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.
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.)” 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.” 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?” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.
 Francis A. O’Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign: Winter War on the Rappahannock (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 187.
 James K. Bryant, The Battle of Fredericksburg: We Cannot Escape History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2010), 117.
 George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press: 2002), 216.
 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.
 Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!, 216.
 O”Reilly, The Fredericksburg Campaign, 501.
 Stephen Sears, Gettysburg (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 40-42.
 Sears, Gettysburg, 43.