulysses S. Grant. One can only speculate what Trimble's comment about that might have been.


Cousins in the Civil War