"Forward men, forward, for God's sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods," Major General John Fulton Reynolds exhorted to the black-hatted veterans of the 2nd Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade. The Badgers, who had just arrived on the field, rushed into line and drove ahead into the oncoming Rebels who were advancing through a woodlot on a ridge west of Gettysburg.
As the 2nd advanced into the maelstrom of combat, Reynolds turned in his saddle to watch as the 7th Wisconsin came into line and charged. An orderly with the general gasped in horror as his commander reeled in the saddle and fell, struck in the neck by a bullet. "He never spoke a word, or moved a muscle after he was struck," remembered Charles Veil. "I have seen many men killed in action but never saw a ball do its work so instantly as did the ball that struck General Reynolds."
Born in the town of Lancaster in 1820, John Reynolds was perhaps the Army of the Potomac's best-loved corps commander. After graduating from West Point in the middle of the class of 1841, Lieutenant Reynolds served at a variety of posts. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, c. 1860 In the Mexican War he fought as an artillery officer at the battles of Monterrey and Buena Vista, and received two brevet promotions for gallantry in action. Then followed the usual peacetime duty in forts located in Maine, New York, Utah, and Oregon, with armed action against Native Americans and participation in the expedition against the Mormons in 1857.
When the Civil War began, Reynolds was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and received command of one of the brigades of the Pennsylvania Reserves. It was Reynolds' men who bore the brunt of the Confederate attacks at Mechanicsville, Virginia, on June 26, 1862. The next day, in the confused fighting at the battle of Gaines' Mill, Reynolds was captured.
He was exchanged in time to lead the Pennsylvania Reserves in the Second Battle of Manassas, where his heroic stand on Henry House Hill allowed the beaten Yankee army to retreat safely. Reynolds missed Antietam because Governor Andrew G. Curtin had recalled him to organize and lead the Pennsylvania militia recently called to active duty. He then returned to the Army of the Potomac and directed the First Corps in the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville campaigns.
After General Joseph Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville, Lincoln and the War Department began to search for his replacement. Sometime in early June 1863, President Lincoln asked Reynolds to come to Washington for a conference. There, the president offered a surprised Reynolds command of the Army of the Potomac.
Reynolds told Lincoln he would accept the offer only if he could plan army movements without interference from Washington. When Lincoln would not give this independence, Reynolds said he could not accept the offer. Lincoln then appointed Reynolds' good friend George G. Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Detail of The Death of General Reynolds, by Peter Frederick Rothermel
To counter General Robert E. Lee's invasion of the North in late June, Hooker had begun to move the Army of the Potomac north from Fredericksburg. He gave Reynolds command of the army's Left Wing, which consisted of his own First Corps, plus the Third and Eleventh. Meade kept Reynolds in this command when he took over the army on June 28.
On July 1, Union cavalry under John Buford's command began fighting advancing Confederate infantry west of Gettysburg. When Buford sent for help, Reynolds arrived at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in advance of his corps. Buford wanted to know whether to stay or withdraw. Reynolds and the Iron Brigade, by Keith Rocco.
Reynolds, an excellent tactical commander who also grasped the bigger picture, immediately ordered Buford to stand fast and sent orders for his infantry to quicken their pace. Reynolds also sent messengers to Meade and the commanders of the other two corps under his guidance, asking them to come to Gettysburg.
John Reynolds, then, is in a large measure responsible for deciding to fight at Gettysburg. (Under general orders issued early on July 1 by General Meade, the army was to concentrate in Maryland to fight a defensive battle against Lee's troops should circumstances warrant such a move.)
Always personally brave, Reynolds rode into the fray and was slain in the battle of Gettysburg's initial phase. Meade, upon learning of his trusted subordinate's death, sent another friend and Pennsylvanian, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, to the battlefield with instructions to take command and assess the situation. Meanwhile, Reynolds' body was transported from the field by ambulance to Westminster, Maryland. From there it went by train to Baltimore and then north to Lancaster, where the general's remains were interred in the Lancaster Cemetery on July 4. The general left behind a grieving fiancé.