General John F. Reynolds: Great Corps Commander or Just Famous for Dying at Gettysburg?

General John F. Reynolds

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author John Roos

Icons within the American Civil War can be found everywhere. Some loom larger than others, like Robert E. Lee, William Sherman, and “Stonewall” Jackson. Others find their fame within one specific moment. Examples might be George Thomas or George Pickett. When someone visits battlefields like Chickamauga or Gettysburg, they can see why these names, Thomas or Pickett, are iconic. Then there are figures that loom large and it can be possible to ask the question, why? Major General John F. Reynolds, commander of the 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, fits this question. General Reynolds has a large equestrian statue at Gettysburg, as well as a marker near where he was shot off his horse during the fighting on July 1, 1863. Reynolds was the highest-ranking officer killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Is being the highest-ranking officer killed in the battle the reason why there is this aura that surrounds Reynolds? I would argue that Reynolds, albeit a competent soldier, was a mediocre corps commander and ultimately is only famous for dying at Gettysburg.

I too was enamored with Reynolds. As a 10-year-old visiting Gettysburg for the first time I saw this larger than life figure atop that huge monument, and knowing he was killed in the heat of the battle, Reynolds became my hero. During my time as an intern with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I grew in my studies and learned much about Reynolds. Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, the two preceding battles before Gettysburg, were Reynolds’s only campaigns as a corps commander. When I studied these battles in-depth, I saw Reynolds in a new light.

Reynolds’ infantry was the closest to Gettysburg on July 1. When Reynolds got to the Gettysburg battlefield on July 1, 1863, and conferred with General John Buford, he began placing the 1st Corps in the exact right spots to thwart the Confederate attackers. Reynolds reacted to the situation well, and in the midst of moving troops forward he was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly. Like Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson two months earlier at Chancellorsville, Reynolds was where he was not supposed to be. He was too far to the front of the battle lines. As the ranking officer on the field, Reynolds needed to be directing the action and letting subordinates execute his orders as more Union troops came up. If Reynolds was not killed in action at that moment, he would be just another Union general with a monument on the battlefield. It is here that we need to investigate further. Maybe Reynolds had something to prove.

As stated earlier, this is not an analysis of Reynolds as a soldier. This is a look at Reynolds as a battlefield commander. Within my own experiences of speaking with visitors to battlefields, or social media groups, opinions are strong that Reynolds is considered one of the best Union corps commanders at Gettysburg. How can that be when he was on the field for a short time and so much of the battle happened after he was killed? I see this assumption of Reynolds’s prestige as a corps commander coming from just what happened at Gettysburg and not from a full look at him as a corps commander. Reynolds was only a corps commander at two campaigns prior to Gettysburg, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Occurring from December 11-15, 1862, the Battle of Fredericksburg was the most lopsided victory for General Robert E. Lee during the war. While documentaries, movies, and visitors to the Fredericksburg battlefield focus on the northern end of the field, Marye’s Heights and the stone wall, this was not the primary focus of the two armies during the engagement. It is at the southern end of the battlefield, Slaughter Pen and Prospect Hill, that the outcome of Fredericksburg would be decided. This was where Reynolds’s corps was attacking.

Slaughter Pen Farm at Fredericksburg

It is important to understand the situation when Reynolds and the 1st Corps entered the battle. After fighting over the Rappahannock River and gaining the town on the 11th of December 1862, and spending the 12th to plan an attack, Union commander Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside came up with a plan of attack. The northern end of the battlefield, where the Confederates held a strong position at the stone wall and Marye’s Heights, was a diversionary attack by Federal forces. The southern end of the battlefield was Burnside’s focal point of the attack. Attacking across a wide-open plantation now known as Slaughter Pen Farm, Reynolds’s 1st Corps was chosen to spearhead the assault against “Stonewall” Jackson’s front at Prospect Hill. After numerous delays, the 1st Corps were ready to attack across Slaughter Pen Farm.

Only two of the three divisions of the 1st Corps participated in the initial attack. The two divisions chosen were Generals George Meade and John Gibbon’s divisions. One of those numerous delays in attacking for the Union troops was because of Major John Pelham. A cavalry officer in charge of artillery for General J.E.B Stuart, Pelham used one gun to delay Meade’s forward movement for one hour. Being able to hide his one gun from Union eyes, Pelham was able to fire continuously at the Union troops from beyond their left flank. During this attack from the lone gun, Meade’s men found an opening to attack Jackson’s front. Meade quickly realized Gibbon was nowhere on his right. Frank O’Reilly, National Park Service historian in Fredericksburg and author of the book, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock, notes, “After some time, Meade begged Reynolds to reinforce his right. Reynolds went personally to order Gibbon forward (something Reynolds should have done much earlier.)”[1] It is easy to second guess events that happened over 150 years ago. But the question can still be asked: why did Meade need to prod Reynolds to go order Gibbon to the front? One thing that is certain is this would not be the last time Reynolds underperformed as a corps commander at Fredericksburg.

After Pelham pulled his gun off the field, Meade and Gibbon were able to make their assault on Jackson’s front at Prospect Hill. Meade’s Pennsylvania troops took heavy fire from Confederate artillery. Some of the Pennsylvania regiments found, in the middle of this open field, a stretch of trees jutting out. Seeing this as cover, they ran for the safety of the trees. This led to some of Meade’s men finding the one weak spot in Lee’s entire 8-mile front. After trudging through a swamp, Meade’s Pennsylvania troops came upon a brigade of South Carolinians commanded by Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg. Never expecting the enemy to come through the swamp, Gregg’s men were hit with a surprise attack and Gregg himself was mortally wounded. Meade’s men widened a 1,200-yard hole in Lee’s battle line. Now the  two questions were: how far could they exploit this gain, and can they get support to hold it?

Prospect Hill was not a dominant hill in any way. The importance of it was more for the railroad depot near the hill. Cutting Lee off from his supplies and cutting Lee off from a southern retreat towards Richmond was what taking Prospect Hill meant to Burnside. Major General William Franklin was the ranking commander on the southern portion of the battlefield. After he misinterpreted Burnside’s orders earlier in the day and completely changed the battle plans while thinking he was supposed to be the diversion, he stayed in his headquarters the rest of the battle. Yet, Reynolds could still have taken initiative as information came back about the breakthrough. If Reynolds could be found.

The Pennsylvanians came very close to reaching the summit of the hill. Exhaustion, low ammunition, and Confederate resistance stalled their momentum. James K. Bryant II, author of The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History, notes, “Meade sent staff officers to get reinforcements from General David Birney, the division commander closest to aid Meade. Birney’s response to the staff officers was that he was under orders to only report to Reynolds and not Reynolds’s subordinates. Meade went to Birney himself and after chastising him, Meade assumed all command and responsibility for the attack.”[2] Meade’s actions show the levity of the situation and Reynolds was not on the field to have direct communication with his division commanders. Looking at the situation at Slaughter Pen and Prospect Hill, without the corps commander leadership, the division commanders were left to their own vices.

Confederates received reinforcements first and pushed out the Pennsylvanians from Prospect Hill. The best chance of success for the Union army at Fredericksburg was squandered due to a lack of leadership. After the repulse of Meade’s forces, Meade was livid, and at one moment exclaimed his emotions to Reynolds. George Rable, author of Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, notes, “Cornering Reynolds, Meade exploded asking Reynolds if they intended him to take on the entire rebel army himself?”[3] Meade summed up his attack in a letter to his wife, “My men went in beautifully and pushed the enemy half a mile back. Without support from the right or left, we had to withdraw.”[4] Why were they unsupported? If Reynolds was going to be so hands-off with the battle, why did he not give clearer orders to his division commanders? Meade’s anger and frustrations amplify these questions posed here.

Where was Reynolds while those desperate moments hung in the balance? He was over a mile away on the other side of the river giving commands to artillerymen and placing artillery. His infantry gained the only possibility for victory at Fredericksburg and Reynolds had no idea. Rable states; “Franklin, grand division commander of the southern end of the battlefield, did not understand the importance of the attack, and neither had Reynolds.”[5] Visitors today rarely see this pivotal spot on the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Most visit Marye’s Heights and the famous stone wall, and they miss this moment of lost victory for the Federals. Seeing only half the battlefield means visitors only really learn half the battle. This includes learning about Reynolds’s first campaign as a corps commander and the importance of the southern end of the battlefield. Reynolds was there initially for the start of the attack on the 13th of December 1862, but during the most crucial points he was nowhere to be found. O’Reilly sums it up when he writes, “Franklin had known nothing about Meade’s attack or breakthrough. Reynolds was the coordinating officer on that end of the field, which made him the most important commander on the Union left. When he was needed most, he vanished and was with artillery across the river during the pivotal moments of the battle.”[6] The heroic image of Reynolds at Gettysburg is not found at Fredericksburg. He had flaws and Fredericksburg showed this.

The Battle of Chancellorsville, fought April 30-May 6, 1863, was Reynolds’s second campaign as a corps commander. His corps was in position on the far left of the Union line and as the desperate fighting occurred on May 3, 1863, Reynolds’ men were in reserve. The campaign ended May 6, 1863 when the Union Army retreated across the Rappahannock River. Less than two months later these two armies would meet at Gettysburg. After two campaigns of battle, Reynolds was either nowhere to be found or was in reserve.

At Fredericksburg, Reynolds showed a lack of leadership and absence when he was needed the most during a pivotal moment in battle. Going into Gettysburg, it is not like he had built a stellar resume as a corps commander up to that point. A final argument that I have had with people about Reynolds is about an event that took place just before the Battle of Gettysburg. The level of awe Reynolds has invoked in people not only stems from being the highest-ranking officer killed at Gettysburg, but also that he was offered command of the Army of the Potomac and turned it down to command his corps.

Any offer to take command of an army is a great honor. Reynolds did have a high rank in the Union army. What is missed in Lincoln looking for a commander, and what is missed by many that praise Reynolds, is that he was not the only person asked. Reynolds was not the first person asked either. Stephen Sears, author of Gettysburg, writes, “Citing poor health, Hooker’s senior commander General Darius Couch turned down the offer. Another senior officer, General John Sedgwick, was offered command and turned it down, believing George Meade was the best for the job. General Winfield S. Hancock was also offered command and Reynolds outranked him.”[7] Hancock had a reputation as a fighting general. His reputation was preceding him with President Lincoln. Hancock declined the offer though.

Visitors to Gettysburg that revere Reynolds just see him refusing command because he wanted to lead his corps. There is much more behind Reynolds not taking command of the army prior to Gettysburg and it went all the way up to Lincoln. Sears mentions, “Reynolds wanted no civilian interference with his command. This included Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton, who would have been Reynolds’ immediate superior as commander.”[8] President Lincoln had dealt with commanders in the past that did not want interference from Washington, this was not something Lincoln would agree to. Meade was then ordered to take command of the army. Three days later the Battle of Gettysburg began, and Reynolds was killed on July 1, 1863.

Reynolds Monument at Gettysburg

This short analysis of Reynolds as a corps commander is not meant to diminish his legacy in the Civil War. Rather, it is to question how we view these figures in memory. It is to question words we use when we say he was the “best” corps commander at Gettysburg. Looking beyond just the moments at Gettysburg, a broader picture is shown. It shows minimal experience at the corps level for Reynolds. He was not a hero at Fredericksburg. He in fact could be someone that could harbor much of the blame for that defeat. Then prior to Gettysburg, three other officers, one subordinate in rank to Reynolds, were asked to take command of the army before him. When Reynolds was asked, he gave demands to Lincoln that were disregarded, and the president moved on to Meade.

I have heard many times that General Reynolds was the best Union commander at Gettysburg. He did place his corps in a position to delay the Confederates from gaining ground and buy time for more of the Union Army coming up. Then he was killed. Gettysburg was the reverse of Fredericksburg where Reynolds left his subordinates to their own vices. Why does Reynolds loom so large over the Gettysburg story? It is because he was the highest-ranking officer killed at Gettysburg and he was killed while leading his troops into battle. It is the image of the romantic soldier dying in battle. But I challenge you the next time you are visiting Gettysburg and looking at the monument to Reynolds, either of them, to think about him. Ponder this glory that surrounds Reynolds. Then ponder why we revere certain figures form the Civil War and ask yourself, is there more to the story than I realize?

John Roos is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor’s degree in American history. He is currently working towards his Master’s degree, also in American history. John was an intern and volunteer with the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. After a period of time with the National Park Service, he moved with his wife Sarah back to Fredericksburg where he is a battlefield guide with Fredericksburg Tours and is a licensed teacher in Virginia with an endorsement in Social Studies. John began his love of the Civil War when he visited Gettysburg with his family when he was 10-years-old.

Bibliography

Bryant, James K. The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010.

Meade, George Gen. The Life and Letters of George Gorgon Meade: Major General United States Army, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913.

O’Reilly, Francis A. The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Rable, George C. Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press: 2002.

Sears, Stephen. Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

 

[1] Francis A. O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 187.

[2] James K. Bryant, The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010), 117.

[3] George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press: 2002), 216.

[4] Gen. George Meade, The Life and Letters of George Gorgon Meade: Major General United States Army, Vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 337.

[5] Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, 216.

[6] O”Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign, 501.

[7] Stephen Sears, Gettysburg (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 40-42.

[8] Sears, Gettysburg, 43.

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42 Responses to General John F. Reynolds: Great Corps Commander or Just Famous for Dying at Gettysburg?

  1. Mark D. McCurdy says:

    You make a nice argument. It left me wondering if Reynolds pushed too close to the front in Gettysburg in part due to those earlier behind the lines failures. Do you have any thoughts on that?

  2. nygiant1952 says:

    Buford picked the battlefield, and Reynolds decided to fight there. It was the right decision.

  3. Robert F Wetjen says:

    Did Buford pick the battlefield of did his advance elements spring into action against Lee’s specific orders.?

    • nygiant1952 says:

      Buford saw the land and the key terrain, the high ground of Cemetery Hill. Int was advantageous for the US to hold. If the Rebels had occupied it, the AoP would have had to attack ( foreign Army on American soil) and he figured there would be tremendous US casualties.

      Buford used an active defense, trading land and later land and men , for time…awaiting the Infantry under Reynolds to occupy Cemetery Hill.

      Reynolds concurred, since he did commit the I Corps, III Corps and IX Corps ( his wing).

      All we have as evidence is the last message Reynolds sent to Meade…The enemy are advancing in strong force. I fear they will get to the heights beyond the own before I can. I will fight them inch by inch, and if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets and hold them back as long as possible.”

      • billhenck says:

        I agree that Reynolds deserves considerable credit for understanding the critical nature of Cemetery Hill and for committing the Army of the Potomac to fighting at Gettysburg. Allen Guelzo takes that position in The Last Invasion. Reynolds’ performance at Fredericksburg left a lot to be desired, but he may well have been maturing into his role as a Corps commander. Even for the West Point graduates, commanding large groups of soldiers must have been challenging. For example, Civil War armies were larger than virtually every city in the United States at that time.

    • John Roos says:

      Writing this blog was not easy. Great points made here. Reynolds eye for the field was something he possessed. A lot of my arguments here are more based on remembrance. That’s why I tried to make the point of it is not a referendum of him as a soldier, rather the words we use when we say something “best corps commander at Gettysburg.” He very easily could have pulled everyone off and gone to Pipe Creek but he didn’t. He knew the land was great for defense.

  4. grego says:

    Good points! I also think part of his deification is that he was a Pennsylvania man fighting in his home region.

    • John Roos says:

      I can fully understand that. For as much as we have the “Stonewall” Jackson “what ifs” out there, I think Reynolds can have some too. His stature as a Pennsylvanian may have played into Grant’s decisions of who led the AoP during the Overland Campaign. Lincoln was apprehensive to remove Meade because Meade was a Pennsylvanian and saved Pennsylvania. Reynolds would have a lot of clout if he was not killed. Food for thought.

  5. John B. Sinclair says:

    Don’t agree with all of the author’s points, but well argued. What we need is a modern biography of Reynolds. My copy of Edward Nichols’ “Toward Gettysburg”, the last substantial biography of Reynolds that I am aware of, indicates it was published in 1958. Time for a new biography! Any volunteers?

    Also, for anyone wondering about the fate of Reynolds’ fiancée, Kate Hewitt, after Reynolds’ death, there is a fascinating article about her in the August 2020 issue of Civil War Times.

    • John Roos says:

      I do think a lot of biographies need updating. I did a whole presentation recently about Burnside at Fredericksburg, a new look at his command. Reynolds is definitely someone that needs new work written on him. I feel we as historians, scholars or novices, always need to look deeper than taking things at face value. Reynolds and Burnside are great examples of what became a black and white image but a lot of gray area that is not looked at. It is that gray area that more of the story is found.

  6. Joe Mieczkowski says:

    Apparently Lincoln thought enough of Reynolds to visit the place where he died
    I’ve often thought that Reynolds was a well known if not spectacular officer and his death was a sort of martyrdom in the same way that JFKs reputation increased following his assignation

  7. John Pryor says:

    An excellent post. Reynolds looks good only because the Battle ended up the way it did, and that was in spite of him. People forget that the timing of his death immediately following his decision to engage his wing nearly resulted in a Union catastrophe. And he was killed doing a captain’s job. His gasbag utterances about “barracading” the town and fighting it out didn’t quite work out. Hancock was forced to try to make lemonade out of the lemons Reynolds gave him. By late afternoon, an orderly retreat to the Pipe Creek line was impossible. Lee’s absence of deployed reconnaissance leading to a slow infantry deployment was the crucial factor that saved the day for the Union. But at the end of the battle, four Union Corp were either wrecked or seriously depleted. Had Reynolds stayed alive and conducted a fighting retreat, it is hard to believe the results for the Union would have been as bloody.

  8. Thanks for this post! I find your comments about Reynolds interesting and your arguments compelling. I had long wondered if Reynolds’ reputation actually equaled his abilities.

    • John Roos says:

      Thank you for your comments. It’s a catch-22 in the end. It is all about perception and how we choose to view these figures based on what we know. The Gettysburg story gives us a very romantic ideology of Reynolds. My argument really wanted to challenge folks to go beyond the popular notions and really look at the man. And again, I stress that my argument was solely based off of the comments I have heard endlessly that he was “the best corps commander for the AoP at Gettysburg.”

  9. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Great post, and I agree. When I talk about Reynolds, I also mention the circumstances of his capture during the Seven Days on the debit side of his ledger and his performance at Second Manassas to his credit.

    For those interested in what motivated him to act as he did, I offered perspectives on this a few years ago in this post: https://emergingcivilwar.com/2014/05/09/killed-in-action/.

    • Todd Berkoff says:

      Hi all,

      I agree with Roos’s arguments. Reynolds came to Gettysburg as a mediocre corps commander (at best) who fumbled his first time in command of a corps at Fredericksburg, throwing away Burnside’s only success that day.

      Agreed about his performances at Gaines’s Mill and Second Manassas. His capture at Gaines’s Mill could have been avoided. He was a brigade commander and somehow fell asleep on the battle line and was scooped up by the advancing rebels? How did his staff allow this to happen? I know the soldiers were tired, but how does a brigade commander fall asleep in the middle of a battle? Regardless, it was embarrassing for Reynolds and would have permanently wrecked the careers of nearly anyone else.

      • Fell asleep? Dang!

      • John Roos says:

        Hi Todd. Thank you for your comments. I did not know about the falling asleep incident either. Maybe my work should have gone a bit further, haha. It is amazing to think about the figures that kept moving up in rank for the Union despite numerous signs of ineptitude.

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Yes, I would think this event at Gaines’s Mill was worth mentioning in your article. My understanding is that Reynolds’s brigade was in the process of withdrawing/retreating on the evening of June 27th 1862 and Reynolds fell asleep somewhere south of the main line, which is very odd. One would think your senses would be heightened during a stressful withdrawal in the face of the enemy and he would be busy trying to extricate his brigade. I think some Confederate pickets just got lucky when they stumbled upon a sleeping brigadier general. He was held at Libby Prison until exchanged in August.

    • fredspot6264 says:

      I really appreciate your comments and review of my article. I really just look to challenge people’s minds. All too often the Civil War is taken at face value with what we here in popular rhetoric, or secondhand information. Challenging the popular is what makes for debate and new interpretations. ECW is just the forum for that. I look forward to many more articles, and hopefully books in the future.

    • 67th Tigers says:

      The state of the Pennsylvania Reserves’ senior leadership during the Seven Days beggars belief. Only Meade emerged with any credit to himself.

      McCall managed to twice get his division lost, and ignored the order to march from the Glendale crossroads to Malvern Hill. Instead he decided to conduct pay parade, under the impression he was in a rear area. He then was a near non-entity in the battle there and wandered into the rebel lines and was captured. He seems to have had no comprehension of what was actually happening.

      Reynolds of course fell asleep and was captured.

      Seymour abandoned his brigade on the pretext of seeking reinforcements, and was unaware he’d ascended to divisional command. He was found wandering around in a daze behind the lines.

      Meade alone did well. He detected that they weren’t in the rear at Glendale and formed the division for defence, leading the 1st and 3rd Reserves into the woodlot that brought them into contact with Longstreet’s cavalry screen. He essentially commanded the division until he was wounded, given the lack of any command from his seniors.

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Great points and summary of the commanders in the Penn Reserves. McCall should have been prosecuted for his utter ineptness during the campaign. Thankfully he resigned in 1863.

      • Todd Berkoff says:

        Don’t get me started on Truman Seymour. That man should have been removed from command early in the war. I’ve never seen so many failures in such a short period of time. As you mentioned, he bungled his way through the Seven Days in command of a brigade and then division (replacing McCall). In 1863, he commanded a division at Fort Wagner, SC and was responsible for the disjointed attacks against the fort resulting in needlessly high casualties (54th Mass, etc). In 1864, he commanded the forces at the Battle of Olustee where he was ambushed and thrashed by Confederate forces. Three months later at the Battle of Wilderness, the enemy rolled up his flank and he is captured, forcing the entire 6th Corps to fall back to a reserve line. For some reason after his release, he is given a brigade in the 6th Corps and served until the end of the war. He resigned from the army in 1876 and lived in Italy until his death in 1891. He must have had allies in the right places.

  10. Michael O says:

    Great Read, John Roos. Keep up the good work in diving into the obscure.

  11. And I thought Jackson was the only general officer to fall asleep on the field of battle (Glendale)!!

  12. John B. Sinclair says:

    Sorry to be the fly in the punch bowl (using a different word than commonly used with punch bowl, but this is a family website after all), but all this criticism of Reynolds doesn’t make a lot of sense to me particularly in light of a letter by Winfred Scott Hancock, never one to be bashful about his opinions. Here is what he wrote about Reynolds after the Civil War:

    It is quite well understood, and I believe it a matter of history, that he [Reynolds]
    could have had the command of the Army of the Potomac before the battle of
    Gettysburg, and that it was conferred upon General Meade after General Reynolds’
    recommendation or suggestion. They were close friends, – a friendship not based
    upon personal considerations alone, but upon mutual esteem, and appreciation of
    character and abilities as well. General Reynolds was senior to General Meade in
    rank, and therefore it can be well understood that, with his well-known merit, he
    was first considered when command was in question. [emphasis added]

    (Towards Gettysburg: A Biography of General John F. Reynolds, Edward J. Nichols
    at page 223)

    “Well-known merit?” If someone like Hancock vouched for Reynolds, that’s good enough for me folks.

    • John Roos says:

      I agree with much of your sentiment here. I wrote this piece and I’d vouche for Reynolds. I think a lot of what is missed in my argument with this article is I’m taking very specific words that I have heard over and over again, “best corps commander,” and arguing that I think it’s an inadequate description of Reynolds. If people said he was one of the “best soldiers” killed at Gettysburg or “best commanders” killed at Gettysburg, then I never would have written the piece. I am taking people’s specific words and researching that. If you say someone is the best at something they have a career of proving it. As a corps commander Reynolds was meh. Fredericksburg shows this and Chancellorsville he did nothing. So with those being his only two campaigns as a corps commander, then how is he one of the best at Gettysburg? Not a soldier or commander. I’m being very specific CORPS commander. That’s where my argument lies.

  13. Robert Denney says:

    Well written article, Mr. Roos, and excellent points made by all.

    I am not as well versed in the intricacies of the battles discussed, but Reynolds seems to fall into the category of those glorified because the victors wrote the history. If The Union lost Gettysburg, or the entire Civil War, I believe there would be no monuments to Reynolds, and we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

    • John Foskett says:

      Wrong. Reynolds falls into the category of officers who get elevated in reputation because they were killed/mw in action, so their limitations get ignored by a lot of people. See Jackson, Thomas J. and Johnston, Albert S. as two of the best examples.

      • Henry Fleming says:

        Another example may be good old Uncle John Sedgwick. Edward Porter Alexander (CSA) wrote: “I have always felt surprise that the enemy retained Sedgwick as a corps commander…, for he seems to me to have wasted great opportunities, & come about as near to doing nothing with 30,000 men as it was easily possible to do”

      • John Foskett says:

        We agree regarding Sedgwick (although to be fair he was never elevated to the questionable “would have won the war” status of Jackson or Johnston). He really achieved nothing in corps command beyond making a nice 30+ mile march to Gettysburg on July 1-2. Second Fredericksburg was hardly a model of effective corps command and his performance in the “victory” at Rappahannock Station in November 1863 was no better.

      • John Roos says:

        Great points about Sedgwick. If it wasn’t for those famous last words, he’d probably be one of the most obscure generals. For those that don’t know the famous last words…”They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

      • John Foskett says:

        Probably one of the worst predictions in history. At the opposite pole from Namath calling the Super Bowl.

  14. Congratulations, John! I am glad to read your post on Emerging Civil War. I hope to read more of your posts here. It was also a pleasure to work with you at the battlefields of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. We agree on Reynolds and we have had this discussion before at the Park. Now, I have to go back and finish viewing your talk on Burnside, another general that we have discussed.

    • John Roos says:

      It was an honor to work with you at the park and now on Fredericksburg Tours. I hope to work with your wife on some of her history projects with the churches someday. Here is to both of us having many more publications with a great partner like ECW.

  15. Dan Hurley says:

    Excellent post. I have been to the scene of the breakthrough on a group tour with Will
    Greene not long ago but was not clear where Reynolds was.I believe Maxcy Gregg was in reserve
    and surprised due to Hill’s lack of front line placement and the skirmishers retreating to adjacent lines instead of falling back. Meade and Gregg were victims of their commanders laxity. Maxcy looks much like a pirate in his photograph. He’s one of my favorites.

    • Henry Fleming says:

      Not specifically about Reynolds here, but everyone should visit the scene of the breakthrough and the pyramid battlefield marker there. I didn’t see any swamp years ago when I ran the charge from the railroad to Lane’s field markers. General Jackson was not one bit happy about the breakthrough. If Meade had been supported, but then again, if Ewell had any support to charge up Cemetery Hill on day 1, right?

      I don’t know much about General Franklin misunderstanding his orders, but alacrity may not have been one of the man’s best assets. For example, Franklin was slow to respond to McClellan’s order to march the night McClellan had the drop on Lee prior to Antietam, McClellan that day being in possession of Lee’s marching orders. Agreed Reynolds should have been in more of a cutoff position at the battle, to use a baseball term, I didn’t hear his side of the argument, such as he was following orders or the artillery was supporting Meade’s charge, or whatever it was.

      Some years back I read an astute comment about the Battle of Fredericksburg. Burnside had Bull Sumner commanding his left and cautious William Franklin commanding his right. If only Burnside had flipped the two commanders, the observation went, cautious Franklin would have stopped after one bloody charge and Bull Sumner would have hit Lee’s soft spot with everything he had. Fredericksburg may have been victory despite the pontoon bridges fiasco and the idiocy of charging Marye’s heights.

      • John Foskett says:

        I think you meant that Franklin was on the left and Sumner on the right. I think you’re correct that Franklin – who was always fatally slow and never aggressive – was a hurdle. I believe that he and Burnside also had discrepant maps. But at least as big a problem was that Reynolds went effectively MIA. Not only had Jackson missed the massive gap in his front, but even the troops that were then brought in to meet Meade’s attack had been caught by surprise. If Reynolds had been alert, in effective command and control, and promptly ordered in support for Meade, who knows how things would have worked out. Eventually, what was supposed to be a diversion on the right became the main attack – and we know the result.

  16. frank gioia says:

    I concur with your analysis. I believe he was captured in 1862 because he was napping!

  17. John Pryor says:

    Love the discussion here! Now another post: John Sedgwick: Threat or Menace? I always worried about a battle captain called “Uncle John”.

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