One of the Union's leading general officers, Major General John F. Reynolds was killed during the first day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
John Fulton Reynolds was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1820. He was the third son and fourth of nine children of John Reynolds and Lydia (Moore) Reynolds. Reynolds' father was editor of the Lancaster Journal. As a youth, Reynolds was educated in private schools including the Lancaster County Academy. In 1837, his father's friend, Senator (and future U.S President) James Buchanan, secured an appointment for Reynolds at the United States Military Academy.
Reynolds was a Cadet at the Academy from 1837 to 1841, graduating twenty-sixth in his class of fifty-two. Among his classmates were future Civil War generals Don Carlos Buell (USA), Nathaniel Lyon (USA), Horatio G. Wright (USA), Richard S. Garnett (CSA), and Robert S. Garnett (CSA).
Upon graduating from West Point, on July 1, 1841, Reynolds was brevetted to second lieutenant with the 3d U.S. Artillery at Fort McHenry, Maryland. On Oct. 23, 1841, he was promoted to the full rank of second lieutenant. For the next five years, Reynolds served in garrison at various posts in the South. On June 18, 1846, he was promoted to first lieutenant.
Like many future Civil War officers, Reynolds participated in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He served with Zachary Taylor's Army of Occupation along the disputed border between Mexico and Texas. On September 23, 1846, Reynolds was brevetted to captain for "Gallant and Meritorious Conduct" at the Battle of Monterey (July 7, 1846). On February 23, 1847, he was brevetted to major for "Gallant and Meritorious Conduct" at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22-23, 1847).
After the Mexican-American War ended, Reynolds served in garrison duty at several posts in the Northeast. In 1854, he was reassigned to frontier duty in the American West for two years. On March 3, 1855, Reynolds was promoted to captain. He next served in garrison duty at Fort Monroe, Virginia from 1856 to 1860 before returning west and participating in the Utah Expedition against the Mormons (March 1857 – July 1858). On September 8, 1860, Reynolds was appointed as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy where he was also an instructor of Artillery, Infantry, and Cavalry Tactics. Holding the ex officio rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he served in that capacity until the secession crisis.
When the Civil War erupted, Reynolds was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 14th Infantry on May 14, 1861. Before seeing any action, he was promoted again to brigadier general in the Volunteer Army on August 20, 1861, less than one month after the Federal defeat at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861). At the request of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin, Reynolds was placed in command of a Pennsylvania brigade and sent to the Washington, DC area for training.
During Major General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign (March - July 1862) Reynolds initially commanded the 1st Brigade, of the 2nd Division, of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Later in the campaign, he was transferred to the 5th Corps, where he commanded the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division. At the Battle of Gaines' Mill (June 27, 1862) Reynolds' brigade served as a rearguard for the 5th Corps' retreat. As darkness set in, Reynolds was separated from his troops and a Rebel patrol captured the exhausted general near Boatswain's Swamp as he slept during the night. The Confederates sent Reynolds to infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, where he was confined for roughly two weeks before being exchanged on August 13, 1862.
Reynolds returned to active duty in time to command three brigades of Pennsylvania Reserves in Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia during the Rebel victory at the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28–30, 1862). When Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia threatened southern Pennsylvania during the Maryland Campaign (September 4–20, 1862), Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin successfully lobbied to have Reynolds returned to his home state to mobilize the militia. During his brief absence, Reynolds missed the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).
When Lee called off his offensive and retreated back to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, Reynolds returned to the Army of the Potomac and assumed command of the 1st Corps. During the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Reynolds' 3rd Division, commanded by George G. Meade, temporarily breached the Confederate line, achieving the only Federal success of the day. In early January 1863, Reynolds was promoted to major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862.
At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 – May 6, 1863) General Joseph Hooker held Reynolds' Corps in reserve. After the Union defeat, Reynolds joined several of Hooker's subordinate generals, including Major General Darius N. Couch and Major General Henry W. Slocum, in lobbying for Hooker's dismissal. In early June, President Lincoln reportedly called Reynolds to Washington and offered him command of the Army of the Potomac during a private meeting. Reynolds told the President that he would not accept the promotion unless Lincoln could insulate him from the political interference that had hampered the army's performance thus far during the war. Lincoln either could not or would not offer Reynolds the autonomy he requested. When the President sacked Hooker on June 28, 1863, the job went to Reynolds' friend and subordinate officer George G. Meade.
While President Lincoln was struggling with the question of who would lead the Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee commenced his second invasion of the North. On June 15 the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Two weeks later, on June 30, Lee's army invaded Pennsylvania. When Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed Reynolds in charge of the army's left wing, consisting of Reynolds' own 1st Corps, Major General Daniel E. Sickles' 3rd Corps, Major General Oliver O. Howard's 11th Corps, and Brigadier General John Buford's Cavalry Division.
As Meade and Reynolds began maneuvering their forces to counter Lee's invading army, Buford's cavalry occupied the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the morning of June 30, 1863. Recognizing the importance of the high ground around Gettysburg, Buford established defensive positions on three ridges northwest of town to delay Confederate troops advancing from that direction. Outnumbered nearly three to one, Buford planned to stall the Rebels long enough to be reinforced by Reynolds. Reynolds arrived on the field at mid-morning. After meeting with Buford, Reynolds began deploying infantry units of his 1st Corps. At roughly 10:15, while Reynolds was personally positioning the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment at Herbst Woods, a musket ball struck him in the back of the neck, killing him instantly. The source of the missile remains clouded. Some accounts attribute it to a Confederate sniper, others contend it was a random shot fired by approaching Rebel forces, and a few blame it on friendly fire. Regardless of the source, Meade and the Union lost a skilled general and inspiring leader of men.
Reynolds was buried in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1863. He left behind a grieving fiancée, Catherine Mary (Kate) Hewitt. Since Reynolds' death, four monuments commemorating the general have been erected on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Cite this Entry
"John Fulton Reynolds," Ohio Civil War Central, 2021, Ohio Civil War Central. 10 Apr 2021 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1024>
"John Fulton Reynolds." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved April 10, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1024
- Abraham Lincoln
- Army of Northern Virginia
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Army of Virginia
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Bull Run I
- Battle of Bull Run II
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gaines' Mill
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Darius N. Couch
- Don Carlos Buell
- General Orders, No. 290 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 316 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 96 (U.S. War Department) (1863)
- George B. McClellan
- George G. Meade
- Henry W. Slocum
- Horatio G. Wright
- John Buford
- John Pope
- Joseph Hooker
- Maryland Campaign
- Mexican-American War
- Nathaniel Lyon
- Oliver O. Howard
- Robert E. Lee
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