Union corps commander killed in opening hours

Reynolds: The major general commanding the left wing of the Army of the Potomac arrived at Gettysburg at the start of the Confederate attack and was quickly slain by a Southern marksman.

June 26, 2005|By Gregory Romano | Gregory Romano,SUN STAFF

Union Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds wrote no memoir as he hurried his 1st Corps infantrymen toward Gettysburg at dawn on July 1, 1863, but it is likely that his thoughts were filled with a commander's concern for the impending battle and a man's concern for the defense of his home.

Reynolds, whose home was in Lancaster, Pa., only 50 miles away, arrived on the field at Gettysburg about 10 a.m., just in time to strengthen the thin line of Union cavalrymen who had been defending the approaches to the town since dawn.

But the general never learned of the outcome of the battle or of his respected place in Civil War history. He was shot and killed by a Confederate sniper as he directed his men into position on Seminary Ridge in the opening hours of the struggle.

Major contributions

Despite his untimely death, Reynolds' contributions that day were still significant in the Union's victory.

According to Edward J. Nichols in his Toward Gettysburg: A Biography of General John F. Reynolds, which was published in 1958, Reynolds awoke early in the morning of July 1, 1863, to a pair of important orders. These commands, which had come directly from Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, instructed Reynolds to move the 1st and 11th Corps toward Gettysburg.

Meade had only recently been named commander of the Army of the Potomac, and in a large way, owed a great deal of thanks to Reynolds. According to Mark Boatner's The Civil War Dictionary, published in 1959, Reynolds was thought to be better qualified for the command than Meade. However, Meade had to his advantage the fact that he had no presidential aspirations, and was not even eligible because he was born in Spain. This is something that helped him get the position over Reynolds.

Now that Meade had control, though, he needed help. For this, he turned to Reynolds. Reynolds, who, according to the Gettysburg National Military Park Web site, had been in command of the 1st Corps since the Battle of Fredericksburg, Va., in December 1862, and was now in charge of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac. This included not only the 1st, but also the 3rd and 11th Corps.

Reynolds was now on his way to Gettysburg with a greater responsibility. According to Nichols, Reynolds' men found their general to be in surprisingly good spirits, despite the added responsibility. Nichols believed this was because Reynolds was pleased to be under the command of Meade, a man he trusted and a man who trusted him. This greatly pleased Reynolds because he now had more leeway in his command of his corps.

Deciding to fight

As Reynolds and his men drew nearer to Gettysburg, they heard the sounds of battle. Nichols reports that soon enough, a cavalryman sent by Brig. Gen. John Buford, the commanding officer on the field at the time, informed Reynolds what was occurring. A large number of Confederates had been advancing east toward Gettysburg. If the cavalry were to stay there, they would need help immediately.

According to Nichols, the information sent from Buford presented Reynolds with a difficult question: Whether the Union would confront Gen. Robert E. Lee's army at Gettysburg that day.

As history can tell us, Reynolds decided he wanted Buford to stay. Upon deciding this, Reynolds hurried toward Gettysburg to speak directly with Buford. When he encountered him, Reynolds asked whether Buford and his men would be able to hold off the Confederates until the arrival of the 1st Corps. Buford believed that they could.

Assured by Buford's response, Reynolds rode back to his corps. When he returned to his men, Reynolds ordered them toward Seminary Ridge to provide aid for Buford. Nichols found that many of the soldiers present at this moment recalled later that Reynolds had a melancholy expression on his face. This was more than likely because of the close connection Reynolds had with his men, and his unwillingness to sacrifice them for nothing.

"He'll throw at them what he's got, but Reynolds will not risk his men's lives for naught," said John Heiser, a historian at Gettysburg National Military Park.


After giving this order, Reynolds spotted Confederate Brig. Gen. James J. Archer, who had broken through to McPherson's Ridge. According to Nichols, this was an area that needed to be secured from Confederate incursions, because it gave the Union troops an advantage in targeting the Southerners while on either main road surrounding the battlefield.

While there, Reynolds waited for support. Regiments finally started coming forward to help Reynolds. As they arrived, according to Sgt. Charles Veil, Reynolds greeted them with a command: "Forward! For God's sake, forward!"

About 10:30 a.m., Reynolds looked back to see if the rest of the Iron Brigade was coming up toward the ridge. Upon doing so, a bullet struck him in the back of the neck at the base of his skull. Reynolds fell dead instantly.

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