John Fulton Reynolds was born to John and Lydia Reynolds, the third of nine children, on 20 September 1820 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His father, though not wealthy, prized education and sought for every means to further his son’s education without straining family resources. With the help of family friend, Senator James Buchanan, he managed to secure a position for Reynolds at West Point in 1837. An average student, Reynolds graduated from the academy twenty-sixth of fifty in 1841, after which he received a commission as brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Artillery, assigned to Fort McHenry. However, his stay in Baltimore was not to last long as he was transferred the next year to St. Augustine, Florida, and later to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina.
Soon after, during the Mexican War, Reynolds served under General Zachary Taylor, receiving a brevet to major for gallantry before the war’s end. He spent the next few years on garrison duty in Maine, New York, and Louisiana, before being ordered west to Oregon in 1855, participating in the Rogue River Wars of 1856 and the Utah War with the Mormons in 1857. Then, in September 1860, Reynolds returned back east to West Point, but this time as Commandant of Cadets as well as an instructor in infantry, cavalry, and artillery tactics. During this happy time, Reynolds met and became engaged to Katherine May Hewitt. But the threat of war would soon cast a gloomy cloud on these happy days.
At the start of the Civil War, Reynolds received a commission as brigadier general of volunteers on 20 August, 1861, commanding a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserves. Reynold’s brigade trained in the Washington defenses until spring of 1862 when his division was ordered south to Fredericksburg. He received an appointment as military governor of the city in May, serving in this position for a month until his division departed to join the rest of the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula. Here, Reynold’s brigade fought in the Seven Day’s Battle, performing admirably and successfully repulsing Major General A. P. Hill’s Confederate brigade at Mechanicsville. However, after two days of constant fighting without rest or sleep, an exhausted Reynolds fell asleep and received a rude awakening the following morning by Confederate pickets.
Reynolds spent the next few weeks in the notorious Libby Prison of Richmond, Virginia. However, the mayor of Fredericksburg, upon hearing of Reynolds’ capture, immediately brought a petition signed by twenty-seven prominent citizens of Fredericksburg requesting that he be exchanged or paroled as swiftly as possible. The citizens of Fredericksburg, recalling Reynolds’ kind treatment of them as military governor desired that he be treated in the same kindness. Perhaps because of this request, Reynolds spent only six weeks in prison before he was exchanged on 13 August.
Returning to the Pennsylvania Reserves, Reynolds now received command of the entire division, joining Major General John Pope’s Army of Virginia in time for the Second Battle of Manassas on 28 August. Here, his performance stood out – especially when compared with the mediocre performance offered by his compatriots. On the evening of the second day of the battle, as the Union forces were fleeing in disarray, Reynolds moved his brigades onto Henry House Hill and, seizing the flag of the 2nd regiment, shouted to his men, “Now boys, give them the steel, charge bayonets, double quick!”
Reynolds’ gallantry and personal bravery was later described by one of his awed men, who wrote, “His actions infused into the men a spirit which gave them the will to stand and fight.” The counterattack slowed Lee’s advance, buying precious time for Pope to form an orderly retreat.
In this battle, Reynolds demonstrated that he truly was a born soldier, “impetuous without rashness, rapid without haste, ready without heedlessness,” as he was described by Major Joseph G. Rosengarten. Yet not only was he a good soldier, he was also a great leader of men. Reynolds had a bearing about him that demanded respect, sober, stern, and reticent, described by General Meade as “a man of very few words.” A close colleague, Major General Oliver Otis Howard remarked, “From soldiers, cadets and officers, junior and senior, he always secured reverence for his serious character, respect for his ability, care for his uniform discipline, admiration for his fearlessness, and love for his unfailing generosity.”
But to his family, and especially his sisters, Reynolds was a warm, protective man who wrote long affectionate letters, unburdening all of his thoughts to them.
Yet first and foremost, Reynolds was a soldier through and through. His bearing in battle inspired his men to great deeds, and his concern for the well-being of his men, his efforts to instill courage and enthusiasm in his troops, earned him the love and devotion of all who served under him. As Charles E. Davis, a First Corps aid later put it, “His great abilities and his bravery the world has acknowledged and expressed its admiration therefor, but the love we had for him is beyond expression.” Reynolds was truly, as Colonel Fred Hitchcock claimed, “the ideal soldier.”
Yet, in September 1862, as Lee was launching his raid on the North, Reynolds was relieved of command of his division and ordered to Pennsylvania. Governor Andrew Curtain, terrified by the prospect of invading Confederate troops, had frantically called upon the Federal government to transfer Reynolds (a Pennsylvanian) to command 50,000 state militia raised to defend Harrisburg. Thus, despite the complaints of McClellan at the loss of so competent a general, Reynolds found himself over the next two weeks training old men and young farm boys while his soldiers fought and died on the fields of Antietam, temporarily commanded by General Meade.
When Reynolds returned to the army in late September, he was promoted to command I Corps, leading it in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Here, his old division, now commanded by Meade, would achieve the only Union success of the day, penetrating the lines of A.P. Hill. However, due to a confusion of communications with his immediate superior, Major General William Franklin, and the new army commander, Major General Ambrose Burnside, Reynolds’ other two divisions remained inactive the entire battle, and the opportunity lost.
Disgusted with Burnside’s performance throughout the campaign and the blame he cast upon his subordinates, Reynolds joined with many other officers in calling for the removal of Burnside. At the same time, Reynolds voiced the frustration he felt at political interference in the army’s activity, which had led to the ill-fated assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg.
These efforts seemed to have some effect as Major General Joseph Hooker replaced Burnside on 26 January 1863. However, Reynolds was yet again disappointed at the Battle of Chancellorsville as he faced frustration after frustration. Originally posted on the far left of the army, Reynolds’ First Corps received an order to make their way to the opposite end of the Federal line, a distance of nearly twenty miles. Finally, I Corps reached its destination, only to find that Hooker had lost all taste for any offensive action, issuing an order for the retreat of the entire army. Yet again, Reynolds faced frustration as the commanding officer of the army once again blundered his way to defeat at the hands of Lee’s army.
But now, the war would move north to Pennsylvania, Reynold’s home state, and Reynolds carried with him the hope of victory. As he would ride northward through the familiar terrain of Pennsylvania, he would wear on a chain around his neck a ring in the shape of two clasped hands. Inscribed on the inside of this ring were the words, “Dear Kate.” And now he would ride north to her, hoping to have a reunion with Katherine in Philadelphia if time would permit so that she could meet his family. The two planned to marry as soon as the war ended. In the coming battle, Reynolds would give his all, knowing that he fought in defense of Pennsylvania – and his “dear Kate”.