By the summer of 1863, John Reynolds, commander of the First Corps, was the most respected man in the Army of the Potomac; not one negative comment about him from his contemporaries is recorded. After the Union debacle at Chancellorsville in May, President Lincoln, aware of the fact that Reynolds was the one universally admired major general the eastern army possessed, invited him to the White House for a conference. Though their meeting was not attended, it is believed that Lincoln offered command of the army to Reynolds, and that Reynolds, well aware of the strings that had been pulled from the capital in the previous year, replied that he would accept only on the condition that he be given a free hand. This Lincoln was unable to do. Reynolds thus returned to the head of the First Corps, and three weeks later, command of the army was thrust on George Meade for the coming crucial clash in Pennsylvania. When Reynolds heard the news, he put on his dress uniform and made a formal visit to the new army commander, who was, by contrast, slouching as usual in an old uniform and muddy boots. When Meade rose and groped for words to express his discomfort at the awkward situation of being promoted over the man who had the day before been his superior, Reynolds gently stopped him and assured him that the job had gone to the right man.
As both meetings illustrate, John Reynolds had earned respect the old-fashioned way. "General Reynolds obeys orders literally himself, and expects all under him to do the same," wrote artilleryman Charles Wainwright, a New York City Brahmin before the war. McClellan had called him "remarkably brave and intelligent, an honest, true gentleman." Observant aide Frank Haskell called Reynolds "one of the soldier generals of the army, a man whose soul was in his country's work." Admiration for him thus derived in part from his manner: direct, unpretentious, even Spartan. But he possessed other natural gifts besides. A handsome man of forty-two, Reynolds was a picture-perfect general in uniform--six feet tall, narrow-waisted, erect, with dark hair and eyes, beard neatly groomed, and a deep tan gained from years of outdoor life. He was magnificent to watch as he rode the battlefield, rated by consensus the army's best horseman.
Like many of the other corps commanders, Reynolds was considered a conservative Democrat of the McClellan mold, which made him suspect in the eyes of the radical members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War; one of those members, chairman Senator Benjamin Wade, had recently declared that he wanted Reynolds removed from the army. But Reynolds was a quiet man about his politics, just as he was quiet about most everything else. This distinguished him in eyes of men like Wainwright: "General Reynolds is very different from Hooker, in that he never expresses an opinion about other officers," he wrote. "I can get nothing out of him."
Indeed, Reynolds had made himself untouchable by men like Wade--by a life devoted to duty. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (just fifty miles from the battlefield at Gettysburg), he had received his early schooling in a nearby Moravian village, then attended the Lancaster County Academy, and finally West Point, where he graduated 26th among the 52 cadets of the class of 1841. Posted to the artillery, he served for the next eighteen years in service against the Seminoles, in the Mexican War (cited for bravery at Monterrey and Buena Vista), on the frontier, and in the Mormon Expedition. In 1860, he was brought back east and made Commandant of Cadets at West Point, where he also served as instructor of artillery, cavalry, and infantry tactics. Then the war came.
Reynolds's Civil War career is remarkable in that he became so highly regarded despite so few bright spots. In August 1861 he was made brigadier general of volunteers and assigned to a brigade of the Pennsylvania Reserve Division, an "overflow" division of three brigades formed when Pennsylvania volunteers enlisted in numbers greater than the quota asked for by Lincoln in the war's first summer. He trained his brigade in the defenses of Washington until the following spring, when the Pennsylvania Reserves were included in Irvin McDowell's First Corps and marched south into Fredericksburg, still protecting Washington while the rest of the Army of the Potomac marched up the Peninsula with McClellan to capture Richmond. On June 10, 1862, McClellan persuaded Lincoln to release the Pennsylvania Reserve Division to him for the final battle for Richmond, and thus Reynolds's brigade was present for the Seven Days' Battles in late June.
Reynolds and his Pennsylvanians' first test under fire came on the first of the Seven Days at Mechanicsville. They made a fine performance, repulsing A.P. Hill's Light Division from a strong position and earning Reynolds a commendation from Reserves commander George McCall after the battle. After the battle of Gaines' Mill the next day, however, Reynolds, exhausted after two days of continuous fighting, fell asleep and was overlooked in the army's retreat. It was a bad time to oversleep. Reynolds was shaken awake by Rebel pickets the next morning, and he spent the next six weeks in Libby Prison in Richmond, mortified at being captured in such an ignominious way.
Exchanged in early August, he was returned to the Pennsylvania Reserves, and this time was assigned to command the entire division, since McCall had himself been captured only two days after Reynolds. Reynolds's Division joined Pope's Army of Virginia in time for the battle of Second Bull Run, where Reynolds made his most brilliant showing (made more sparkling by its being set against the miserable performances of the rest of the Federal high command). On the evening of the second day of the battle, when the Federal left had been crushed and Pope's entire army was fleeing the field, Reynolds marched his brigades onto Henry Hill for a last-ditch stand. He grabbed the flag of the 2nd Reserves regiment, waved it and yelled, "Now boys, give them the steel, charge bayonets, double quick!" Reynolds's counterattack stalled the Rebel advance for precious moments. Later, when his lines had reformed, he took the splintered flagstaff of the 6th Reserves and rode the length of his line waving it overhead, "infusing into the men a spirit anything else than one to run," according to one of his men. Pope's retreating army owed its survival in large measure to Reynolds's powers of inspiration.
In the ensuing invasion of Maryland by Lee's victorious army, Pennsylvania governor Andrew Curtin, frantic in the belief that his state was about to be invaded, called out the state militia and pulled every string he had in Washington to obtain Reynolds as their commander. McClellan and Joe Hooker, Reynolds's superiors, complained that "a scared governor ought not to be permitted to destroy the usefulness of an entire division," but Curtin got his way and Reynolds spent two weeks in Pennsylvania drilling old men and farmboys while the battle of Antietam was being fought in Maryland.
When he returned to the army at the end of September, Reynolds was promoted to the head of First Corps (Joe Hooker having been moved up to an echelon of command newly created by Burnside--the "Grand Division"). At the battle of Fredericksburg in December, it was one of Reynolds's divisions--his old Pennsylvania Reserves, now under Meade as they had been at Antietam--that succeeded in making the only break in the Confederate line that day. However, Meade's men had to retire for lack of support from the Reynolds's other two divisions--a failing by Reynolds, perhaps, but more a failing by his superiors, Franklin and Burnside, who could give Reynolds no clear idea of how the attack on this flank should proceed.
The battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 was a week of high frustration for Reynolds. Initially posted at the extreme left flank of the Union army and having made bridgeheads across the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, the First Corps was then pulled back across the river and marched nearly 20 miles to the opposite end of the line. The countermarch got a late start due to faulty communications, and the delay left the Eleventh Corps, on the extreme right flank of the army, with its right "in the air." The vulnerable flank was assaulted end-on by Stonewall Jackson and the Eleventh Corps was virtually destroyed, setting in motion a series of setbacks which drained the fight out of army commander Joe Hooker. Once Reynolds's corps was finally in place, Hooker took a vote among the corps commanders on what to do next. Reynolds, with Meade and Howard, voted for advancing against the Rebel army; Couch and Sickles voted to retreat. Even though the vote was three to two to attack, Hooker decided to pull out and forfeit the battle. Leaving the meeting, Reynolds muttered 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?" Never "put in," Reynolds's 17,000-man corps lost less than 300 men in the entire campaign. Reynolds, disgusted, joined with others and urged Hooker's removal. It finally came on June 28, three days before Gettysburg.
It may be that John Reynolds achieved universal respect only by virtue of being the best of the mediocre cast of corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac before the summer of 1863. More likely, he had simply never had a chance to show what he could do. The army had no better corps commander; Reynolds had been in corps command longer than any other man in the Army of the Potomac, and at the end of the second year of the war was at the height of his abilities.
As he rode toward the familiar country near his Pennsylvania home at the end of June, Reynolds was wearing a ring he had never let anyone see, on a chain around his neck. It was a gold ring in the shape of two clasped hands. Engraved inside the ring was the inscription "Dear Kate." Four years previously he and "Kate"--Katherine Hewitt--had met as he returned from an assignmenton the West Coast. Now they had planned to meet the next week in Philadelphia, where she would meet his family. The two had planned to go to Europe after they were married--as soon as the war ended.
| For the final approach to Lee's army, Reynolds was entrusted by new
commanding general George Meade with the advanced (left) wing of the Army of
the Potomac--comprised of the First, Third, and Eleventh Corps. On July 1,
riding north toward Gettysburg with Wadsworth at the head of his First
Division, Reynolds heard the boom of artillery ahead and got word from
cavalryman John Buford of an enemy advance on the town along the Chambersburg
Pike. He rode ahead with his staff and found Buford and his men defending
McPherson's Ridge a little after 10 o'clock A.M. Commending Buford on his
choice of ground, Reynolds dashed off messages to Howard, urging him to hurry
the Eleventh Corps forward, and to Meade, informing him of the situation and
concluding, "I will fight them inch by inch, and if driven into the town I will
barricade the streets and hold them as long as possible."|
Having thus gone a long way toward choosing Gettysburg as the ground over which the great coming battle would be fought, he then rode back to wait for Wadsworth's column. When Cutler's Brigade arrived with Hall's 2nd Maine Battery, Reynolds hurried them at "double-quick" across the fields west of town to McPherson's Ridge, where Buford's cavalry had just started to give way under attack from Archer's and Davis's Rebel infantry brigades.
After deploying Hall's battery and the regiments of Cutler's Brigade, Reynolds hurried back to guide the Iron Brigade to the front. Alarmed at Archer's Confederates pouring forward on the south of the Chambersburg Pike, Reynolds exhorted the 2nd Wisconsin, the lead regiment of Brigade, to dash forward to beat the Confederates to the ridge, shouting "Forward men, forward for God's sake and drive those fellows out of those woods. . . ." As they ran up the slope loading their muskets in the face of the opening volleys of the Archer's men, Reynolds, at the rear of the regiment, turned in his saddle to look for supports. At that moment he was hit behind the right ear by a musket ball. He swayed a moment in the saddle, then fell to the ground face down, and died in the arms of his staff a few moments later..
With only a fraction of his corps available, Reynolds had put himself at the head of his troops confronting a enemy of unknown size. Dedicated to an aggressive forward defense in the vanguard of the entire Army of the Potomac, he died as a consequence of his philosophy of command--volunteer troops were better led than driven.
For further reading:
Nichols, Edward J. Toward Gettysburg: A Biography of General John F. Reynolds. Gaithersburg, 1987
Riley, Michael A. "For God's Sake, Forward": General John F. Reynolds, USA. Gettysburg, 1995