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.
As 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.
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.