I believe of the two people with the clearest idea of what was happening at Gettysburg, one was Brigadier General John Buford. Elements of his cavalry division - 3,000 troopers and a single battery of 6, 3-inch rifled cannon - was blocking the advance into Gettysburg of Henry Heth's division of 7,000 infantry and 15 cannon, and was about to be outflanked by the converging Rhodes division of almost 7,000 rebel infantry and 16 cannon coming down from Carlisle, and Early's division approaching from York with another 5,400 rebel infantrymen and 16 cannon – almost 20,000 men and 47 cannon about to crush Buford's tiny command.
At 10:30p.m. on Tuesday, 30 June, 1863 Buford (above) sent his cold and emotionless appraisal of the situation to three men - General Pleasanton, commander of the Federal Cavalry Corps and Buford's boss, and General Meade, newly named commander of the entire army. But the first recipient was the most important - commander of the only troops close enough the help Buford's men, commander of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac - 11,000 men and 28 cannon – and the other person who fully comprehended the strategic and tactical situation in Gettysburg at that moment - Major General John Fulton Reynolds.
His older brother had gone into the navy, and risen to captain. John Reynolds (above) had become a soldier, enduring the lonely life serving on the western frontier, negotiating and fighting the native peoples of the Great Plains and in the 1859 part of the almost war with Britain over an island between Canada and Washington Territory. His devotion to the Union was unquestioned. His bravery undoubted. His mind sharp and clear. His subtly not present.
General Reynolds had spent the last part of that brief night between June and July of 1863, 5 miles north of Emmitsburg,Maryland, wrapped in a blanket and sleeping on the floor of the empty Mortiz tavern (above) on Marsh Creek, about 7 miles south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is amazing how little sleep the officers on both sides of any war get while on campaign, which may explain many of the mistakes and oversights that cost so many lives. On this night, after receiving Buford's message, and moving closer to Gettysburg, Reynolds was awakened again at 4:00a.m. by his aide Major William Riddle.
Riddle had to read the day's marching orders from General Meade several times while the sleep deprived Reynolds tried to process them. He was in charge of the left wing of the army, and there was little doubt in any one's mind that his was the force that was going to contact Robert E. Lee's rebels first. Buford’s late night missive made it clear to Reynolds, that this would be the day. Three hours later Reynolds effective second in command, Brigadier General Abner Doubleday, would arrive for his instructions. While they were talking, the first shot would be fired from Herr Ridge, opening the battle. And at about 8:00a.m. Reynolds and his staff would mount up and head for Gettysburg.
Awakening that morning just 6 miles south of Gettysburg were the 3,800 men of the 1st division, commanded by “the richest brigadier in this army”, 55 year old white haired politician and philanthropist, James Samuel Wadsworth (above) of New York. His men loved the hesitant Republican, and during the march to Gettysburg, Wadsworth was reputed to have commandeered shoes off the feet of cheering civilians, to replace the worn out souls of his men. Unlike Heth, Wadsworth had his strength in front, the 1,800 men of the famous Iron Brigade, under Brigadier General Solomon Meredith.
The Iron Brigade was composed of five western regiments - the 2nd , 6th and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana and the 24th Michigan - which had fought as a unit in every major battle since Bull Run. Under their second commander, General John Gibbon, the brigade had converted their dress broad brimmed soft black hats into their standard dress. Gibbon had also given them their legendary discipline. One private remembered, “There were early morning drills, before breakfast drills, forenoon drills, afternoon drills, evening and night drills...” Another soldier observed that “Probably no brigade commander was more cordially hated by his men.”
But witnessing Gibbon's troops under fire at the 1862 battle of South Mountain, first commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George McClellan, had said, “They must be made of iron.” The label stuck, but it cost. After 2 years of war, of the 1,000 men who had joined the 2nd Wisconsin volunteer regiment in 1861, by 1 July 1863, there were only 300 men left.
Meredith's brigade was followed by the 2,000 members of the 2nd Brigade – the 7th Indiana, the 56th Pennsylvania, and the 76th, 84th, 95th and 147th New York regiments - under 56 year old Hoosier Brigadier General Lysander Cutler (above). He was a real self made man. Born in North Carolina, Cutler had walked to Indiana and climbed from store clerk to State Representative. He was maybe the poorest officer in the army. They were on the road by 6;00a.m. that morning, and would be in Gettysburg in about 3 hours.
Leaving after his infantry, Reynolds quickly outdistanced them, riding to the sound of the guns, through waves of refugees. Shortly after 9:30a.m. he reached the Lutheran Seminary (above) and greeted Buford with the question, “What's the matter, John?” Buford replied, “The devil's to pay.”
The 2 men talked in the cool mist for a few moments, before General Reynolds' sent a messenger back to General Wentworth. His division was advance at the double-quick and relieve the cavalrymen on McPherson's Ridge, west of Gettysburg.
Reynolds also sent a messenger to General Howard in Emmitsburg, telling him to bring the Eleventh Corps forward to Gettysburg at once. A message was also sent to General Sickles, ordering the Third Corps to move to Gettysburg via Emmitsburg. A fourth message went back to General Meade, saying, “...we will hold the heights to the south of the town, and...I will barricade the streets...if necessary.”
Reynolds was not protecting Seminary Ridge, nor even the town of Gettysburg itself, but the high ground south of the town, Cemetery Ridge, Culps Hill and the Round Tops, Big and Little (below). He and Buford had drawn their defense of that McPearson's Ridge four miles to their front, intending on trading space for time, and delaying the rebel army.
Had Lee been at the front, he would have seen the strategy for what it was, and probably broken contact and withdrawn back to the Cashtown Gap. But Lee was 10 miles back, just reaching Cashtown by mid-day. While Reynolds was at the the front, and clearly the strategic superior of Henry Heth.
Marching at the double -quick across McPherson's ridge, the 2nd Wisconsin did not have time to load their muskets before Reynolds himself threw them into the 5 acre stand of trees known as Herbst's Woods. This stand topped the crest of the ridge, protecting the advancing regiments of Archer's 1,200 men as they came to the crest. Reynolds was determined they must not win that crest – at lest not yet. They rebels had to be thrown back, or not enough of the Federal army would have time to arrive to hold the round tops.
Under Reynolds orders, the Wisconsin boys fixed their bayonets at the run. Reynolds urged them into the stand of trees adjacent to a field of corn, shouting, “Forward men! Forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of those woods!” Seeing the Federals approaching through the trees, Archer halted his 1,200 rebels and unleashed a murderous volley of musket fire. A third of the 2nd Wisconsin regiment went down, dead and wounded. Every man in the color guard was out of action. But the remaining 200 men showed their iron, pressing forward. One of the rebels about to receive the fierce charge supposedly remarked, “Those are those damned black hat fellows again. Tain't no militia. That's Army of the Potomac!” Archer's men then continued their own charge, and the Tennessee and Alabama rebels engulfed the outnumbered Wisconsin boys. But as they did, without intending to, they turned their own flanks, to swallow the Yankees in a sea of gray and butternut brown.
Just as this catastrophe was occurring for the Federals, Generals Doubleday and Williams led the rest of the Iron Brigade in a more organized charge, and the fresh Federal troops fell upon the rear of Archer's turned flanks. In the shock and noise and violence, Archer's brigade was broken, smashed, its individuals falling back across Willoughby Run.
In the assault, 200 rebels found themselves surrounded in a group of willows on the west bank of the creek, and were taken prisoner – including the “Little Game Cock” who had tried to warn Henry Heth of the dangers of such an assault - General James Archer (above). As he was being led to the rear, General Doubleday saw his old army comrade and greeted him, “Good morning, Archer. How are you? I'm glad to see you, Archer.” To which the bitter Archer replied, “Well, I'm not glad to see you, by a damn sight.”
At that moment, adrenaline rushing through his blood, Doubleday was unaware of the catastrophe which had just befallen the Federal Army. In that volley let loose from Archer's brigade against the 2nd Wisconsin, General Reynolds and several members of his staff had also been hit. Reynolds slumped in the saddle.
Suddenly free from the pressure control of its rider, and perhaps hit itself, the General's horse trotted out of the line of attack, bearing Major-General John Fulton Reynolds a few yards into an open stand of trees (above, left). There, his surviving staff gathered the reins, calmed the horse and lowered their commander to the ground. They loosened his uniform, looking for the wound. By the time they found it, he was dead.
This was no sharpshooters work. A single Minnie ball had entered behind Reynolds right ear, and burrowed its way through his brain. He was effectively dead before the horse could be stopped.
What killed John Reynolds was a random shot, a death by the anarchy, the unmitigated insanity of combat. It may even have been fired from a union musket. Like all war, this single shot had no meaning in and of itself. It was given meaning afterward to satisfy the humans who had to live with the consequences of their arrogance and stupidity.
One of his aides, Major Joseph Rosengarten, tried to understand the grief a decade and a half later. “...Reynolds, in the full flush of life and health," marveled Rosengarten, "....a glorious picture of the best type of military leader, superbly mounted, and horse and man sharing in the excitement of the shock of battle.”
They carried his body off the field and into the town, leaving him in a house while the battle continued around it. That night they crept into the no man's land of Gettysburg to retrieve his cold corpse, and sent it home to his family. His sisters would bury him in their home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on 4 July. I prefer to think of John Fulton Reynolds' sacrifice as a monument to the courage and the stupidity of the entire war. And every monument to every war in the all of human history, including the battle of Gettysburg, and that memorial, and all memorial to the heroes and victims of every war, should all bear the same inscription: "What A Waste."