J. R. is, of course, Union General John F. Reynolds, the highest ranking officer to lose his life in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was killed early in the battle on July 1, soon after he made a crucial decision to engage the advancing Confederates at Gettysburg. Among the histories of the battle there appears to be consensus that it was a Confederate
sharpshooter who picked him off. Jacob Hoke, in The Great Invasion of 1863, one of the early histories of the battle, writes that, “General Reynolds, anxious as to the result rode forward a short distance to reconnoiter, and raising his field glasses to his eyes he sought to take in the full situation, when a ball from a sharp-shooter’s musket struck him in the back of the head, coming out near the eyes, and he fell dead.” Two highly influential 20th Century histories of the battle by Glenn Tucker, in High Tide at Gettysburg, and Bruce Catton, in Glory Road, concurred with Hoke, that it was a sharpshooter, but each added additional details.
Reynolds, expecting support, had turned in the saddle to look toward the crest of the ridge behind him. It was 10:15 A.M. He was struck in the back of the neck by a Minie’ ball fired by a marksman from a tree on the bank of the stream. The ball passed through his head and came out the other side of the eye.
. . . Reynolds fell forward without speaking a word. His frightened horse was dashing toward the open fields when his aides caught it. The body dropped lifeless from the saddle. They wrapped him in an army blanket, and a detail from the 76th New York carried him to the seminary and on to the little stone house of George George on the Emmitsburg road.
Catton’s described the incident:
Now Reynolds was studying the battle, trying to make out just how much weight lay back of the Rebel attack, and a Southern sharpshooter in an old stone barn got him in the sights of his rifle and shot him dead.
The only thing consistent in these accounts – and we could cite numerous other ones – is that Reynolds was shot by a sharpshooter. Otherwise, none are in agreement with one another. Hoke has Reynolds peering through his field glasses when he is hit in the back of the head by a sharpshooters ball that kills him instantly. We don’t know where the sharpshooter is but it sounds like he is behind Reynolds. Tucker tells us the sharpshooter was in a tree on the bank of a stream, which can only be Willoughby Run. He also adds the detail that Reynolds horse spooked and started to dash toward an open field until one of his aides caught it and that it was not until this point that the general fell from the saddle. We also learn that it was a detail from the 76th New York, from Brigadier General Lysander Cutler’s brigade that carried him from the field.
Catton disagrees with Tucker. The sharpshooter was not in a tree along Willoughby Run, he was in an old stone barn, which can only be the Edward McPherson barn.
The belief that Reynolds fell to a sharpshooter’s bullet began long before these histories were written. There were at least two Confederate veterans who came forward after the war to claim that they were the sharpshooter that had fired the bullet. Who was first is hard to establish. Perhaps the earliest was Ben Thorpe, of Satterwhite, North Carolina. In 1903 the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper related his story. We are told that Thorpe was 16 in 1863 and a sharpshooter in the 26th North Carolina. Each man in the 26th was a sharpshooter, “trained by long practice to pick a squirrel from the top of a tall tree.” Ben was sent up a cherry tree that morning and had been perched there for nearly one half hour when a group of officers rode up on a little knoll 900 yards away and halted. Thorpe’s lieutenant appeared below the cherry tree and called up to Thorpe, “Ben, do you see the tall, straight man in the centre of that group? He is evidently an officer of some high rank and is directing operations which threaten our line. Sight your gun at 700 yards and see if you can reach him.” Ben let fly but “saw” that the bullet struck short of its mark. He elevated the sight on his “long-barrelled rifle” to 900 yards and fired. This time the horse plunged forward and the rider fell from his saddle. “Ben, it did its work,” said Thorpe’s lieutenant (who remains nameless in the story). Not until afterwards did Thorpe learn who he had shot and he admitted that he was “genuinely sorry,” since Reynolds was known as such a brave, good soldier. ["He Shot General Reynolds," Vertical File V-5 Participant Accounts, John F. Reynolds, Gettysburg NMP Library.]
In 1947 a sensational story circulated that a Mount Airy, North Carolina man that made and sharpened the tools by which the bronze monument of General Reynolds on the Pennsylvania Monument was carved, had actually shot the general 47 years earlier. His name was Frank Wood. We are not told what regiment he belonged to only that he and fellow sharpshooter, “Private Cox,” became separated from their company early in the battle and “found themselves” in a railroad cut. The story continues: “From this cover they surveyed the scene. A few hundred yards away they saw on a big horse a man, gold braid on his hat, epauletts on his shoulders, scabbard and boots with spurs and other accoutrements speaking of high rank. He was standing up in his stirupps, waving his sword and shouting to his men. ‘Give them hell, boys. Give them grape. Give them hell. Give them grape.’” Private Cox asked Wood if he thought he could pick off the Union general. The range was great, (we are not told any specifics on the range other than Reynolds was a “few hundred yards away”), but Wood gave it a try, took deliberate aim and fired. Reynolds fell from his horse dead. ["Killed General, Later Sharpened Tools to Carve Monument to Him," Vertical File V-5 - Participant Accounts, John F. Reynolds, Gettysburg NMP Library.]
In 1952 the York [PA] Sunday News revisited the Ben Thorpe story. In this version Thorpe was only a short distance off the Cashtown (Chambersburg) Road, at the edge “of an ancient orchard.” Thorpe climbed a cherry tree, as he had in his 1903 account, but this time the officer at the base of the tree was a Captain Webb, who Thorpe relates was killed two days later in Pickett’s Charge. This time Thorpe fired three times before he hit Reynolds; the first shot with his sights set at 1,100 yards, the second at 900 yards, and the third, and fatal, shot at 800 yards. The story the Sunday News carried had been told to Lender Hensel, a Lancaster resident who met Thorpe on a business trip to North Carolina in the early 1900’s. Hensel believed Thorpe because “there was no reason for him to lie. His story was not ‘old soldier boasting,’ it was told in an apologetic tone. He was, he said, ‘a Bible man.’” ["The Man Who Shot General Reynolds," Sunday News, Nov. 23, 1952, Vertical File V-5 - Participant Accounts, John F. Reynolds, Gettysburg NMP Library.]
Thorpe may have been a humble fellow and “a Bible man” but there are significant problems with his version of Reynolds death. There are, in fact, issues with every account that has Reynolds being killed by a sharpshooter. But, let us first take a closer look at Thorpe and Frank Wood. The first clue that something is amiss is revealed by searching the muster rolls of the 26th and 55th North Carolina. I include the 55th because this is the only regiment Wood could have been in, since they were the only North Carolina unit engaged at the time of Reynolds’s death. Neither Thorpe or Wood ever served in these regiments, in fact, no one by the name of Benjamin (or Ben) Thorpe is on record as having served in any regiment from North Carolina during the war. The same is true for Frank Wood. There was also no “Captain Webb” in the 26th Regiment, and no “Private Cox” in the 55th Regiment. There were many phony veterans in the post Civil War era and Thorpe and Wood, if that is indeed their real names, were members of that group. Even had these men been present in the battle there accounts abound in outright fictions. In addition, the 26th North Carolina was not engaged in the action in which Reynolds was killed, and while the 55th North Carolina was, they were nearly three-quarters of a mile north of the spot that Reynolds lost his life engaged in a desperate battle with General Lysander Cutler’s brigade.
Tall tales such as Thorpe’s and Wood’s may have had some influence on Hoke, Tucker and Catton, and others, when they wrote their versions of Reynolds death. But precisely where Hoke, Tucker and Catton discovered some of the details they included is unknown, although we will explore some likely sources in part 2 of this post. Whatever their source, each account is problematic. If, as Hoke writes, Reynolds had his glasses up to his eye when he was shot in the back of the head, then he would have been looking at the Confederates, which means the sharpshooter had to have infiltrated Union lines to get behind the general to make his shot. This is simply not possible. In Tucker’s account the sharpshooter is in a tree along Willoughby Run. This would have been a spectacularly amazing shot since one cannot see Willoughby Run from where Reynolds was hit. Neither, as we shall see, is there any evidence that Reynolds horse bolted after he was hit, or that a party of the 76th New York carried him from the field. That regiment was fighting the 55th North Carolina at the time nearly a half-mile away. Catton has the sharpshooter in the McPherson barn, although he doesn’t mention it by name. But it is the only stone barn in sight of where Reynolds was shot so it is a safe assumption that this is what Catton meant. But four guns of Battery A, 2nd U.S. Artillery was positioned only yards away from this barn, and when Reynolds was shot had been relieved by the 2nd Maine Battery. There were also cavalrymen of Buford’s division around the farm. In addition, the 95th New York and 14th Brooklyn Infantry advanced to near the farm buildings at the time of Reynolds death. We can eliminate the McPherson barn as a possible hiding place for the man that shot Reynolds.
Once we have eliminated all of these versions of Reynolds death as implausible or outright fabrications, we are still left with the question, who shot J.R.? In our next post we will examine the existing accounts of men on Reynolds staff that were with him when he was shot, and an obscure Confederate account, to see if they help resolve this mystery.
D. Scott Hartwig,