Oliver Otis Howard
Ever since the Army of the Potomac had conceded defeat at Chancellorsville in May 1863, the generalship of its commander, Joseph Hooker, received heavy criticism from officers in the army's higher levels of command. All of the predominant dissenters- General Henry W. Slocum of the XII Corps, General Darius Couch of the II Corps, and John Sedgwick of the VI Corps- wanted Hooker to be replaced by George Meade, then the commander of the V Corps, but Meade was unwilling to participate in any conspiracy against his superior. Lincoln was also looking for someone else to lead the army, and he offered command of it to Couch, Sedgwick, and even Winfield Scott Hancock, a division commander. All of them turned it down, Couch citing poor health, Sedgwick and Hancock conveying that they thought themselves incapable of handling it. Consequently, the Lincoln Administration had to give the list of seniority another look; behind Couch and Sedgwick on that list, it discovered, was General John Fulton Reynolds.
|General John F. Reynolds|
So they sent him to the public school in Lititz, Pennsylvania. "I think I have improved very much since I am here," Reynolds wrote home, expressing his love of the school. Then, he and his brother became students at Long Green Academy in Baltimore, Maryland. Unfortunately, and unlike his attendance in Lititz, he had less fondness for Long Green, where he graduated from in 1835 at 15 years of age. The following year, his father, ever the staunch proponent of a good education, started considering other alternatives to further his son's academic career. While he was not poor, neither was he rich; hence he had to find an education institution that did not require a huge amount of money. Eventually he found West Point, and he asked a friend by the name of James Buchanan to help him get his son into there. The first attempt failed (John was too young), but the following year Buchanan managed to obtain an appointment, which John Reynolds accepted in a letter to the secretary of war on March 6, 1837.
Though the idea of John attending West Point was his father's, the son proved to love a military life. From cadet training camp that summer of '37 Reynolds conveyed his pleasure to his family: "I am pleased with my life here and think I shall continue to like it." Such a mentality did not reflect in his grades. As a member of the class of 1841, Reynolds graduated 26th out of 52 cadets.
In the autumn of that year, Reynolds went to his first assignment as a brevet second lieutenant in Battery H, Third Artillery, which was stationed at none other than Fort McHenry, Baltimore—birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He next moved around the state. Then, he was transferred to Florida and South Carolina, where his comrades included Lieutenants George H. Thomas and William Tecumseh Sherman, both of whom had graduated a year ahead of him and would along with Reynolds be destined for military greatness. They were followed by a posting at Corpus Christi, Texas, where Reynolds was at when hostilities began between the United States and Mexico.
In the Mexican War, First Lieutenant John F. Reynolds was assigned to the army of Zachary Taylor, and fought bravely in that conflict. He received two brevet commissions. The first, the rank of captain, came for his performance in the Battle of Monterrey in September of 1846; the second, the rank of major, for exhibiting "special gallantry" during the Battle of Buena Vista in February the following year. True, a brevet was temporary, but it paid a complement to Reynolds’s fighting prowess.
Despite the awards, Reynolds still had his worries. After all, he was 27 and still a bachelor. So on January 1, 1848 he wrote his sister June that any female Pennsylvanian who was "good looking, amiable, and have a small portion of what is usually termed common sense" would be taken into consideration. If the potential wife had financial means, there would be no objection from him.
The next month, the war came to an end. He found the garrison duty in New England, Louisiana, and New York boring and his salary to be very low, both of which saddened him. It was the pay especially that drove soldiers to don the coats of civilians once more, but Reynolds was not one of them; he chose to stay.
That did not mean that excitement was totally out of the equation. Reynolds became the stop-gap commander of two companies of the Third Artillery that participated in a journey along the Oregon Trail to Salt Lake City, which spanned 1,200 miles. In May of the following year, Reynolds returned to California as a captain.
That promotion was nice, Reynolds believed, but not as nice as filling a command vacancy in a light artillery company, a vacancy that was created when the previous leader—Braxton Bragg, who was a friend of Reynolds—was promoted to major. "I wish you could use any and all of the political influence you may have to get me that company," he wrote his lawyer brother James, who stayed in contact with James Buchanan, the same Democratic politician who had helped Reynolds get into West Point. Unfortunately, General-in-Chief Winfield Scott chose Robert Anderson to be Bragg's replacement. "Merit is no recommendation and political influence everything," Reynolds told James. "I may say that I have never been so disgusted with this army as within the last twelve months."
Despite his disgust, Reynolds, ever the good soldier, obeyed when directed to report to Fort Orford, Oregon, where he would assume command of Company H, Third Artillery. March of 1856 saw him for the first time fight against Native Americans when he successfully chased a group of them across unforgiving terrain. Then his dream came true: he was ordered to lead the light artillery company, which was stationed at Fort Monroe, Virginia.
However, his assignment did not last long, and he was soon back at the West Coast. He succeeded there, too, but this time his success was not of the career kind. When stationed near San Francisco in 1860, he met Catherine (Kate) Mary Hewitt, who was governess for a family. Reynolds was 39; Kate, 20. Yet despite their huge age difference, they eventually became lovers. She followed him when he had to return to the East Coast, residing in a Catholic school in the vicinity of Pennsylvania. There was one major obstacle, though: Kate was a Catholic; Reynolds a protestant. Couples back then had to have the same religious affiliation. Consequently, Reynolds never divulged the love affair to his family.
The assignment to the East Coast in the summer of 1860 wasn't just some regular old posting at a fort; indeed, Major Reynolds became the commandant of cadets at his alma mater, West Point. While it was a very honorable position to hold, Reynolds had qualms about his new job: "I have been on duty for a week trying to persuade myself that I shall like it." True, 15 years before Reynolds had thought that to be commandant would be fortunate for him, but times were different now. The great sectional crisis was nearing its peak; many cadets were from the south; and units were highly competitive among themselves. This was not going to be an easy task for an individual who had to enforce discipline. He did, however, becoming so strict that, according to him, there was "great rejoicing among the cadets at their being relieved of me."
While he was commandant, news came of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Although Reynolds was a Democrat with no moral aversion to slavery—when he heard that John Brown was to be hanged for his raid on Harper's Ferry, he remarked that "if they hang, along with old Brown... a few more of the abolitionist stripe, it would effectively stop the agitation for a time”—he was a staunch unionist who had been in favor of a compromise that might prevent a war between the North and the South. "What history will say of us, our government, and Mr. B's administration makes one wish to disown him," he told his sister Ellie. That Mr. B was none other than the family friend, James Buchanan.
Anyway, when the American Civil War began, Reynolds received an offer that was hard to refuse: aide-de-camp to none other than General-in-Chief Winfield Scott. He would have gladly accepted in the antebellum days, but there was war on, and he didn't want to miss out on the combat because he had to stay behind a desk in Washington, D.C. Later, on May 2, 1861, he was ordered to graduate the class of '61 early immediately. In July he became a lieutenant colonel in the 14th U.S. Infantry Regiment; had it been up to him, he would have chosen "the artillery arm of the service, but could not refuse the promotion offered me under any circumstance, much less at this time, when the Government has a right to my services in any capacity." Then a telegram arrived from George B. McClellan, the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac and soon to also be General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States: "Do you accept your appointment of brigadier general, and if so, when will you be here?" Arriving at the army's headquarters on September 12, Reynolds was given the First Brigade of General George McCall's Pennsylvania Reserve Division.
At the beginning of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign, Reynolds, who badly wanted to participate in the fighting, was sorely disappointed when his brigade stayed behind along the banks of the Rappahannock River. After a brief stint of 16 days as military governor of Fredericksburg and its surrounding countryside—where he treated the local populace respectfully, respect as well as reverence that was reciprocated by the people he governed—his brigade had its baptism of fire in the Battle of Mechanicsville on June 26, 1862, where the enemy attacked his flank and were repelled, convincing Reynolds that volunteers were the equal of regulars. "His coolness and bravery and his admirable disposition of the forces at Mechanicsville... are yet the constant theme of conversation about the camp fires," his aide, Charles Lamborn, observed to Reynolds’s sisters. "It is the highest aspiration of these men to fight again under General Reynolds."
Fortune frowned the following day when during the Battle of Gaine's Mill Reynolds became separated from his men and was captured the next morning. Taken to Libby Prison, where was put in a dirty room and interminably guarded despite his promises not to attempt escape, an arrangement that he considered to be the Rebel's most severe offense. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Fredericksburg protested against his treatment, sending to the authorities a petition signed by 27 prominent persons that requested his parole or exchange; of course, it urged Reynolds’s "treatment be as kind and considerate as was extended by him to us." He was exchanged on August 13, 1862 and took command of the whole division of Pennsylvania Reserves soon after.
Reynolds subsequently showed his mettle at Second Manassas and Fredericksburg, missing out on the Battles of Antietam and Chancellorsville. He was not a part of Antietam in September because he had to train the Pennsylvania militia; Chancellorsville in May 1863 because his First Corps was placed in reserve by Joe Hooker, the Army of the Potomac's third commander (McClellan was sacked in November 1862). John Pope, who was his superior in the Second Battle of Manassas, complemented Reynolds' conduct: "Brigadier General John F. Reynolds, Commanding the Pennsylvania Reserves, merits the highest commendation at my hands. Prompt, active, and energetic, he commanded his division with distinguished ability throughout all operations and performed his duties in all situations with zeal and fidelity."
Now it was June 2, 1863, and Reynolds was in the White House, in front of the commander in chief himself. Lincoln offered him command of the Army of the Potomac, but Reynolds answered that he "was unwilling to take Burnside's and Hooker's leavings." However, he added, he would accept command of that army on the condition that Washington cease meddling in its functioning. Lincoln could not accede to that condition. If that was so, replied Reynolds, he had to decline the president's offer. Consequently, Lincoln decided to "re-try" Hooker. After all, he said, he "was not disposed to throw away a gun because it missed fire once; that he would pick the lock and try it again."
Sources:Jones, Wilmer L. Generals in Blue and Gray. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2004.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Trudeau, Noah Andre. Gettysburg: a Testing of Courage. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.