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“For God’s Sake Forward!” John Reynolds at Gettysburg


Iron Brigade Forward! Battle of Gettysburg, PA – July 1, 1863 by Mark Maritato

“…by his promptitude and gallantry he had determined the decisive field of the war, and he opened brilliantly a battle which required three days of hard fighting to close with a victory.” Major General Harry Hunt, Chief of Artillery, Army of the Potomac on the actions of Major General John F Reynolds at Gettysburg

Major General John Reynolds was one of the finest commanders on either side during the Civil War. He graduated in the middle of his class at West Point in 1841 and served in the artillery. He fought during the war with Mexico and was promoted for bravery twice, to Captain at Monterrey and Major at Buena Vista. Following the war he remained in the army serving in the west and as Commandant of the Corps of Cadets at West Point from 1860 to June of 1861 when he was appointed as Colonel of the 14th U.S. Infantry regiment. However before he could take command of that unit he was promoted to Brigadier General.

Reynolds commanded a brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers on the Peninsula and was captured on June 27th but was released in a prisoner exchange on August 15th. He fought as a Division commander at Second bull Run where his Division held firm as much of the army retreated. He missed Antietam as he was called to train Pennsylvania militia when Lee invaded Maryland. he commanded I Corps at Fredericksburg and again at Chancellorsville.

Reynolds now held command of his troops on his home soil. A native of Lancaster Pennsylvania  Reynolds was the senior Corps commander in the Army of the Potomac. Considered by his peers and superiors to be the best commander in the Army he had been given command of a wing of the Army, his own I Corps, Oliver Howard’s XI Corps and John Sedgewick’s III Corps. He also had John Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division under his command.

Early in June Abraham Lincoln had offered command of the Army of the Potomac to Reynolds. However according to some credible reports Reynolds set a condition which Lincoln in the political climate of the time could not grant. Reynolds insisted he would be free from the political interference which had beset previous Army commanders. Both Reynolds’ request and Lincoln’s response are understandable.

Reynolds was not a fan of Major General Joseph Hooker and opposed Hooker’s decision to retreat at Chancellorsville. When Hooker was relieved of command of the Army by Lincoln, Major General George Meade, commander of V Corps another Pennsylvanian took his place. Reynolds, a friend of Meade supported the decision and Meade, who trusted Reynolds’ judgement and abilities kept him in his key role as commander of the Left Wing.

Reynolds’ wing of three Infantry corps and Buford’s Cavalry division acted as the advance elements of the Army. Late in the afternoon of June 30th Buford’s troops observed Johnston Pettigrew’s brigade of Harry Heth’s division near Gettysburg. Pettigrew on detecting Buford’s cavalry refused to engage. Buford chose to take the good high ground west of Gettysburg and hold it. He sent word to Reynolds that he would hold the ground to give Reynolds time to arrive.


The Death of Reynolds (Waud)

Buford sent messages late in the evening to both Reynolds and the Union Calvary Corps commander, Major General Alfred Pleasanton describing the situation. Reynolds’ units were south of Emmitsburg moving north. Early on the morning of the 1st of July Reynolds brought his troops up as Buford and his cavalry troopers engaged Heth’s division in a very successful delaying action.

Reynolds rode ahead and briefly met Buford at the Lutheran Seminary where Buford ensured Reynolds that his troopers could hold. With that Reynolds ordered his First Corps and the lead division under the command of Abner Doubleday to advance to the action at the double-quick. Reynolds sent a message to Meade through a staff officer stating “Tell the General that we will hold the heights to the south of the town, and that I will barricade the streets of the town if necessary.” Reynolds had an acute eye for the situation and rapidly brought his corps as well as Howard’s XI Corps to the field.

GenJFRenyoldsAs his units arrived into an already raging battle Reynolds directed them to key areas of the battlefield. With Confederate troops moving toward the high ground Reynolds directed the “Iron Brigade” into position in Herr’s (McPherson’s) Woods. Reynolds exhorted the men forward.“Forward! men, forward! for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” As he said these words he was struck by a bullet at the base of his skull and died instantly.

The Federal troops, I Corps under the command of Doubleday and XI under Major General Oliver Howard withdrew through Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill, where Howard had wisely placed two brigades as well as a significant amount of artillery earlier in the day. Reynolds’ old friend Major General Winfield Scott Hancock of II Corps arrived on the field to take command on the order of George Meade.

Hill’s troops entered the town but did not attempt to take the hill, he did not believe that his exhausted and disorganized troops were in a position to combat fresh troops in good defensive positions. Likewise Ewell passed on an opportunity to take nearby Culp’s Hill as his corps was not fully up and the divisions which had been in action were now in disarray and he recognized the strong position occupied by the Federal forces.

DSCN8774Monuments to Buford and Reynolds at McPherson’s Ridge

The first day ended with the Army of the Potomac holding the high ground in an easily defensible position on interior lines. Lee’s Army was spread out and the defense mounted by Buford and Reynolds had disrupted Hill’s Corps causing significant casualties to the Confederates and denying them the opportunity to take the high ground.

Buford is to be given much of the credit for choosing the ground of the battle and fighting a stellar delaying action against superior forces. But had Reynolds not brought his units up in the expeditious manner in which he did and then all of Buford’s efforts might have been in vain. The two men, bound by their professionalism and commitment to duty and their oath helped save the Union on that first day of July 1863.


Padre Steve+

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Gettysburg at 150 Day One: Lee Blunders into Battle


Pender’s Brigade on Day One

The Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Robert E Lee was now deep in Union territory and nearly blind to the location of the Federal Army of the Potomac. On the 30th advanced units of Dick Ewell’s Second Corps had gone nearly as far as Harrisburg while most of the Army was on the road around Chambersburg and Cashtown. Lee’s Cavalry Division under the command of J.E.B. Stuart was far away engaging Union Cavalry around Hanover and not in position to report on Union troop movements. General A.P. Hill sent Johnston Pettigrew’s Brigade of Harry Heth’s Division to Gettysburg on the 30th but Pettigrew observing the Federal cavalry of Buford’s 1st Cavalry Division take up positions on Seminary Ridge declined to engage and reported the Federal concentration to Hill.

As reports from the spy Harrison came to Lee and Longstreet Lee began to concentrate the Army around Cashtown. However the morning of July Hill ordered Harry Heth’s division to move on Gettysburg without the benefit of cavalry support or reconnaissance believing that the troops reported by Pettigrew could be nothing more than local militia. His leading brigades under Brigadier General James Archer and Joseph Davis took heavy casualties and soon Heth became embroiled in a fight with Buford’s cavalry and lead elements of the Federal 1st Corps under the command of Major General John Reynolds.


Gettysburg Day One (Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.posix.com/Com)

Lee was surprised by the engagement and though he chastised Heth for getting involved committed his army to the attack. Reynolds was killed early in the engagement but the fight was bitter, the Iron Brigade exacted a fearful toll on Archer and Davis’s brigades. The attack by Hill’s 3rd Corps was helped immensely when elements of Ewell’s 2nd Corps arrived on the right flank of the Federal XI Corps, forcing the Federal troops to withdraw through Gettysburg and up to Cemetery Ridge. Ewell’s arrival was fortuitous because it tilted the balance to Lee, but the advantage was short lived.


Lee Deliberates Heth’s Advance – Gettysburg by Bradley Schmehl

 Ewell failed to press the attack on Cemetery Ridge or Culp’s Hill while Federal forces were still disorganized, despite the repeated entreaties of Major General Isaac Trimble who was with him. The delay would be fatal to Lee’s intentions as Lee decided to give battle at Gettysburg, ignoring General Longstreet’s plea to disengage take up a favorable position between Gettysburg and Washington DC and force the Army of the Potomac to attack.


Don Troiani’s Painting of Hancock taking Command on Cemetery Hill on Day One

The Army of Northern Virginia came very close to sweeping Federal forces from the field on July 1st in spite of Lee’s lack of planning and clear commanders intent. That much is clear. His orders to Ewell, to take the high ground “if practicable” we interpreted by Ewell in a manner that he determined not to be practicable, so the advanced Federal corps under the command of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock were able to regroup, dig in and be reinforced by the rest of the Army.

Whether Lee intended to engage the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg so early in a campaign where his multiple and contradictory strategic aims and lack of clear commander’s intent to his subordinate commanders created confusion is debated. Much of the controversy comes from Lee’s own correspondence which indicates that he might have not fully understood his own intentions. Some correspondence indicates that Lee desired to avoid a general engagement as long as possible while other accounts indicate that he wanted an early and decisive engagement. The controversy was stoked after the war by Lee’s supporters, particular his aides Taylor and Marshal, and Longstreet’s supporters.

Isaac Trimble, traveling with Lee at the beginning of the invasion of Pennsylvania recored that Lee told him:

“We have again outmaneuvered the enemy, who even now does not know where we are or what our designs are. Our whole army will be in Pennsylvania day after tomorrow, leaving the enemy far behind and obliged to follow by forced marches. I hope with these advantages to accomplish some single result and to end the war, if Providence favors us.” (Glenn Tucker, High Tide at Gettysburg (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co.: 1958), p. 24.)

The vagueness of Lee’s instructions to his commanders, many of whom were occupying command positions under him for the first time and were unfamiliar with his command style led to confusion. Where Stonewall Jackson might have understood Lee’s intent, even where Lee issued vague or contradictory orders, many others including Hill and Ewell did not. Lee did not change his command style to accommodate his new commanders and that lack of flexibility on Lee’s part proved fatal to his aims in the campaign.


The vagueness of Lee’s intent was demonstrated throughout the campaign and was made worse by the fog of war. Day one ended with a significant tactical victory for Lee’s army but without a decisive result which would be compounded into a strategic defeat by Lee’s subsequent decisions on the 2nd and 3rd of July.

Until tomorrow,


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