John Fulton Reynolds

September 20, 1820–July 1, 1863

One of the Union's leading general officers, Major General John F. Reynolds was killed during the first day of fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

John F Reynolds, Portrait

While personally positioning the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in Herbst Woods, during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a musket ball struck John F. Reynolds in the head or neck, killing him nearly instantly. Image Source: Library of Congress.

General John F. Reynolds Overview

When the Civil War started, U.S. Army officials promoted John F. Reynolds to lieutenant colonel. Before seeing any action, Reynolds received another promotion to brigadier general in the Volunteer Army in August 1861. At the request of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin, the army placed Reynolds in command of a Pennsylvania brigade.

During the Peninsula Campaign, Confederate troops captured Reynolds after he was separated from his brigade during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. The Confederates confined Reynolds at Libby Prison in Richmond for two weeks until he was exchanged in August. Reynolds returned to active duty in time to command three brigades during the Second Battle of Bull Run.

Second Battle of Bull Run, Union Retreat, Illustration
This illustration depicts Union troops retreating during the Second Battle of Bull Run. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia threatened southern Pennsylvania during the Maryland Campaign, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin successfully lobbied to have Reynolds returned to his home state to mobilize the militia. During his brief absence, Reynolds missed the Battle of Antietam.

In December 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg, Reynolds’ division temporarily breached the Confederate lines, achieving the only federal success during that conflict. One month later, the War Department promoted Reynolds to major general of volunteers.

At the Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Reynolds joined several of General Joseph Hooker‘s subordinate generals in lobbying for Hooker’s dismissal. In early June, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly called Reynolds to Washington and offered him command of the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds told the President that he would not accept the promotion unless Lincoln could insulate him from the political interference that had hampered the army’s performance during the war. Lincoln either could not or would not offer Reynolds the autonomy he requested. When the President sacked Hooker, the job went to Reynolds’ friend and subordinate officer George G. Meade.

George Meade, Civil War General
George Meade. Image Source: Library of Congress.

When Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed Reynolds in charge of the army’s left wing. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Reynolds arrived on the field in mid-morning on July 1, 1863, and began deploying his troops. At roughly 10:15, while Reynolds was positioning soldiers at Herbst Woods, a musket ball struck him in the back of the neck, killing him instantly. 

Reynolds was buried in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1863. Since Reynolds’s death, officials have erected four monuments commemorating the general on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.

John F. Reynolds Quick Facts

  • Date of Birth: He was born on September 20, 1820.
  • Birthplace: He was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • Parents: His parents were John and Lydia (Moore) Reynolds.
  • Spouse: Reynolds did not marry.
  • Death: He died on July 1, 1863.
  • Place of Death: He died at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
  • Burial: He is buried at Lancaster Cemetery, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Early Life of John F. Reynolds

John Fulton Reynolds was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1820. He was the third son and fourth of nine children of John Reynolds and Lydia (Moore) Reynolds. Reynolds’ father was the editor of the Lancaster Journal. As a youth, Reynolds attended private schools, including the Lancaster County Academy. In 1837, his father’s friend, Senator — and future U.S. President — James Buchanan, secured an appointment for Reynolds at the United States Military Academy.

U.S. Military Academy Cadet

Reynolds was a cadet at the academy from 1837 to 1841, graduating twenty-sixth in his class of fifty-two. Among his classmates were future Civil War generals Don Carlos Buell (USA), Nathaniel Lyon (USA), Horatio G. Wright (USA), Richard Brooke Garnett (CSA), and Robert S. Garnett (CSA).

U.S. Army Officer

Following his graduation from West Point, on July 1, 1841, Reynolds received a brevet promotion to second lieutenant with the 3rd U.S. Artillery at Fort McHenry, Maryland. On Oct. 23, 1841, army officials promoted him to the full rank of second lieutenant. For the next five years, Reynolds served in the garrison at various posts in the South. On June 18, 1846, officials promoted him to first lieutenant.

Reynolds in the Mexican-American War

Like many future Civil War officers, Reynolds took part in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He served under General Zachary Taylor in the Army of Occupation along the disputed border between Mexico and Texas. On September 23, 1846, Reynolds received a brevet promotion to captain for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” at the Battle of Monterey (July 7, 1846). On February 23, 1847, he received another brevet promotion to major for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22-23, 1847).

Antebellum Assignments

After the Mexican-American War ended, Reynolds served at several posts in the Northeast. In 1854, the army reassigned him to frontier duty in the American West for two years. On March 3, 1855, officials promoted Reynolds to captain. He next served in garrison duty at Fort Monroe, Virginia from 1856 to 1860 before returning west and taking part in the Utah Expedition against the Mormons (March 1857–July 1858). On September 8, 1860, Reynolds received an appointment as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy, where he was also an instructor of Artillery, Infantry, and Cavalry Tactics. Holding the ex officio rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he served in that capacity until the secession crisis.

John F. Reynolds in the Civil War

Union Officer

When the Civil War erupted, army officials promoted Reynolds to lieutenant colonel in the 14th Infantry on May 14, 1861. Before seeing any action, Reynolds received another promotion to brigadier general in the Volunteer Army on August 20, 1861, less than one month after the Federal defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). At the request of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin, the army placed Reynolds in command of a Pennsylvania brigade and sent him to the Washington, DC area for training.

Captured During the Peninsula Campaign

Soon after, Major General George B. McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign (March-July 1862), Reynolds initially commanded the 1st Brigade, of the 2nd Division, of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Later in the campaign, the army transferred him to the 5th Corps where he commanded the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Division. At the Battle of Gaines’ Mill (June 27, 1862) Reynolds’ brigade served as a rearguard for the 5th Corps’ retreat. As darkness set in, Reynolds was separated from his troops and a Confederate patrol captured the exhausted general near Boatswain’s Swamp as he slept during the night. The Confederates confined Reynolds at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond for two weeks until they arranged an exchange for him on August 13, 1862.

Northern Virginia Campaign

Reynolds returned to active duty in time to command three brigades of Pennsylvania Reserves in the Army of Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope during the Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).

Maryland Campaign

When General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia threatened southern Pennsylvania during the Maryland Campaign (September 4–20, 1862), Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin successfully lobbied to have Reynolds returned to his home state to mobilize the militia. During his brief absence, Reynolds missed the Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862).

Battle of Fredericksburg

When Lee called off his offensive and retreated to Virginia after the Battle of Antietam, Reynolds returned to the Army of the Potomac and assumed command of the 1st Corps. During the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862), Reynolds’ 3rd Division, commanded by George G. Meade, temporarily breached the Confederate line, achieving the only federal success of the day. In early January 1863, the War Department promoted Reynolds to major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862.

Spurns Offer to Lead the Army of the Potomac

At the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863) General Joseph Hooker held Reynolds’ Corps in reserve. After the Union defeat, Reynolds joined several of Hooker’s subordinate generals, including Major General Darius N. Couch and Major General Henry W. Slocum, in lobbying for Hooker’s dismissal. In early June, President Lincoln reportedly called Reynolds to Washington and offered him command of the Army of the Potomac during a private meeting. Reynolds told the President that he would not accept the promotion unless Lincoln could insulate him from the political interference that had hampered the army’s performance during the war. Lincoln either could not or would not offer Reynolds the autonomy he requested. When the President sacked Hooker on June 28, 1863, the job went to Reynolds’ friend and subordinate officer George G. Meade.

Abraham Lincoln, Portrait, Gardner
President Abraham Lincoln. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Gettysburg Campaign

While President Lincoln was struggling with the question of who would lead the Army of the Potomac, Robert E. Lee began his second invasion of the North. On June 15, the Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Two weeks later, on June 30, Lee’s army invaded Pennsylvania. When Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed Reynolds in charge of the army’s left wing, comprising Reynolds’ own 1st Corps, Major General Daniel E. Sickles‘ 3rd Corps, Major General Oliver O. Howard‘s 11th Corps, and Brigadier General John Buford‘s Cavalry Division.

As Meade and Reynolds began maneuvering their forces to counter Lee’s invading army, John Buford and his cavalry occupied the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the morning of June 30, 1863. Recognizing the importance of the high ground around Gettysburg, Buford established defensive positions on three ridges northwest of town to delay Confederate troops advancing from that direction. Outnumbered nearly three to one, Buford planned to stall the Rebels long enough for Reynolds to reinforce him.

How did John F. Reynolds Die?

Reynolds arrived on the field at mid-morning on July 1, 1863. After meeting with Buford, he began deploying infantry units of his 1st Corps. At roughly 10:15, while Reynolds was positioning the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment at Herbst Woods, a musket ball struck him in the back of the neck, killing him instantly. The source of the shot remains clouded. Some accounts attribute it to a Confederate sniper, others contend it was a random shot fired by approaching Confederate forces, and a few blame it on friendly fire. Regardless of who fired the shot, Reynolds was killed and Meade and the Union lost a skilled general and, by many accounts, an inspiring leader.

Legacy of John F. Reynolds

Reynolds was buried in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1863. He left behind a grieving fiancée, Catherine Mary (Kate) Hewitt. Since Reynolds’ death, officials have erected four monuments commemorating the general on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Civil War General John F. Reynolds Facts and Accomplishments

Childhood and Family

  • Reynolds was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1820.
  • He was the third son and fourth of nine children of John and Lydia (Moore) Reynolds.
  • His father was the editor of the Lancaster Journal.

Education

  • As a youth, Reynolds was educated in private schools including the Lancaster County Academy.
  • Future U.S. President James Buchanan secured an appointment for John F. Reynolds at the United States Military Academy in 1837.
  • Reynolds was a Cadet at the United States Military Academy from 1837 to 1841
  • He graduated from the United States Military Academy on July 1, 1841, twenty-sixth in his class of fifty-two cadets.

Early Military Service

  • Upon graduating from West Point, Reynolds was brevetted to second lieutenant with the 3d U.S. Artillery at Fort McHenry, Maryland.
  • On Oct. 23, 1841, he was promoted to the full rank of second lieutenant.
  • On June 18, 1846, he was promoted to first lieutenant.

Service in the Mexican-American War

  • Reynolds served in the Army of Occupation under General Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848)
  • On September 23, 1846, was brevetted to captain for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” at the Battle of Monterey (July 7, 1846).
  • On February 23, 1847, John F. Reynolds was brevetted to major for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct” at the Battle of Buena Vista (February 22-23, 1847).
  • He was promoted to captain on March 3, 1855.

Service from 1857 to the Opening of the Civil War

  • Reynolds participated in the Utah Expedition against the Mormons (March 1857–July 1858).
  • He served as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Military Academy from 1860 to 1861.

Service During the Civil War

  • Reynolds was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 14th Infantry on May 14, 1861.
  • He was promoted to brigadier general in the Volunteer Army on August 20, 1861.
  • Confederate soldiers captured Reynolds after the Battle of Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862.
  • Reynolds commanded three brigades of Pennsylvania Reserves in Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia during the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).
  • When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia threatened southern Pennsylvania during the Maryland Campaign (September 4–20, 1862), Pennsylvania Governor Andrew G. Curtin successfully lobbied to have Reynolds returned to his home state to mobilize the militia.
  • Reynolds participated in the Battle of Fredericksburg from December 11–15, 1862.
  • In January 1863, Reynolds was promoted to major general of volunteers, effective November 29, 1862.
  • In June 1863, Reynolds reportedly turned down President Lincoln’s offer to command the Army of the Potomac.
  • When George G. Meade assumed command of the Army of the Potomac, he placed Reynolds in charge of the army’s left wing.
  • While personally positioning the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment in Herbst Woods, during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, a musket ball struck Reynolds in the head or neck, killing him.
Battle of Fredericksburg, 1862, Civil War
This painting depicts combat at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Legacy of John F. Reynolds

  • Reynolds was buried in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1863.
  • Following his death, Reynolds left behind a grieving fiancée, Catherine Mary “Kate” Hewitt.
  • Since his death, four monuments commemorating the general have been erected on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title John Fulton Reynolds
  • Date September 20, 1820–July 1, 1863
  • Author
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 26, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024

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