Romances of Gettysburg: Who Shot J. R.? Part Two

    Before we begin to examine the sources that document Reynolds death and explore what they reveal to us about who might have shot him, it will help those readers unfamiliar with this incident to briefly review the events leading up to this fateful moment. Reynolds had committed one infantry division – Brigadier General James Wadsworth’s 1st Division – of his 1st Corps to relieve General John Buford’s cavalry division and attempt to check the advance of Confederate Major General Henry Heth’s infantry division on Gettysburg. A large interval existed between Wadsworth’s two brigades so that they arrived upon the field independent of one another. Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler’s 2nd Brigade, accompanied by Captain James Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery, arrived first. Reynolds personally placed Hall’s guns on McPherson’s Ridge beside the Chambersburg Pike and ordered Wadsworth to deploy Cutler’s regiments on Hall’s right and left as supports. The time was around 10:30 a.m. Heth had deployed two of his four brigades, Davis’s and Archer’s, and they were advancing on either side of the Pike, Davis north of it and Archer south of it. Cutler’s infantry and Hall’s artillery engaged Davis, but Archer advanced steadily against only light resistance from Buford’s dismounted cavalry. Archer’s regiments threatened to seize the woodlot of farmer John Herbst, located about 350 yards south of the Chambersburg Pike. These were a key to the McPherson’s Ridge position and Reynolds understood they must be held if he hoped to hold the ground west of Gettysburg. After posting Hall’s battery and seeing that two regiments of Cutler’s brigade, the 14th Brooklyn and 95th New York, were moving into position toward the McPherson farm on Hall’s left, Reynolds rode toward Herbst Woods. Having sent most of his staff off to deliver orders he was accompanied only by Captain Robert M. Mitchell, an Aide-de-Camp, Captain Edward C. Baird, the Asst. Adjutant General of Doubleday’s division, and Private Charles Veil, his personal orderly. Company L, 1st Maine Cavalry, served as Reynolds escort and headquarters guard, and while some of this company may have been present there is no evidence that they were with him at this time.
    Reynolds entered the eastern end of Herbst Woods. The woodlot was free of underbrush so it was possible to see through it for some distance and Reynolds observed the 7th and 14th Tennessee, or at least the skirmish line preceding these regiments, approaching through the woods in his direction. At this moment Wadsworth’s other brigade, Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith’s famous Iron Brigade, arrived on the field and were advancing toward Herbst Woods from the east, the regiments in staggered order with intervals between each. The first unit approaching the woods was Col. Lucius Fairchild’s 2nd Wisconsin. Reynolds personally ordered the 2nd to advance into the woods and drive the Confederates out. The regiment advanced steadily over eastern McPherson’s Ridge and into Herbst Woods. As they did so they received a murderous fire from Archer’s brigade that shot nearly a third of the men in the regiment. But they closed ranks and continued to advance while firing and loading their weapons. Reynolds did not accompany the regiment into the main body of the woods but remained on the eastern edge. He may have seen that Archer was maneuvering one of his regiments – the 13th Alabama – south of the woods to deliver a flanking fire upon the 2nd Wisconsin. Reynolds turned in his saddle to look toward the Seminary, where the rest of Meredith’s brigade was approaching. As he did a minie ball struck him in the back of the neck and he fell dead from his horse.    

Situation around 10:45 a.m. The 13th Alabama would be off the southern edge of the map at the time the 2nd Wisconsin crested McPherson's Ridge. NPS

    Two of the earliest accounts of Reynolds death were written by his sisters Eleanor and Jennie on July 5, to their brother William Reynolds. No, neither Eleanor or Jennie were eyewitnesses, but both of them met with five members of Reynolds staff, including Captain Mitchell, and Private Veil, all of whom had accompanied the general’s body to Baltimore and then to Lancaster, where he was buried, and the two sisters learned details of their brother’s death from them. Their letters are consistent on particulars of Reynold’s death. Charles Veil was the closest man to Reynolds when he was shot; the enemy were very near – Jennie wrote they were only 50 yards away – and they (Veil, Mitchell and Baird) evacuated the body quickly to avoid possible capture. Eleanor added an important detail about her brother’s death, apparently told to her by Veil, which is buried deep in her long letter. She writes, “He was exposing himself very much & the balls were falling like hail. It was not a sharp shooter but a chance shot [emphasis added].” Evidently, there were already questions of whether Reynolds had been picked off by a sharpshooter and Veil was clear he had not. [Eleanor Reynolds to My dear Brother, July 5, 1863, Jennie Reynolds Gildersleeve to My dear Brother, July 5, 1863, Eleanor Reynolds Scrapbook, Reynolds Papers, Franklin and Marshall College Library. F&M has digitized these letters and they are available on-line at http://library.fandm.edu/archives/Reynolds/splash.php%5D
    On July 11, H. B. Rosengarten, the brother of Major Joseph Rosengarten of Reynolds staff, wrote Eleanor that he had learned from Joseph that a Sergeant Jones, Company F, 14th Brooklyn [probably H. Sergent Jones], retrieved Reynolds sword, belt, and cap and gave them to one of Wadsworth’s staff officers. [H. B. Rosengarten to Miss Reynolds, July 11, 1863, Eleanor Reynolds Scrapbook]
    The earliest letter that I am aware of from a member of Reynolds staff with details about his death is one written on August 4, 1863 by William Riddle, another aide-de-camp. Writing to a Lieutenant Bouvier, Riddle, who was carrying orders when Reynolds was shot, related essentially the same details found in Eleanor’s and Jennie’s letters. “He threw himself into the very front & the place was won & the enemy captured or scattered – but at what a sacrifice for here while pushing into position the 2nd Wisconsin Rgt., he recd. a minie ball in the back of his neck near the base of his skull and in less than a moment ended the life of the man called by Genl. Hooker, the ‘best soldier in the army.’” Riddle did compress events. The Confederates were not captured or scattered until after Reynolds death, but the other details are accurate. Also important, for our investigation, there is no mention of a sharpshooter. [Wm. Riddle to Lt. Bouvier, Aug. 4, 1863, Reynolds Papers].
Eight months later Charles Veil wrote a detailed account of Reynolds last moments for David McConaughy of Gettysburg. McConaughy was an attorney and also one of the founders of the newly created Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association. Veil provides the best description we have of Reynolds death. Veil wrote that as Reynolds road toward Herbst Woods “he saw the enemy advancing through the woods, facing the Cashtown Road (Chambersburg Pike). The general saw at a glance that something desperate must be done or our troops would be entirely flanked . . .” He then saw the 2nd Wisconsin, which Veil misidentified as the 19th Indiana, approaching, and ordered it “forward into line” at the double quick, “& ordered them to charge into the woods, leading the charge in person. The regiment charged into the woods nobly, but the enemy was too strong, & they had to give way to the right. The enemy still pushed on, & was now not much more than 60 paces from where the General was. Minnie balls were flying thick. The General turned to look towards the Seminary (I suppose to see if the other troops were comeing on.) As he did so, a Minnie Ball struck him in the back of the neck, & he fell from his horse dead.” 
    Veil continued: When the General fell the only persons who were with him was Capts. Mitchell & Baird, & myself, when he fell we sprang from our horses, the General fell on his left side. I turned him on his back, glanced over him but could see no wound except a bruise above his left eye. We were under the impression that he was only stunned, this was all done in a glance. I caught the General under the arms, while each of the Capts. took hold of his legs, & we commenced to carry him out of the woods toward the Seminary. When we got outside of the woods, the Capts. left me to carry the word to the next officers in Command of his death. I in the meantime got some help from some of the orderlies who came up about this time, & we carried the body towards the Seminary, really not knowing where to take it to, as the enemy appeared to be comeing in our right & left. When we arrived at the Seminary I concluded to carry the body to the Emmittsburg Road, & done so, Carrying it to Mr. George’s house, (a small stone house) as we were laying him down, I first found the wound in the back of the neck. [Charles Veil to David McConaughy, April , 1864, Special Collections, Gettysburg College Library].
    The action Veil describes is quick and chaotic. Reynolds leads the 2nd Wisconsin into the woods, they come under fire, not only in front but also a flanking fire that causes the regiment to move farther right, almost certainly to escape the enfilading fire and for the entire regiment to gain the cover of the woods. But the enemy continue to push on, meaning after the 2nd Wisconsin has become engaged. They could not have pushed on in front of the 2nd Wisconsin, which continued to advance through the woods against the 7th and 14th Tennessee. These troops Veil describes could only be the 13th Alabama, whom Archer moved to enfilade the 2nd Wisconsin’s left flank, or some of Archer’s skirmishers, it is impossible to know which. Whoever they were Veil writes they advanced to within 60 paces [recall that Jennie Reynolds wrote that she was told the Rebels were only 50 yards away, which is consistent with Veil], and that “Minnie balls were flying thick,” which is not a statement that describes sharpshooter fire. And between Veil’s account and the statement of Joseph Rosengarten that a sergeant of the 14th Brooklyn retrieved some of Reynolds personal effects, we can safely dispense with the story related in Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg [see part 1], that a party from the 76th New York carried Reynolds body from the field.

A sketch map that accompanied Alfred Waud's sketch of Reynolds death. Note where Waud indicates the first came from that killed Reynolds. LOC.

    Twelve years later, in January, 1876, Joseph Rosengarten wrote his recollections of Reynolds death for historian Samuel P. Bates. Rosengarten, importantly, was not present when Reynolds was shot, a point he does not clarify in his correspondence to Bates. While his account agreed with Veil’s in certain aspects, such as Veil was closest to the general when he was hit, he added other details absent from the other accounts, and some that were at variance with what Veil wrote. The major claimed that Reynolds, after ordering the 2nd Wisconsin into Herbst Woods, observed “the Rebels were moving up the open hollow north of the woods, he sent others of his staff who had brought up these brigades of the 1st Division to do what they could to check them.” I think Rosengarten was confused. Reynolds could not have seen the hollow north of Herbst Woods, but he could have seen the hollow south of the woods, where the 13th Alabama was moving against the flank of the 2nd Wisconsin. This would then be consistent with Veil’s account of Confederates advancing to within 60 paces of Reynolds. They could only have done this south of the woods, because the 14th Brooklyn and 95th New York were in position north of the woods and would have prevented any Confederates from approaching this closely.
Rosengarten continued his account: he was moving toward the point of the woods, when there was a sharp fire from the Rebels, who lay on the edge, and it was drawn upon Reynolds, by his little escort, he was struck while still in the woods, several of his orderlies were hit, and for a few moments there was some confusion; his horse, a powerful black moved off towards the point of the woods, and just in a grove of trees near the open, Reynolds staggered and fell from his horse; Veil, his faithful and devoted orderly, was nearest to him, and springing to the ground, raised the general and held his head in his lap for a moment until others of the staff joined him; it was not at first easy to realize that the General was dead, except a slight bruise on his cheek where he had struck the ground in falling. There was almost no sign of death, and even when he was carried from the front in a hastily contrived litter very few of those about him believed that the shot was fatal from the first. [Major Joseph G. Rosengarten to Samuel P. Bates, Jan. 13, 1876, Penna. Historical and Museum Commission].
    Most of this is accurate but one passage is problematic. Rosengarten claims that Reynolds escort drew fire upon the party, from Confederates who lay on the edge of the woods, and that this fire not only hit Reynolds but also several orderlies. Veil is quite clear that only he, Baird and Mitchell were with Reynolds when he was hit, there is no mention of an escort, and that the other orderlies came up after the general was killed and helped Veil remove the body. Also, once the 2nd Wisconsin had already entered Herbst Woods and was heavily engaged, it defies belief that any Confederates remained along the woods edge, unless they were down near Willoughby Run, which would place them well over 100 yards away. The question is where did Rosengarten obtain his information about Reynolds death? Clearly, it was not from Veil. Was it Baird or Mitchell? Did he invent some details or was he given incorrect information about Reynolds from sources other than Baird or Mitchell? Answers to these questions are unknown, but historians, including this one, have cited Rosengarten’s account of Reynolds death for years, without realizing that he was not present the moment the general was killed.
    There is one other significant thing about Rosengarten’s account, which goes to the heart of the “who shot J.R.” question. There is no sharpshooter in this version, only Rebels “who lay on the edge” of Herbst Woods. As we shall see Rosengarten’s revised this in a future account.
    When I began this series I anticipated it would be a two part series, but this post has gone on long enough, so there will need to be a part 3. In the next post of this series we will examine Rosengarten’s subsequent account of Reynolds death, Veil’s post-war writing on the subject, and what the Confederates of Archer’s brigade had to say about the incident. The deeper we delve into this the more interesting it gets and the more we learn about how certain battlefield stories gain traction and trace their roots. See you in two weeks.
D. Scott Hartwig,
Supervisory Historian

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Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
This entry was posted in Army of the Potomac, Historical Memory, John F. Reynolds, Romances of Gettysburg. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Romances of Gettysburg: Who Shot J. R.? Part Two

  1. Robert Buenger says:

    Yet another outstanding article. This battle has had so many things written about it, but we need to wait almost 149 years for this level of clarity. Thanks!

  2. Rob says:

    Excellent work again Scott. Why don’t you start a poll on here so people can vote on whether they believe it was a sharpshooter, friendly fire, etc? I think that would be fun and they’re easy to setup. Would be interesting to see what people’s opinions are as this article progresses.

  3. Phil Spaugy says:

    William Frassinatos “Early Photography at Gettysburg” has a great series of images taken shortly after the war that depict the open nature of the Herbst Woods. There is also a very good article on the early marking of the spot of Reynolds death, and how it was moved several times after the war.

    Scott, if you have the ability to post some of these images it might be useful to help us visualize the terrain features at the time of the battle.

    Its my humble opinion that at the time of the advance of the 2nd Wisconsin, members of Archers brigade fell back into the slight hollow that runs thought the Herbst woodlot. I have read somewhere [I am out of town right now and can’t access my library] that some of the “Reb”s of Archer’s brigade were firing from a prone position. I figure this would be the from the western slope of the “Herbst Woods hollow” or just to the east of the 24th Michigan’s monument.

    • The Staff says:

      Phil,

      I will try to post some other images from our collection of Herbst Woods in part three. Your suggestion about Frassanito’s book though, is a good one. His study of the changing location of where Reynolds fell is excellent.

      Some of Archer’s men took shelter in a quarry – which still exists – just on the far northwestern boundary of Herbst Woods where they were captured by men from the 2nd Wisconsin. The area you describe across from the 24th Michigan monument is a natural point to seek cover so I would not be surprised that some of Archer’s men used this to resist the 2nd’s advance.

      Scott Hartwig

      • Phil Spaugy says:

        Scott,

        I have a good number of photos of the Herbst Woods area that I took during a research trip last March. With no foliage on trees the photos show the terrain features of area well. If you would like to use them in this series let me know and I will send them to you.

        You can email me at:

        pspaugy@aol.com

        Phil

  4. Martin Husk says:

    As usual great work. The only fault I see is that we must wait two more weeks for the third installment.

    I second Rob’s suggestion; a poll asking reader’s opinions about who shot J.R. would be fun.

  5. Dan Mabrey says:

    Great article. I appreciate the graphics and mapping.

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