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 S. Garnett (CSA), and Robert S. Garnett (CSA).
U.S. Army Officer
Upon graduating 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 garrison at various posts in the South. On June 18, 1846, officials promoted him to first lieutenant.
Like many future Civil War officers, Reynolds took part in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He served with Zachary Taylor’s 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).
After the Mexican-American War ended, Reynolds served in garrison duty 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.
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
During Major General George B. McClellan’s 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 Rebel 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 Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia during the Rebel victory at 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. 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.
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, Buford’s 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.
Death at the Battle of Gettysburg
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 missile remains clouded. Some accounts attribute it to a Confederate sniper, others contend it was a random shot fired by approaching Rebel forces, and a few blame it on friendly fire. Regardless of the source, Meade and the Union lost a skilled general and inspiring leader of men.
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.