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.
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.”
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.
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.