Charles Henry Veil, John Reynolds, and the Johnstown Flood

Reynolds’s death, perhaps with Veil sketched in the background.

Following the death of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg, staff member Charles Henry Veil was tasked with recovering Reynolds’s body. Veil’s involvement in that mission would end with a strange postscript, years later, that involved the May 31, 1889, Johnstown Flood.

Veil had been a member of Company G of the 38th Pennsylvania Infantry before finding himself on Reynolds’s staff. When Reynolds was shot from his horse during the fighting on July 1, 1863, Veil dragged Reynolds’s body from the field—an act that earned him a promotion from none other than Secretary of War Edwin Stanton himself. Stanton later sent Veil back to Gettysburg with Reynolds’s sisters to mark the spot when Reynolds fell.  Reynolds’s grateful family worked to get Veil a commission as a lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, which would turn into a lifelong career.

In his memoir, Veil talks about that subsequent trip to Gettysburg and the “pretty good little story” that sprung from it.

After marking the spot where Reynolds fell, where the monument now stands, Veil undertook a second, even more personal mission:

While we were in Gettysburg, [Reynolds’s] sisters informed me of what was or has not been generally known, and that was that the General was engaged to be married to a Miss [Kate] Hewitt, of New York City, and that she was then in the Emmitsburg convent, some ten or twelve miles from Gettysburg, and that she had expressed a desire to see me and they wanted to know if I would go with them to call on her. I, of course, was glad to do so; and the next day we drove over and, through the influence of the ladies, I was allowed to enter the convent and see the young lady.

Miss Hewitt was a very beautiful lady, highly educated and when she lost her sweetheart she decided to give up the world and enter a convent, and for some reason desired to enter the one at Emmitsburg. She made a great deal of me. I had to tell her all about the General, his last moments, and so forth, and she wanted very particularly to know if he left any last message.

When we came to leave, she said, “Mr. Veil, I have a little token here I had for the General, some of my own work, and I want to give it to you as a token of rememberance [sic] of both of us;” and, taking from the folds of her dress a small package, she handed it to me. I thanked her for it and we left.

After we had left the convent I told the sisters of what had taken place and, on opening the little package which was nicely done up and tied with a ribbon, found a very beautiful embroidered handkerchief—the coat of arms of the United States, very beautifully done—and I have the handkerchief and token to this day; and how I happen to have it yet I may as well tell now as at some later time, because it makes a pretty good little story.

When I next returned to my home and showed my prize to my mother, she said, “Now, Charlie, let me keep this handkerchief for you. You will be apt to lose it.” So I gave it to her for safe-keeping. And in the course of time I got out West, where I remained for many years, and during that time my mother passed away. My elder sister, who was married and living in Johnstown, took it in charge to keep for me; and was there and had the handkerchief when that terrible flood came that washed away and ruined the city, where thousands of lives were lost.

My brother-in-law was on the street in front of their home when he saw the wall of water coming down the street in the direction of their home, crushing every building in its course, carrying everything before it as it came on. He rushed into the house and up to the first story with my sister and her family of four children. As they gained the first floor the water was there, too, and in passing through the bedroom for the upper story, my sister, like many other ladies, had a little casket with her valuable trinkets, jewelry, etc., and which among other things contained my handkerchief; and as she passed through the room she picked that up and got up on the garret and out onto the roof.

By that time the building began to turn on its foundation, abut just then a large flat roof floated up along side of their house, and my brother-in-law, thinking that would make a more secure raft than the house they were on, pushed my sister off onto that and threw the children after, one after another, and then followed himself; and then they floated off, first down towards the stone bridge, where a jam was formed, and then back up Stony Creek. And so they floated around during the greater portion of the night, among the drowned and drowning, until finally the roof drifted up to the John Thomas building, and the only building remaining on Main Street, and they were handed up into that.

There my brother John, residing in our old home out at Scalp Level, having heard during the night of the destruction of Johnstown and having hurried in, found them and in order to reach them had to build a raft and after getting them to shore, took them out to our old home.

And during all this terrible night my sister held on to her little casket containing among other valuable things my handkerchief.

— from “An Old Boy’s Personal Recollections and Reminiscences of the Civil War” by Charles Henry Veil, with thanks to the research collection at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (original held by the USMHI, Carlisle Barracks)

This photo shows the damage to the Sisters of Charity building in the wake of the Johnstown flood. Years earlier, Kate Hewitt had cloistered herself with the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, following the death of her fiancé John Reynolds. (Library of Congress)

7 Responses to Charles Henry Veil, John Reynolds, and the Johnstown Flood

  1. That is a fascinating piece of history that needs to be remembered and repeated.

  2. What a great story! Thank you for sharing. Do we know where the handkerchief is today?

  3. I can’t begin to tell you how moved I am by your post. I live near Emmitsburg MD and have visited the St Elizabeth Seton Shrine many times. I have also visited Johnstown often to tour the Johnstown Flood National Park site as well as the city’s excellent Flood Museum. Everyone traveling in/through eastern PA should visit Johnstown. Although down on its luck as a declining steel center, it has kept the flood legacy alive and is a very historic place. The robber baron connection to the disaster is haunting and well explained. I believe the flood was the largest mass casualty event in America until 9/11. Also, the beautiful Shanksville 9/11 memorial is nearby. Visiting both would make a memorable day trip. The nation came together as one to aid Johnstown, just as we came together after 9/11. Valuable lessons in these fractured times.

    1. Johnstown Flood is one of the most underrated NPS sites in the east. It is fantastic and haunting–and well worth a visit! And, yes, coupling it with a stop at Flight 93 makes for a poignant day.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you!

  4. I remember reading a story in the early ’70s when I was a kid about the engagement between Kate Hewitt and Gen. Reynolds. They kept the engagement a secret from everyone, including their families. After the death of Gen. Reynolds, Kate Hewitt approached his family with news of the engagement. They did not believe her until she showed them the West Point class ring of the general, which, if I remember correctly ( and it has been 50 years since I read about this), served as a temporary engagement ring. Gen. Reynolds was very proud of the ring, and his family concluded that he would not have given it to Miss Hewitt unless as an engagement ring.

  5. I visited the shrine in June and they have a sign that tells about Kate Hewitt. It states she left the convent before taking her vows and disappeared to history. I remember a story I read not long ago about someone believing that they are descended from her (through DNA research) but can’t remember where I saw it and haven’t heard anything since then.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!