Soldier-General of the Army, John F. Reynolds (1820-1863)

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Maj. Gen. John Fulton Reynolds
(Library of Congress)

Written by Steve Phan
Edited by Jason Spellman

The death of Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds at the battle of Gettysburg has been well-documented, and deservedly so. Through personal interpretation of the orders given to him by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade – Reynolds initiated a skirmish, which turned into a massive-pitched battle that was prolonged over three days and resulted in over 50,000 casualties. He also reaffirmed Brig. Gen. John Buford’s decision to thwart a concentrated enemy, advance to Gettysburg, Pa. and secure high ground to the south as five corps of the Army of the Potomac arrived to support. Later testifying in Reynolds case, Chief of Artillery Gen. Henry Hunt wrote, “He had opened brilliantly a battle which would require three days of hard fighting to close with victory.” In addition, we must also acknowledge the sacrifice of the men of the First Corps who willingly followed their commander.

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Print made from a conceptual sketch by Alfred Waud.

John Reynolds firmly believed that volunteer soldiers were better lead than directed, a mantra realized during his experience in the Mexican War as a lieutenant of artillery. Now, ingrained in his command-styled nearly two decades later as a major general of volunteers,  the “left wing” commander personally directed the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry of the fabled Iron Brigade at Herbst’s Woods, but was struck by a Confederate bullet – mostly likely an overshot or spent round.[1]

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Original flag of the First corps.
(Gettysburg National Military Park)

Critics argue that this was certainly no place for the senior officer on the field, validated by known military protocol. But the actions of John Reynolds in those precious moments clearly illustrate the front-line leadership that defined his career. The men of the First Corps followed their general into battle and many shared his fate – of the 9,000 men of the Corps placed on the field on July 1st, nearly 5,000 were casualties. “He never fought battles through his orderlies and aides, but always in person”, an obituary appropriately described following the General’s untimely death. The determined fight by Reynolds and his successors stunted a powerful Confederate advance and secured Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge for the Union army.[2] It the foundation which led the Union to victory on July 3rd, ending the Army of Northern Virginia last major invasion into the North and provided the Army of the Potomac with its first major victory. It was a stunning turn of events for the proud but unfortunate Union army and ushered its rise to the fighting force that would help win the war two years later. For Reynolds and the First Corps, it was their last stand– the remnants of the three divisions were disbanded eight months later.[3] Gettysburg was their lasting legacy. As Lt. Col. William Fox aptly recalled, “The First Corps fought that day with no other protection than the flannel blouses that covered their stout hearts.” From Maj. Gen. John Reynolds to the lowly private, a grateful nation pays homage to their sacrifice one hundred and fifty years later.

201307_jreynolds4Steve Phan is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. He lives in Gettysburg, Pa., where he is minoring in Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College.
(Richmond National Battlefield Park)

Notes:

[1] First, Eleventh, Third Corps, Buford’s First Cavalry Division

[2] Most notably for the senior divisional commander, Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday, who determined to hold the ground selected by Reynolds.

[3] In March 1864, three of Reynolds divisions were merged into the Fifth Corps.

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