Reynolds Reconsidered

Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds

Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds

The question that has always lingered in my mind, Was John Reynolds a great corps commander?

Major General John Fulton Reynolds reputation as corps commander has always baffled me as an historian. He was only really tested once as a corps commander, that being Fredericksburg. Prior to Fredericksburg Reynolds Civil War fighting record was solid, but nothing one would call stellar.

Reynolds, who came from a fairly well connected family, was a West Point graduate of the class of 1841. He served in the artillery and was brevetted twice for bravery in the Mexican-American War. In the pre-war army he was well connected with many of the names we know so well from the Civil War, so when the war broke out he knew many of the right people.

He began his Civil War career with the 14th United States Infantry, then moved over to brigade command in the Pennsylvania Reserve Division. In the spring of 1862 he was appointed the military governor of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Other than a few skirmishes in the area he had little to do, he did though garner a great deal of good will amongst the civilian population of the small southern city.

On the Peninsula, in 1862, Reynolds fought his brigade at Beaver Dam Station, but was captured at Gaines’ Mill while asleep. Confederate Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, whose men captured the general told Reynolds, “…he ought not to fret at the fortunes of war, which were notoriously fickle.” Although Reynolds attempted to write the embarrassment off in letters home, I often wonder how a general with at least a handful of staff officers gets left behind on the field…asleep.

Following his exchange Reynolds took command of the Pennsylvania Reserves Division. He showed great personal bravery at Second Manassas and his Division absorbed much of the Confederate onslaught on August 30th. As the southern steamroller took aim at Henry House Hill, Col. Henry Benning’s brigade exposed their flank to one of Reynolds brigades. Leading by example, Reynolds on foot, seized the flag of the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves and led the balance of Brig. Gen. George G. Meade’s brigade into the Georgians flank. This was great act of bravery, but he took himself from a division commander to essentially a regimental commander by his actions.

Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Brig. Gen. John Gibbon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Post-Second Manassas Reynolds went to Pennsylvania to command the state troops during the Antietam Campaign. When he did return to the Army of the Potomac he assumed command of I Corps.

At Fredericksburg, on December 13th, Reynolds Corps broke through at Prospect Hill. This was the only Federal breakthrough at Fredericksburg. In reality, Reynolds had little to do with the breakthrough itself, he actually had more to do with the hindering the short lived gains. Reynolds did not act as a corps commander at Fredericksburg. When both Meade (now a major general) and Brigadier General John Gibbon’s division’s broke the Southern lines at Fredericksburg, they could not receive timely reinforcements. Their corps commander could not be found. Meade sent a number of messengers to Reynolds begging for reinforcements, none could locate him.

Their corps commander was on the Federal artillery line. He was personally ordering batteries where to fire, how to elevate, and according to some accounts, at times was off his horse sighting guns himself. This was not the job of a major general, it was the job of Colonel Charles Wainwright, the 1st Corps Chief of Artillery. In reality Reynolds demoted himself from a corps commander to a battalion commander, and did so at the times his subordinates needed him the most. Fredericksburg historian Francis A. O’Reilly states “A close search of the records reveals that Reynolds spent most of his time worrying the artillery about ephemeral details rather than monitoring the overall situation.” O’Reilly goes on to say, “At one time or another, every battery in the First Corps encountered, received advice from, or took orders from Reynolds….[which] made him completely ineffective when Meade sought critical reinforcements.”

Major General George G. Meade

Major General George G. Meade

During the Chancellorsville Campaign, the I Corps did very little fighting. In fact, of the 16,908 men that Reynolds fielded during the campaign, only 300 were listed among the casualty lists at the end of battle. During the riverine crossing at Second Fredericksburg, Brig. Gen. Wadsworth led part of the famed Iron Brigade across the river and forced a landing, which was a much heavier task than it should have been, since Reynolds did little to coordinate his efforts with another crossing force up the Rappahannock River. Following the crossing, I Corps was called from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, but were held in the rear echelon of the army for much of the battle. During a council of war among the Federal high command, which was to decide if the army was to stay and fight it out or retreat, Reynolds fell asleep…again.

Then of course there was Gettysburg, while acting as a wing commander, where he oversaw fully one-third of Meade’s cavalry, and nearly one-half of the infantry in the Army of the Potomac, Reynolds was killed. At the time of his death was actually acting at best like a brigade commander, at worst a regimental commander as he moved forward with the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry.

Waud's sketch of Reynolds death.

Waud’s sketch of Reynolds death.

The great issue that I have with Reynolds as a commander is that he rarely acted the rank that he held. At Fredericksburg he was not where he was needed-in the rear in an easy to find place for his subordinates and assisting with gaining reinforcements and driving Stonewall Jackson from the field.

At Gettysburg he was a wing commander and he should have been nowhere near the main battle line. The closest spot to action he should have been would be the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Even the vapid Oliver Otis Howard knew that he needed to be in an easily recognizable place, nowhere near the front lines, easily found by the men when he assumed Reynolds role. (That is not to say that Howard did not make many mistakes of his own). On top of all of this to me Reynolds did not choose the ground to fight on at Gettysburg, John Buford did. Yet today Reynolds role greatly overshadows those of Buford, William Gamble, Abner Doubleday, and a slew of others.

After his death Reynolds was treated as a hero. Much of this was not because of Reynolds actions, but the actions of his staff and others. Alfred Waud produced a famous sketch of his death. Reynolds death itself came at the height of a major Union crisis, where he was felled on home soil. Some of the accounts written by his staff were not so much written to glorify Reynolds, but written to garner favor from Reynolds family and friends, since one of his staff officers was brought up on rape charges. Then of course there are the slew of monuments that were erected by the survivors of the corps and others.

As a leader of men there is no doubt that Reynolds was brave to a fault. The problem with his bravery was that it took Reynolds from a Division, Corps, and Wing commander down to a regimental commander, at the greatest moment of crisis.

One has to ask themselves… Was Major General John F. Reynolds a great corps commander, or was he just killed at the right place at the right time?

Be sure to check out Fight Like the Devil: The First Day at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863; authored by Chris Mackowski, Kristopher D. White, and Daniel T. Davis.

Fight like the devil

About Kristopher D. White

Civil War author and historian. Senior Education Manager for the American Battlefield Trust.
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11 Responses to Reynolds Reconsidered

  1. Bob Huddleston says:

    Years ago I quoted at length what Wainwright had to say about Reynolds’ death. There, i said triumphantly, that shows what happened!! And a blogger friend, who had actually read Wainwright’s original journal, told me Nevin’s edited edition was actually written well after the war. What Wainwright actually wrote was along the lines of “Went to Gettysburg, Reynolds killed, left Gettysburg.” So much for first hand accounts!

  2. Tim Kelly says:

    Love the article. The answer might be that will never know. The other question was why wasn’t he name commander of the Army of the Potomac after Hooker resigns? One of the first things Meade does after being woke by a War Dept. administrator outside Frederick,MD informing him of his new position, (Meade actually thought he was being arrested) he goes to Reynolds to tell him he should be put in charge as senior officer. Reynolds assures Meade the War Dept. made the right decision and he has all the confidence in Meade to lead the Army of Potomac. and supports him. Well we know this turned out pretty well. Meade defeats Lee, immortalizing him (don’t ask Sickles this) and Reynolds is killed and immortalized him. I know it doesn’t make him a great Corp Commander but he’ll gets him a really nice big equestrian statue on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

    • Tim,

      Thank you for the kind remark. To your question about why Reynolds wasn’t named commander of the AoP.

      Post Chancellorsville, most of the corps commanders within the high command were done with Hooker. His pre-war reputation, combined with his bragging on the outset of the Cville Campaign, mixed with his finger pointing when he screwed the pooch was too much for them. The most outspoken opponent of Hooker was Slocum, who along with Couch and Sedgwick, were the ranking corps commanders within the army.

      In the days following Chancellorsville some of the generals, especially Slocum, seemed to be in open revolt against Hooker, who, unlike Burnside, refused to be a man and stand up for the mistakes he made.

      Lincoln had given Hooker plenty of freedom with the army, a rope with which Hooker hung himself as a commander. In the weeks following Cville, Lincoln started pulling in that rope and closed the direct line of access to the Executive Mansion that Hooker had enjoyed. Now Hooker had to go through Halleck, and they both loathed one another.

      When the politicians arrived in the camps after the battle of Cville, most of the high ranking officers told them that Hooker had to go. When asked who to replace him with most of them sidestepped the question and pointed directly at Meade. While they had a great deal of confidence in him, the truth of the matter was that only two men had really been crazy or self-centered enough to want the command, they being Hooker and McClellan.

      Couch left the army, Slocum and Sedgwick both turned it down cold when the matter came up. Sedgwick was more than happy being a corps commander, and Slocum didn’t want the headache of Hooker’s doings. Hancock’s name was kicked around, but he had just been elevated to 2nd Corps command when Couch left and was the junior ranking corps commander in the army. Reynolds, was brought to Washington on June 2nd, the day before Lee opened the campaign, and had a lengthy meeting with Lincoln. Essentially Reynolds pulled a Joe Hooker on Abe. He told him what was wrong with the current commander and that he had to go (something Hooker had done to Burnside in a round about way). Then Reynolds basically told the administration that they needed to stay out of the way of the next commander, which Lincoln had done for Hooker. He also told Lincoln that he did not want to deal with “Burnside’s and Hooker’s leavings.” If you read between the lines on that you will see what he meant. Reynolds then did what everyone else was doing and pointed to George Meade to be the next commander. Lincoln seems to have been taken aback by Reynolds Joe Hooker like approach and tabled the conversation by saying he “was not disposed to throw away the a gun because it misfired once…he would pick the lock and try it again.” Meaning old Joe would get another crack at it. the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

      As the two armies came close to blows in late June, Halleck baited Hooker. Hooker offered to resign, and the rest of that is history.

      George Meade, the one guy that actually seemed to have Hooker’s back through it all, got Hooker’s job, due to the recommendations of his peers and the fact that nobody else wanted the job. Mind you, Meade had his misgivings, and if his edited letters are accurate, he didn’t want the job, nor did he lose ALL confidence in Hooker, as the majority of the senior command had..

  3. Cheryl Shifflet says:

    Excellent post. It enlightened me as I’m researching a historical novel where Reynolds plays a very minor role. I was curious about the portion where you mentioned his staff may have glorified him in order to curry favor with higher ups due to a staff officer being brought up on rape charges. As a fiction writer I was intrigued by the tidbit and wondered where you read about that incident. Thanks!

  4. Cheryl Shifflet says:

    Excellent post! Very enlightening as I enjoyed the varying viewpoint. I stumbled on your article while doing research on Reynolds as he plays a minor role in my historical fiction novel. I was curious mostly as a writer as you mentioned his staff glorified him most likely to curry favor with
    his friends/family because one of his officers was accused of rape. I never found that story while doing my research, where did you read about that incident? Thanks!

  5. Kevin Teeven says:

    Your point well taken. McPherson’s Ridge involves a case in extremis. Only with Reynolds’ aggressive leadership did the first troopers to arrive go double-quick across the fields to bolster a fading Buford. While at Gettysburg, I invisioned it: the gallant general racing across the field, bypassing the village, to the far ridge. No other rank could have effectuated it so quickly.

  6. Shane Thomas says:

    I disagree with your assessment here.. In short, Reynolds was an exceptional General and yes, corps commander who believed men are to be lead by their commander and not simply driven forward into the fire while while he hides at his men’s backs. You said that “During a council of war among the Federal high command, which was to decide if the army was to stay and fight it out or retreat, Reynolds fell asleep…again.” No, he did not simply ‘ fall asleep’ and neglect to contribute his views on providing Hooker’s requested votes on whether to attack or retreat. That’s all it was. Before retiring to his corner of the room the commanders would collectively be sleeping in, Reynolds appointed Meade as his proxy and instructed him to vote to stay and go on the offensive. Which was Meade’s opinion as well. There are far too many facts and a great deal of details and information omitted/overlooked in your explanation of your reassessment. James Robertson and countless other celebrated historians declared Reynolds the best General in the Union Army. That’s not a opinion reached lightly. If anything, I believe Reynolds was underutilized prior to Jesse’s appointment and was just then truly getting the chance to fully display his immense capabilities as Corps Commander when his life was cut short. I am sorry we didn’t get to see how incredible he would have been when he was finally given the chance to shine by George Meade who knew him intimately, and obviously well aware how valuable and highly effective Reynolds’ leadership abilities were going to be, resulting in his appointing Reynolds command of the army’s left wing. I don’t see what great benefits Reynolds’ staff would garner by lobbying support from his family by dishonestly expressing praise and admiration for their fallen commander. He was beloved by his and his men
    whom he was honored by in many ways, including their having erected the most monuments dedicated to any Commander on the Gettysburg battlefield.

    • Shane,

      Thank you for your comment. Clearly I will not sway your opinion. Nor will I waste our time trying to do so. I will simply say that most historians don’t say that Reynolds was the best general in the Union army. Those accolades are normally heaped upon Ulysses S. Grant, the man who won the war. Nor am I the only historian who thinks that Reynolds was overrated. Here is a link to a recent article by Dr. Gary Gallagher.

    • Kevin says:

      Hi Shane,

      Which work by James Robertson and other historians talk about Reynolds? I’ve long been interested in Reynolds’ career and have read Edward Nichols’ biography on him “Toward Gettysburg.” Also read “Giants in Their Tall Black Hats” essay collection by Alan Nolan and Sharon Vipond. Interesting essay about the Iron Brigade and Reynolds there. Appreciate other insights you can share on Reynolds.

  7. Scott says:

    Wonder if General George Patton should have stayed in command centers well behind the front lines during WWII ?……Germans might have won the war

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