American Civil War: Major General John F. Reynolds

John F. Reynolds
Major General John F. Reynolds. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Major General John F. Reynolds was a noted commander in the Union Army during the Civil War. A native of Pennsylvania, he graduated from West Point in 1841 and distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War. With the beginning of the Civil War, Reynolds quickly moved up through the ranks of the Army of the Potomac and proved to be one its finest field commanders. Despite his battlefield record, he was frequently frustrated by the political restraints placed on the army and likely turned down command of it in 1863. Reynolds was lost on July 1, 1863, when he was killed leading his men onto the field during the opening stages of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Early Life

The son of John and Lydia Reynolds, John Fulton Reynolds was born at Lancaster, PA on September 20, 1820. Initially educated in nearby Lititz, he later attended the Lancaster County Academy. Electing to pursue a military career like his older brother William who had entered the US Navy, Reynolds sought an appointment to West Point. Working with a family friend, (future president) Senator James Buchanan, he was able to obtain admission and reported to the academy in 1837.

While at West Point, Reynolds' classmates included Horatio G. Wright, Albion P. Howe, Nathaniel Lyon, and Don Carlos Buell. An average student, he graduated in 1841 ranked twenty-sixth in a class of fifty. Assigned to the 3rd US Artillery at Fort McHenry, Reynolds' time in Baltimore proved brief as he received orders for Fort Augustine, FL the following year. Arriving at the end of the Second Seminole War, Reynolds spent the next three years at Fort Augustine and Fort Moultrie, SC.

Mexican-American War

With the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846 following Brigadier General Zachary Taylor's victories at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, Reynolds was instructed to travel to Texas. Joining Taylor's army at Corpus Christi, he took part in the campaign against Monterrey that fall. For his role in the city's fall, he received a brevet promotion to captain. Following the victory, the bulk of Taylor's army was transferred for Major General Winfield Scott's operation against Veracruz.

Remaining with Taylor, Reynolds' artillery battery played a key role in holding the American left at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847. In the fighting, Taylor's army succeeded in holding off a larger Mexican force commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna. In recognition of his efforts, Reynolds was brevetted to major. While in Mexico, he befriended Winfield Scott Hancock and Lewis A. Armistead.

Antebellum Years

Returning north after the war, Reynolds spent the next several years in garrison duty in Maine (Fort Preble), New York (Fort Lafayette), and New Orleans. Ordered west to Fort Orford, Oregon in 1855, he took part in the Rogue River Wars. With the end of hostilities, the Native Americans in the Rogue River Valley were moved to the Coast Indian Reservation. Ordered south a year later, Reynolds joined Brigadier General Albert S. Johnston's forces during the Utah War of 1857-1858.

Fast Facts: Major General John F. Reynolds

The Civil War Begins

In September 1860, Reynolds returned to West Point to serve as Commandant of Cadets and an instructor. While there, he became engaged to Katherine May Hewitt. As Reynolds was a Protestant and Hewitt a Catholic, the engagement was kept secret from their families. Remaining for the academic year, he was at the academy during the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the resulting Secession Crisis.

With the beginning of the Civil War, Reynolds initially was offered a post as an aide-de-camp to Scott, the general-in-chief of the US Army. Declining this offer, he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 14th US Infantry but received a commission as a brigadier general of volunteers (August 20, 1861) before he could assume this post. Directed to newly-captured Cape Hatteras Inlet, NC, Reynolds was en route when Major General George B. McClellan instead requested that he join the newly-formed Army of the Potomac near Washington, DC.

Reporting for duty, he first served on a board that assessed volunteer officers before receiving command of a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserves. This term was used to refer to regiments raised in Pennsylvania that were in excess of the number originally requested of the state by Lincoln in April 1861.

To the Peninsula

Commanding the 1st Brigade of Brigadier General George McCall's Second Division (Pennsylvania Reserves), I Corps, Reynolds first moved south into Virginia and captured Fredericksburg. On June 14, the division was transferred to Major General Fitz John Porter's V Corps which was taking part in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign against Richmond. Joining Porter, the division played a key role in the successful Union defense at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek on June 26.

As the Seven Days Battles continued, Reynolds and his men were assaulted by General Robert E. Lee's forces again the next day at the Battle of Gaines' Mill. Having not slept in two days, an exhausted Reynolds was captured by Major General D.H. Hill's men after the battle while resting in Boatswain's Swamp. Taken to Richmond, he was briefly held at Libby Prison before being exchanged on August 15 for Brigadier General Lloyd Tilghman who had been captured at Fort Henry.

Returning to the Army of the Potomac, Reynolds assumed command of the Pennsylvania Reserves as McCall had also been captured. In this role, he took part in the Second Battle of Manassas at the end of the month. Late in the battle, he aided in making a stand on Henry House Hill which assisted in covering the army's retreat from the battlefield.

A Rising Star

As Lee moved north to invade Maryland, Reynolds was detached from the army at the request of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain. Ordered to his home state, the governor tasked him with organizing and leading the state militia should Lee cross the Mason-Dixon Line. Reynolds' assignment proved unpopular with McClellan and other senior Union leaders as it deprived the army of one of its best field commanders. As a result, he missed the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam where the division was led by fellow Pennsylvanian Brigadier General George G. Meade.

Returning to the army in late September, Reynolds received command of I Corps as its leader, Major General Joseph Hooker, had been wounded at Antietam. That December, he led the corps at the Battle of Fredericksburg where his men achieved the only Union success of the day. Penetrating the Confederate lines, troops, led by Meade, opened a gap but a confusion of orders prevented the opportunity from being exploited.


For his actions at Fredericksburg, Reynolds was promoted to major general with a date of November 29, 1862. In the wake of the defeat, he was one of several officers who called for the removal of army commander Major General Ambrose Burnside. In doing so, Reynolds expressed his frustration at the political influence that Washington exerted on the army's activities. These efforts were successful and Hooker replaced Burnside on January 26, 1863.

That May, Hooker sought to swing around Fredericksburg to the west. To hold Lee in place, Reynolds' corps and Major General John Sedgwick's VI Corps were to remain opposite the city. As the Battle of Chancellorsville commenced, Hooker summoned I Corps on May 2 and directed Reynolds to hold the Union right. With the battle going poorly, Reynolds and the other corps commanders urged offensive action but were overruled by Hooker who decided to retreat. As a result of Hooker's indecision, I Corps was only lightly engaged in the battle and suffered just 300 casualties.

Political Frustration

As in the past, Reynolds joined his compatriots in calling for a new commander who could operate decisively and free from political constraints. Well-respected by Lincoln, who referred to him as “our gallant and brave friend," Reynolds met with the president on June 2. During their conversation, it is believed that Reynolds was offered command of the Army of the Potomac.

Insisting that he be free to lead independent of political influence, Reynolds declined when Lincoln could not make such an assurance. With Lee again moving north, Lincoln instead turned to Meade who accepted command and replaced Hooker on June 28. Riding north with his men, Reynolds was given operational control of I, III, and XI Corps as well as Brigadier General John Buford's cavalry division.

John Reynolds Death
Death of Major General John F. Reynolds at the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1, 1863.  Library of Congress

Death at Gettysburg

Riding into Gettysburg on June 30, Buford realized that the high ground south of the town would be key in a battle fought in the area. Aware that any combat involving his division would be a delaying action, he dismounted and posted his troopers on the low ridges north and northwest of town with the goal of buying time for the army to come up and occupy the heights. Attacked the next morning by Confederate forces in the opening phases of the Battle of Gettysburg, he alerted Reynolds and asked him to bring up support.

Moving towards Gettysburg with I and XI Corps, Reynolds informed Meade that he would defend “inch by inch, and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible.” Arriving on the battlefield, Reynolds met with Buford advanced his lead brigade to relieve the hard-pressed cavalry. As he directed troops into the fighting near Herbst Woods, Reynolds was shot in the neck or head.

Falling from his horse, he was killed instantly. With Reynolds' death, command of I Corps passed to Major General Abner Doubleday. Though overwhelmed later in the day, I and XI Corps succeeded in buying time for Meade to arrive with the bulk of the army. As the fighting raged, Reynolds' body was taken from the field, first to Taneytown, MD and then back to Lancaster where he was buried on July 4.

A blow to the Army of the Potomac, Reynolds' death cost Meade one of the army's best commanders. Adored by his men, one of the general aides commented, "I do not think the love of any commander was ever felt more deeply or sincerely than his." Reynolds was also described by another officer as “a superb looking man…and sat on his horse like a Centaur, tall, straight and graceful, the ideal soldier.”


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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John F. Reynolds." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General John F. Reynolds. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General John F. Reynolds." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).