The Death of General John Reynolds at Gettysburg
Lancaster, Pennsylvania native John F. Reynolds was a West Point graduate and instructor at that institution when the Civil War began. Initially, he was the Lieutenant Colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry, but was soon promoted to brigadier general of volunteers. Reynolds saw action as a brigade commander in the Fifth Corps during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign in Virginia; he was captured on June 27th and exchanged in August. After his return, Reynolds was named commander of the Union Army’s First Corps. He was promoted to major general on November 29th, 1862.
In late June 1863, Reynolds led the three corps (First, Third, and Eleventh) left wing of the Army of the Potomac as it advanced north towards Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the morning of July 1st, Brigadier General John Buford’s union cavalrymen were deployed in defensive positions on the northwest side of Gettysburg and engaged Confederate forces under the command of Major General Henry Heth as they advanced towards the town. The dismounted cavalrymen fought a delaying action and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Buford sent word of the fighting to Reynolds, and the general rode ahead to the scene of the action.
Reynolds met Buford at the latter’s observation post at the Lutheran Seminary. Buford filled in Reynolds on the situation. His men were delaying the enemy advance but were being pushed back. It was up to Reynolds whether the Federals would continue to fight at that location or withdraw.
Reynolds decided to fight. He ordered Buford to hold as best as they could while he hastened the left wing’s three corps forward. The general understood the importance of holding the Confederates northwest of Gettysburg long enough for the bulk of the army to arrive and occupy the high ground to the east and south of town.
Reynolds directed the deployment of the arriving Union regiments. The two brigade First Division of the First Corps were the first Federal units to arrive. The First Brigade of the division consisted of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments, the 19th Indiana Infantry, and the 24th Michigan Infantry–The Iron Brigade. The Second Division consisted of six regiments from New York, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. The 6th Wisconsin was ordered to the right to join two Second Brigade regiments advancing on a threat from Brigadier General Joseph Davis’ Brigade near an unfinished railroad cut near the Chambersburg Pike. The rest of the Iron Brigade hurried forward towards the Herbst Woods on McPherson’s Ridge.
The Iron Brigade clashed with the Tennessee and Alabama troops of Brigadier General James J. Archer’s brigade in the Herbst Woods. Reynolds was in the thick of the action mounted on his horse, issuing orders, just east of the woods. As the 2nd Wisconsin rushed past Reynolds into the woods, Reynolds shouted “Forward men, forward, for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods.” The two sides blasted away at each other with devastating effect. Reynolds, in his hazardous forward position, was hit in the back of neck by a bullet and killed instantly.
There have been several theories as to the circumstances of Reynolds’ death. One popular view is that Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter, or a solitary sniper or marksman. Mounted on his horse and close to the action, Reynolds would have made an inviting target for such a shooter. But with all the lead flying through the air from the 7th and 14th Tennessee Regiments’ firing at the 2nd Wisconsin, and with Reynolds up on his horse, it’s just as likely he was killed by a round that passed over the heads of the Wisconsin men.
Reynolds was a popular and capable military leader. While his death was a blow to the Army of the Potomac, his actions played a big part in the eventual Union victory at Gettysburg. By continuing the delaying action that Buford had begun, the Union Army was able to arrive and set up a strong defensive position on the high ground from Culp’s Hill on the north, along Cemetery Ridge, and on down to the Round Tops to the south.
John Reynolds is buried in his hometown of Lancaster.
The First Day at Gettysburg by Henry Hunt. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War . Reprint. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1988.
Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders
by Ezra J. Warner. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage
by Noah Andre Trudeau. New York: Harper Collins, 2002.
The Maps of Gettysburg: An Atlas of the Gettysburg Campaign, June 3 – July 13, 1863
by Bradley M. Gottfried. New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.