Book Review: Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story: The Ill-Fated Romance of General John Reynolds and Kate Hewitt

I’m a sucker for a good love story. One of the most mysterious love stories in Civil War history unfolded on the battlefield at Gettysburg. Leading the First Corps on the morning of July 1, 1863, Major General John Reynolds was shot through the back of the neck with a Confederate bullet. As the highest-ranking officer killed in the bloodiest battle of the war, his loss was felt keenly by many, including General George Gordon Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac, who said he would, “rather have lost twenty thousand men, for the country’s sake, than Reynolds.”(page 33) But for one woman, the loss of John Reynolds on that battlefield was devastating.

The mystery of the secret engagement between Reynolds and Kate Hewitt had plagued historians for decades. Who was she? How did she and John come to meet and fall in love? What happened to her after losing her fiancé? Attempts had been made to piece the puzzle together without much luck until Gettysburg National Military Park battlefield guide and historian Jeffrey Harding stepped up to the plate to face down this daunting task. Compelled by the mystery of the love story, he dove into the research to find out more about Kate – because there’s been a library written about Reynolds already – and has compiled a neat book to showcase his findings. Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story is a tale that “brings together heroism, tragedy, sacrifice, mystery, intrigue, sense of loss and perseverance.”(p. 15) Supported by the personal approval from Wayne Motts, President and CEO of the Gettysburg Foundation in the Foreword, the research of Jeffrey Harding and associate genealogist Mary Stanford Pitkin guarantees this short book to be a comprehensive and engaging read.

Catherine “Kate” Mary Hewitt and John Reynolds (Left, courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pa. Right, National Portrait Gallery)

The writing and level of detail is targeted for historians and casual readers alike, giving a brief overview of Reynolds’ life and military career without overshadowing Kate’s equally fascinating story. The pattern throughout is meant to tell their stories side-by-side with one chapter focusing on Reynolds and the next focusing on Kate at coinciding points in their lives. It provides an engaging compare-and-contrast to these two people who could not have been more different. Reynolds, coming from a large, middle-class family, understood the trajectory of his life and career in the military from his days at West Point and into the Civil War. Kate, on the other hand, was an orphan from an early age with only one estranged brother and was forced to make hard choices as a single woman in nineteenth century America. Their worlds collided on the SS Golden Age in July of 1860, one escaping a scandal and the other on his way back east for a job as commandant of West Point.(p. 87) Why John and Kate chose to keep their relationship a secret is still a mystery, one of many. Harding isn’t shy about admitting the gaping holes in the records, but provides intriguing fillers of possibilities for their two-year love affair. Much of what we do know comes from the surviving letters written by members of Reynolds’ family regarding Kate and her life after that fatal day at Gettysburg, but much more has been revealed through additional primary sources discovered by Harding. The popular facet of the story between Kate and John lies in her vow to enter the religious life should her love die before her. This vow was kept… for the most part.(p. 145) The final chapters detail how Kate coped with life without John, drawing closure to this famous Gettysburg love story.

Harding’s dedication to tracking down the details of Kate’s life is admirable and adds a significant chunk of human-interest appeal to the already massive Gettysburg historiography. That makes his contribution considerable, as the first stop on the Gettysburg National Military Park’s tour map is the site where Reynolds fell and where the mystery of his engagement with Kate first began. Now, visitors can also learn more about Kate, the loss she suffered at Gettysburg, and her indomitable will to survive in the face of staggering tragedy.

Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story: The Ill-Fated Romance of General John Reynold and Kate Hewitt 
Jeffrey J. Harding, Foreword by Wayne Motts
The History Press, $21.99

3 Responses to Book Review: Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story: The Ill-Fated Romance of General John Reynolds and Kate Hewitt

  1. A sign outside of the Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg states that Kate was lost to history after she left it. I guess they’ll need a new sign!

    1. Yes, there is so much more to her story after Emmitsburg! I hope they do revise the sign to reflect Harding’s research.

  2. Thank-you for reviewing this interesting book! You’ve got me intrigued.
    I don’t like the new look of ECW posts: too much white space.

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