A Bullet to the Head

Like many people, I found Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels to be pretty captivating. I read this fictionalized account of Gettysburg a long time ago but I still remember the strong sense of relief I felt as Shaara described Major General John Reynolds and the I Corps reaching the battlefield on July 1 to relieve John Buford’s beleaguered cavalry. And I remember the sense of shock that followed when (spoiler alert) Reynolds fell dead with a Confederate bullet to the back of his head.

Reynolds played a big role in George Meade’s Civil War career as they rose together in the Army of the Potomac. Reynolds was Meade’s commanding officer for a time, positions that were reversed for a very brief period starting on June 28, 1863, when Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac. Three days later Reynolds was dead.

One of the joys of writing a book like Searching for Meade is reading the various memoirs, letters and histories written by people who witnessed events first-hand. One account I used was War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865, which was privately printed in 1912 (fortunately for me, it’s now available online at Archives.com. Otherwise I might have had some difficulty finding one of the 50 copies that were printed.) Weld was a Harvard graduate who had gone to war at the tender age of 20. He found a spot with Reynolds after he left the staff of General Henry Benham. Benham, an army engineer, had made a fool of himself at the start of the Chancellorsville campaign during the laying of the pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock when he arrived on the river banks loudly and obviously drunk. Wrote Weld:

I was asked by two officers, General Russell being one, whether General Benham was not drunk. I said he was not, as I knew he took wine only and not any liquors. Then, too, I was accustomed to his swearing, etc., and thought nothing of it. Pretty soon a captain came riding along on horseback, and General Benham opened on him, yelling out in a loud tone of voice and Goddamning him. This, too, right on the bank of the river and when he had just been cautioning every one to keep quiet. I said to the general, “Don’t call out so loud, sir, the enemy can hear you.” He still kept on, however. . . .  When I came back about 6 o’clock, I found General B. drunk as could be, with a bloody cut over his left eye, and the blood all over that side of his face and forming a disgusting sight altogether. He had fallen down and cut his face. Soon after he reeled in his saddle, and in trying to shake hands with General Pratt, he fell right off his horse on to the ground. I saw him do this. The soldiers picked him up, and he mounted again, and rode round among the men, swearing and trying to hurry matters, but only creating trouble and making himself the laughing-stock of the crowd. Finally three bridges were got across and then we started for the two lower bridges where an unsuccessful attempt had been made to cross in the morning. The general had got moderately sober by that time, and began to feel slightly ashamed of himself. I never in my life have been so mortified and ashamed as I was this morning. I shall leave his staff as soon as possible, and I don’t see how he can escape a court-martial and dismissal from the service. By sheer good luck we got the men across the river and built the bridges. General Benham’s being drunk delayed the laying of the bridges for four hours; his mismanagement all but ruined the whole plan. Every one there expected a disgraceful termination to the whole affair, and as I have said, good luck only saved us, for the rebels had two or three hours to prepare themselves, after we arrived on the ground, when they should have had but half an hour at the outside.  

Simply astonishing behavior. Weld followed through on his resolve to leave Benham’s staff and he got an appointment with Reynolds. In fact, as I mention in the book, it was Weld who delivered a message from Reynolds to Meade on July 1. He was on his way back to the battlefield when he met a messenger who told him Reynolds had been shot. He hoped it wasn’t true. A little further on he found undeniable proof that it was when he the encountered the wagon carrying the general’s body.

John Fulton Reynolds

“I felt very badly indeed about his death, as he had always treated me very kindly, and because he was the best general we had in our army,” Weld wrote. “Brave, kind-hearted, modest, somewhat rough and wanting polish, he was a type of the true soldier. I cannot realize that he is dead. The last time I saw him he was alive and well, and now to think of him as dead seems an impossibility. He had just been putting the Wisconsin brigade in position when the enemy opened a volley and the general was struck in the back of the neck, killing him almost instantly.”

Weld accompanied the general’s body to Reynolds’ home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the funeral. “We reached Lancaster about 12 m., and there found an immense crowd of women, men, and children waiting at the depot,” he wrote. “We got into some old wagons, and drove to the cemetery. Here a chapter of the Bible was read, and prayer delivered, and then poor General Reynolds disappeared from us for some time to come.”

Reynolds’ grave, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Last winter I visited Reynolds’ grave at Lancaster Cemetery. It was a dreary, gray afternoon and the cemetery was deserted. The few spots of color were the American flags fluttering in the weak winter breeze on veterans’ graves, and a colorful flourish from the bright green holly tree that stands in the Reynolds family plot. The general’s body was beneath a weathered white obelisk, its inscription nearly worn away. (In 1989 the Independent Battery of the First Pennsylvania Light Artillery and the Lancaster County Historical Society placed a more resilient granite stone at its base with a copy of the inscription.) An American flag and a wreath provided two more spots of color.

The years have not been kind to Reynolds’ monument. Big cracks marred its base. Some of them, in an example of symbolism in real life, extended through the word “Gettysburg.” The trappings of his office—a saber, a sword and a sash, decorated the obelisk’s face, but the elements had worn them smooth, too. Time is an implacable and relentless foe, as deadly as any bullet.

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