I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of sorts with someone from the Civil War. Surprise, surprise. It started when I was at Barnes and Noble earlier this week and I picked up this Gettysburg Field Guide…
…and landed on a page with a photo of this handsome gentleman, Major General John Fulton Reynolds…
Something about seeing him made me want to learn more him and down the rabbit hole I went. Turns out he’s a very interesting fellow and was perhaps one of the most talented men in the Union Army at the time of his death at Battle of Gettysburg.
Born on September 20, 1820 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (about 50 miles from Gettysburg) Reynolds graduated from West Point in 1841 (a year after Sherman. Yes, I had to stick him somewhere in this post…). As with many of the well known military personalities from the Civil War, Reynolds fought in the Mexican War. He proved himself to be quite talented during this war, and was brevetted (in other words, promoted) twice for gallantry. He especially proved himself at the Battle of Buena Vista, when his artillery stopped a flanking attack by enemy cavalry, forcing the Mexican Army to withdraw.
In 1860, he was back at West Point, this time as commandant of cadets and an instructor in tactics. When the Civil War broke out, he was appointed Brigadier General of volunteers. It was here he began a lengthy association with the Pennsylvania Reserves. Also, another tidbit of information, while Reynolds was Pro-Union, he did not support anti-slavery politics.
During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, Reynolds occupied and became military governor of Fredericksburg, Virginia. He fought during the Seven Days Campaign, commanding his brigade at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek and Gaines Mill. It was after Gaines Mill Reynolds had an “oh shit” moment (well, it was more than a moment, I suppose) when he ended up getting captured by the Confederate Army. After Gaines Mill, Reynolds had not slept for a few days and was absolutely exhausted. He was attempting to sleep when the Confederate Army found him and captured him. Reynolds was no doubt embarrassed. Confederate General D.H. Hill, who also happened to be a friend of Reynolds, tried to reassure him that all would be fine by saying “do not feel so bad about your capture, its the fate of wars” (#nothelping). He was held at Libby Prison but luckily for him, this was not to last long. On August 15, 1862, he was exchanged and released back to the Union Army.
Back in the saddle on either Prince or Fancy, Reynolds picked up where’d left off and show cased his military talent at the Second Battle of Bull Run. He led his men in a last ditch stand at Henry Hill. He shouted “Now boys, give them the steel, charge bayonets, double quick”. He assisted greatly in keeping the Confederates halted allowing the Union Army to retreat.
He was not at Antietam due to a slightly paranoid Governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew G. Curtin, wanting him to organize, train and lead a Pennsylvania militia called into active duty. Needless to say General McClellan and General Hooker were none too pleased about losing one of their military rock stars. They stated that “a scared governor ought not to be permitted to destroy the usefulness of an entire division”. Too bad the governor won out, much to the chagrin of Mac and Fightin’ Joe. (side note: Mac was not going to have to worry about it for long since Lincoln was about done with his shenanigans and Mac was about to relieved of *surprised gasp* command of the Army of the Potomac).
Off Reynolds went to train the militia…
Turns out he was only gone for a couple of weeks…
Reynolds was back for the Battle of Fredericksburg. By this time, the Army of the Potomac was now headed by General Burnside. Reynolds directed the First Corps. One his divisions was commanded by George Meade, who ended up making the only breakthrough at the battle. Reynolds failed to reinforce Meade because he had not received clear orders from from a Brigadier General William B. Franklin as to what his role was. #Frustrating.
Despite this, on November 29, 1862, Reynolds was promoted to Major General of Volunteers. It was also after this battle, he was one of a few generals to speak out against General Burnside.
We all know what happened to Burnside…
Next up was Chancellorsville. In charge of the Army of the Potomac by this time was General “Fightin Joe” Hooker…
Major General Reynolds commanded the First Corps again at this battle. He ended up clashing with “Fightin Joe” when Hooker changed the placement of his troops, causing the XI Corps to become over run by General “Stonewall” Jackson and his troops before Reynolds could get his I Corps to their new position. The Union Army ended up having to retreat. Afterwards, a vote was held as to whether to proceed with battle. There was a 3 to 2 vote to continue and go on the offensive against the Confederates. Reynolds voted for the offensive. Hooker, however, made the ultimate decision, and despite the majority wanting the offensive, decided to withdraw the Army of the Potomac (I’m sure the other Generals that voted for the offensive were thinking “WTF, man?”). When awakened by Meade and told the news of the retreat, Reynolds said loud enough for Hooker to hear “What was the use of calling us together at this time of night when he intended to retreat anyhow?”. Yeah, I’d be angry too. Hooker did have a rough day though. Not only had Stonewall’s surprise attack rattle him to his core, he also had a concussion from an incident involving a cannonball striking the house he had set up command in.
Reynolds had voiced his concern for a good commander of the Army of the Potomac, stating “If we do not get someone soon who can command an army without consulting Stanton and Halleck at Washington, I do not know what will become of the army”. Clearly, Reynolds felt the army needed to be independent from the government in Washington and have the ability to make its own decisions. Just as he’d done with Burnside, Reynolds spoke out against General Hooker, calling for his removal. Before this could happen, Hooker ended up resigning. Of himself he said “To tell the truth, I just lost confidence in Joe Hooker”.
Reynolds had the talent to lead the Army of the Potomac. He’d proven himself to be excellent tactical commander on many occasions. President Abraham Lincoln recognized this in him and on June 2, 1863, the two met in Washington. Lincoln asked if Reynolds would lead the Army of the Potomac. His response was basically “Yup…if you’ll let me do what I want and let me have control. Oh, and no interference from Washington” (not exactly what he said but you get the idea…). Lincoln could not guarantee this. Sticking to what he firmly believed, Reynolds refused the command.
On June 28, 1863, General George Meade was given command of the Army of the Potomac. This was just a mere three days before the Battle of Gettysburg.
On the morning of July 1st, Reynolds was leading his force to the little Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg when he found out Confederate Forces were almost there too. He met with Major General Buford there.
Reynolds shouted to him “What’s the matter, John?”. Buford replied “The devil’s to pay”. Reynolds learned the situation – Buford’s men were being pushed back by the Confederates and Reynolds had a choice: move back or fight.
He decided to fight.
Reynolds led the Iron Brigade to McPhearson’s Ridge. Out ahead of his men, he eyed the Confederates in an apple orchard . He turned back in his saddle and shouted to the infantry behind him: “Forward, forward, men! Drive those fellows out! Forward! For God’s sake, forward!”. These were to be his last words. Suddenly, he fell from his horse and lay still. An aid rushed to him and saw he’d been struck behind his right ear by a bullet. Major General John Fulton Reynolds, was said by Shelby Foote to be “not only the highest ranking but the best general in the Army” at the time of Gettysburg, was dead at the age of 42.
Of the death of Reynolds, one soldier wrote “his death affected us much for he was one of the soldier generals of the army”. Reynolds was incredibly talented, a gifted tactician and had proven himself many times on the battlefield. We’ll never know if he would have been offered command of the Army of the Potomac again but it’s easy to speculate he probably would have done well in that role. If he had lived, he, General Grant and General Sherman would have been a force to be reckoned with.
Reynolds was burned on July 4, 1863 in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
There are also a few memorials for him at Gettysburg, which I plan on going when I’m back there (hopefully in the Autumn)
I’m not done with Reynolds just yet. There is another part of his story I want to tell and it’s a bit of a love story. It deserves it’s own post though.
Thank you, as always, for reading!
Civil War Trust. “John F. Reynolds”. http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/John-F-Reynolds.html
Foote, Shelby. “The Civil War: A Narrative. Volume 2 Fredericksburg to Meridian”. New York: Random House, 1963
Reardon, Carol & Tom Vosslet. “A Field Guide To Gettysburg”. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013