Romances of Gettysburg – Who Shot J. R.?

    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

General John Reynolds, standing center, with General Ambrose Burnside, probably around November 1862. LC

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.

Tucker wrote:
    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.

 

Alfred Waud sketch of the death of Reynolds. Waud included a detailed description of Reynolds death with his sketch. Since he was not present when Reynolds was shot he probably obtained his information from members of Reynolds staff. LC

   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.]

A mid-July Matthew Brady image looking southeast into the edge of Herbst Woods near where Reynolds fell. LC

    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. There was a D.T., Elliot, and James Wood in the 55th North Carolina but no Frank Wood.  Ben Thorpe did serve in the 55th North Carolina, enlisting on June 1, 1863 at Petersburg, Virginia at age 18 as Benjamin Person Thorp without the ‘e.’  Thorpe was with his regiment at Gettysburg and was captured on July 14 at Falling Waters, Maryland at the end of the Gettysburg Campaign.  He spent the rest of the war in Union prisons.  While the fact that Thorp was at Gettysburg must render the possibility that he did shoot, or shoot at, some officer, the position of his regiment during the action precludes that it was Reynolds.  It would also be surprising that an 18 year old with only one month’s service would be assigned duty as a sharpshooter.  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, which Wood may have been.  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.

Map showing major landscape features of the McPherson Ridge, Herbst Woods area, and the approximate location that Reynolds fell. GNMP

    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,
Historian

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23 Responses to Romances of Gettysburg – Who Shot J. R.?

  1. Phil Spaugy says:

    Scott,

    This is the start of a great series. Looking forward to part 2. After looking at the various accounts, one has to wonder if it might have been friendly fire.

  2. Martin Husk says:

    My thoughts exactly Phil. I’ve always considered highly suspect the “sharpshooter” account of Reynolds death, and eagerly await part 2 of this story.

    Thanks for the great work Scott.

  3. mikeygaw says:

    In regards to Hoke’s claim of Reynolds being shot in the back of the head, is it possible that Reynolds could have been killed by friendly fire as opposed to the lone Confederate sharpshooter?

    • The Staff says:

      We will get into this in the second part, but it is highly unlikely that it was friendly fire. Reynolds was facing the Confederates and had turned in the saddle to look back toward the other regiments of the Iron Brigade that were approaching when he was struck. And the next regiment of that brigade, the 7th Wisconsin, had not yet reached McPherson’s Ridge or opened fire yet.

      Thanks for the comments,
      Scott Hartwig

      • Phil Spaugy says:

        That is all true, however If my memory serves me correctly wasn’t the 7th Wisconsin loading on the run while they rushed to the support of the 2nd Wisconsin? If so it might present 2 scenarios:

        1] That since the 7th was in the process of loading, it couldn’t have been friendly fire from that regiment or

        2] In the process of advancing and loading at the same time, not to mention the chaos of the moment one of the Badgers Austrian rife muskets may have discharged, perhaps hitting and mortally wounding Reynolds.

        This is a good discussion on one of the enduring incidents that help define the battle. Thanks for starting it Scott.

        On another note, I have often thought given the propensity of Confederate sharpshooter lore that if the ANV had brought some other infantry other than “Sharpshooters” why they might have won the battle !! ;)

  4. Rob says:

    Scott,

    I have a book in front of me which was first published in 1989, and again in 2002, and i’ve been told that they are rare as they were limited to 1000 copies each. It is called “The Confederate Whitworth Sharpshooters” by John Anderson Morrow (who incidentally is the great-grand nephew of the famous Confederate John S. Mosby). In here it says:

    “Whitworth sharpshooter Private Willie Simpson of the 9th Louisiana Regiment, is often credited with killing General John F. Reynolds…”

    “…If sharpshooter Simpson was with the 9th Louisiana, it’s unlikely he shot Reynolds due to the town lying between Early’s Division (including the 9th Louisiana) and where Reynolds was struck. However it is within the realm of possibilities that Simpson may have been detached from his regiment, as was usually the case with sharpshooters, and was much closer to Reynolds”

    “The sister of the general, Jennie, wrote to her brother (July 5th, 1863) that “after the bullet hit him behind the right ear it passed down and around the skull and lodged in his chest”. If Reynolds’ sister’s version is correct, the downward course of the bullet which killed him does suggest the possibility that Reynolds was hit by a sharpshooter firing from a nearby tree, or elevation”

    Just wanted to share some of that. It’s a great book if you’re particularly interested in this subject. Has some nice photos of all the different types of Whitworth bullets and a complete history of the rifles themselves and their usage through the war.

    Thanks.

    • Rob says:

      Oh, and what do you think?

    • The Staff says:

      Rob,

      By 1863 some Confederate brigades had formed what they referred to as sharpshooter battalions, containing approximately 120 men and commanded typically by a major. Every brigade in Rodes’s division, for example, had a sharpshooter battalion. They peformed both the skirmish and sharpshooting duties for the brigade. Since the men were typically the best shots, and often the most aggressive soldiers in the brigade, they proved to be highly effective combat units and ultimately nearly all of the Army of Northern Virginia’s infantry brigades adopted the practice. Fred L. Ray has written an entire book on the subject, Shock Troops of the Confederacy, which I recommend to learn more on the subject. I do not know whether the brigades of Early’s division had formed sharpshooter battalions or not, but since Private Simpson was armed with a Whitworth Rifle, he was certainly not skirmishing, but was working as a sharpshooter. Simpson may very well have shot a mounted Union officer during the battle, and afterwards, when he learned of Reynolds death, thought he had shot Reynolds, or perhaps he simply wanted to claim credit for it. But it highly unlikely that he was the one who did so. Sharpshooters might be detached from their parent brigade but rarely would they be detached outside their division, and to be detached to another corps when no one in the Confederate army expected an engagement on July 1, is even more unlikely. My guess is that Simpson took part in his division’s engagement against the 11th Corps north of town.

      Best,
      Scott

  5. Robert Brown says:

    Fantastic article Scott! I have never thought the sharpshooter angle was plausible. BTW saw your article in Civil War Times on the picture mystery. My third great grandfather was a captain in Co B, 34th NC and would have marched across those bodies on July 1. It is great how the history of 148 years ago is still being uncovered today.

  6. Allen C. Guelzo says:

    Now, to make this more complicated: Hoke, writing in 1887, was relying on an account of Reynolds’ death written a decade before by Joseph Rosengarten, one of Reynolds’ ADCs, who has Reynolds laid low by a “Minnie ball, fired by a sharpshooter hidden in teh branches of a tree almost overhead, and killed at once.” But in October, 1863, Rosengarten wrote to Michael Jacobs to correct the assertion made by Jacobs in his Notes on the Rebel Invasion that Reynolds had been killed “by a Rebel sharpshooter,” adding that Reynolds, “when he saw that his troops were successful” — meaning, the movement of the Iron Brigade into Herbst’s Woods — “turned to come out again.” (In other words, he had accompanuied the Iron Brigade into Herbst’s Woods adn was trying to re-gain the eastern border of the woods). “It was almost at the outer edge of the woods,” Rosengarten wrote, “that the fatal volley was fired & at the same time wounding a member of his escort.” The implication is that Reynolds was hit from behind, and that it was not a sharpshooter, but a “fatal volley” from Archer’s brigade which killed him. Why Rosengarten changed his story is a mystery, but he stuck to it thereafter, and his 1913 account in the New York Times also attributes Reynolds’ death to a “sharpshooter” as Reynolds gained “the edge of the woods.”

    • Phil Spaugy says:

      I am going to go home, review what resource materiel I have and the until Scott posts his views in part 2 of this blog. I would venture that he has some new info and perspectives to share with us.

      Phil

    • Robert Brown says:

      Dr. Guelzo, the more that I visit Herbst Woods and survey the terrain, the more that the idea of a “fatal volley” (a nuanced term of course) appeals to me. It would seem with all of the lead flying about that part of the field that a single sharpshooter hitting Gen Reynolds would be out of character somehow. Large units crashing into one another would put an incredible amount of minie balls in the air at a given time. Archer’s Confederates would have most likely been firing at the Iron Brigade and the accompanying officers, so this explanation by Rosengarten is more than plausible in my mind.

  7. Jim O' says:

    Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Battle Report says that one of the first shell fired by Pegram’s battalion, Marye’s battery, mortally wounded Major-General Reynolds. Has Heth’s account been dismissed?

    • The Staff says:

      Jim,

      I mention that in part 3 of this series. It is well established that Reynolds was killed by a bullet fired from a rifle rather than artillery fire.

      Thanks,
      Scott H.

  8. John H. says:

    I always assumed that a volley from Archer’s brigade at the 2nd Wisconsin as they ran down the ridge is what struck the General.

  9. jim ohara says:

    Dear John H.,
    Does the timing of Reynolds death fit the timing of the 2nd Wisconsin onto the field of battle?
    Jim O.

  10. Josh Mangum says:

    “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. ”

    “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. ”

    Scott, You obviously didn’t research this too well sir. Benjamin Person Thorp did fight for the Confederacy, Company K 55th NC Regiment. He was at Gettysburg. There’s even a photo of him in the NC Roster book from the 1880s. Phony veteran? Man, you have some nerve! I have been to Thorp’s grave & I know his descendants. You need to get your facts straight. Thorp may not have shot Reynolds but he believed he did. He was a veteran.

    http://genealogytrails.com/ncar/mil_cw_photoindex_regt_51_75.html

    • The Staff says:

      Josh,

      You are absolutely correct and I apologize for the error and will amend this blog post. I made the cardinal mistake of not checking the other spellings of Thorpe. There indeed is no Benjamin Thorpe who ever served from North Carolina, but there is a Benjamin Thorp. For the record of those reading this post, Thorp enlisted on June 1, 1863 at age 18. He was captured at Falling Waters, Maryland on July 14, 1863, confined at Old Capitol Prison, then transferred to Point Lookout, Maryland, arriving on August 9. Just over one year later he was transferred to Elmira Prison in New York where he remained until paroled on March 10, 1865. Thorp definitely served with his regiment at Gettysburg, although based on the position of his regiment in the morning engagement he almost certainly could not have been the man who shot Reynolds as he claimed.

      Scott H.

      • Josh Mangum says:

        Scott,
        Sorry if I came across as rude but I am a friend of the Thorp family & I knew for sure that Benjamin Person Thorp (b. 8 Sep 1844 – d. 28 Dec 1914) served for the Confederacy. I guess the phony statement struck a nerve! I grew up in the same community where he is buried. He grew up at the home of Revolutionary War General Thomas Person hence his middle name.

      • The Staff says:

        Josh,

        I completely understand. Thanks for bringing this correction to my attention so I could set the record straight for Benjamin. Anyone who survived July 1 and 3 at Gettysburg and nearly two years in prison camps deserves that.

        Scott H.

  11. Josh Mangum says:

    Interesting fact – There are 7 Benjamin Person Thorps buried there. It was obviously a popular name!

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