In an ironic twist deliberately perpetrated by author Harper Lee, she has given the most despicable character in the novel the same name as the greatest hero of the Southern Confederacy--General Robert E. Lee. Robert E. Lee Ewell is the absolute antithesis of his namesake: Where Gen. Lee was revered for his military genius, humble nature, religious sincerity and aristocratic upbringing (the Lee family was a famous one in Virginia, and Lee was related to George Washington's family by marriage), Ewell is none of the above. Virtually illiterate, cocky, Godless and the "disgrace of Maycomb," no one in the town could be less deserving of his name. Following the Civil War, General Lee became the leading symbol of the defeated South, putting the blame for the Confederacy's military defeats on his shoulders, quietly supporting a peaceful reconciliation with the Union, and becoming the president of Washington University (later Washington and Lee, in Lexington, Virginia). Ewell, meanwhile, spews hatred toward Negroes (Lee freed his slaves at the onset of the war), blames Atticus for his problems, and refuses to make his children attend school.
Ewell's last name is also that of a Confederate general famed for his failure to capture an important position on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. General Richard Ewell, who replaced the late Stonewall Jackson shortly before the invasion of Pennsylvania, was ordered by Lee to take the lightly defended Cemetery Hill; Ewell decided against the attack, and Union reinforcements soon made it impregnable. Ewell's inactivity (which bordered on cowardism--a trademark of Bob Ewell) is often blamed for the loss at Gettysburg--one for which Lee accepted full blame. It is also interesting that Harper Lee has chosen to give the lowly Bob part of her own name. Ewell is not the only To Kill a Mockingbird character to be named after a Confederate general. Newspaper Braxton Bragg Underwood's namesake was one of the most reviled of all Southern generals, known for his cranky attitude and poor battle tactics; Underwood, on the other hand, manages to rise above the name which is bestowed upon him.