John Fulton Reynolds was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and was graduated from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point 26th in a class of 52 in 1841. He was commissioned into the 3rd U. S. Artillery, in a company commanded by Braxton Bragg. During the War with Mexico, Reynolds artillery, then in Taylor’s army, was in heavy use. Reynolds showed his mettle, however, at the Battle of Buena Vista, where his artillery was extremely mobile, at one point dispersing a charge by the Mexican army, and at another point moving rapidly in a foray which rescued a beleaguered Jefferson Davis and his Mississippi Rifles.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Reynolds found himself as the Commandant of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. His first combat command during that war came as Brigadier of the 1st Brigade, Pennsylvania Reserve Division, under General McCall. The other two Brigadiers in the Division were Generals Meade, and Ord.
Reynolds was an excellent leader, whose men frequently were given the tough assignments and acquitted themselves well. It was Meade, then a subordinate of Reynolds, who made the breakthrough on the Union left at Fredericksburg. Finding a gap in Jackson’s lines, Meade smashed through and pushed back a South Carolina brigade, killing its commander, Maxcy Gregg. Meade’s attack then literally ran out of steam, and was forced to retire before support could arrive. It was, even in failure, the one bright spot in a dismal failure for the Union.
By June of 1863, Reynolds was Hooker’s “…most able commander…,” but on the 2nd of June, while in Washington, Lincoln interviewed Reynolds, ultimately asking him his thoughts about becoming the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds responded, “…that unless he were given free rein, he would prefer to decline it.” So, on June 28th, Lincoln relieved Hooker, and Meade was ordered to the post. Meade’s comment, on being told he could not decline the command was “Well, I’ve been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to the execution.” One of the first to call on the new army commander to pay his respects was Maj. General John F. Reynolds. There was a friendship, and mutual respect between the two, that also included Winfield Scott Hancock. The three were of a like mind on many things, and knew they could rely and trust each other. Hence, Meade used Reynolds as a wing commander, and then did the same with Hancock, allowing them to call the shots at Gettysburg before he (Meade) even arrived on the field.
His death left a rather large hole in the command structure of the Army of the Potomac, as did the wounding of Major General Dan Sickles, and Maj. General Winfield Hancock. Nevertheless, while the battle allowed little time for grieving, Meade and Hancock were able to see that Reynolds body was returned to Lancaster, where he is buried. Able men stepped up, and filled the shoes of the three Corps Commanders, and the battle was won. Much of the credit for the victory can be laid at the feet of Reynolds, Hancock, and General John Buford, for the decisions they made early in the battle, which allowed the Union to gain the high ground southeast of town. They saw the ground, understood its value, and ordered it to be manned.
Material for the above, and quotes, were taken from:
“For God’s Sakes Forward”, by Michael A. Riley. [Farnsworth House Civil War Commander Series, #4, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1996.]
Riley, like Reynolds, is a native of Lancaster, PA, and is probably the premier biographer of Reynolds. He re-enacts, frequently as General Reynolds. Mike bears a striking resemblance to the General.