Who Shot J.R.? Part Three

    Four years after his letter to Samuel Bates about Reynolds’ death, in 1880, Joseph Rosengarten gave the keynote address for the presentation of the Ole Balling (a Dutch artist) portrait of General Reynolds to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It was a

Joseph B. Rosengarten. Ed and Faye Max Collection

detailed account of Reynolds life and death that took up 28 pages of text. The story he told to the Historical Society gathering of Reynolds final moments differed in important details from that which he had written to Bates in 1876. In this version Reynolds was “personally attending to the hasty formation for the charge of the ‘Iron Brigade’ when he was fatally wounded by one of Archer’s skirmishers, at a moment when his aides were riding to the various regiments carrying the instructions of the general ‘to charge as fast as they arrived.’” In the same paragraph Rosengarten then proceeded to contradict his account that it was one of Archer’s skirmishers. He continues:
    Reynolds at once ordered it [Iron Brigade] to advance at double-quick, and followed as the leading regiment, the Second Wisconsin, under Fairchild, hurried into the woods, full of rebel skirmishers and sharpshooters; as soon as the troops were engaged there, Reynolds turned to look for his supporting columns and to hasten them on, and as he reached the point of woods he was struck by a ball fired, it is supposed, by a rebel sharpshooter in one of the trees, and was fatally wounded. [Addresses Delivered Before the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Upon the Occasion of the Presentation of a Portrait of Maj.-Gen. John F. Reynolds, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1880, pp. 6-34.]
    For the first time, a member of Reynolds staff suggested that the general had been shot by a sharpshooter. Why the change in story from what he had written Bates? Recall, in that version it was Rebels who “lay on the edge of the woods” that had shot Reynolds. There are other issues with Rosengarten’s account. Veil, a central figure in the letter to Bates, has disappeared. In this version Rosengarten has Reynolds being carried from the field in a blanket “swung over muskets, on the shoulders of his men.” Who are the men? He does not tell us. Rosengarten further has Reynolds personally attending to the formation of the entire Iron Brigade and sending orders to each of its regiments to charge as fast as they arrived, when there is no evidence that he had time to do anything but order the 2nd Wisconsin to charge into Herbst’s Woods. Nearly all of this is at odds with what Rosengarten wrote earlier and is absolutely at odds with Veil’s account and that of Reynolds’ sisters, written within two days of his death and based on information provided them by the staff. Readers of the first post in this series will remember that Veil’s 1864 account of Reynolds death, written for David McConaughy of Gettysburg, is highly consistent with what Reynolds sisters wrote in July 1863.
    Why did Rosengarten alter his account and suggest that Reynolds had been shot by a sharpshooter in a tree? We can only speculate since there is no other evidence at hand. A guess is that it sounded more dramatic if the general was killed by a sharpshooter than by a random shot. It is also possible that Rosengarten, not being personally present when Reynolds was shot, had his thinking influenced by some account he had read between 1876 and 1880, or by someone he had spoken with.
    In the same Historical Society ceremony (which must have lasted for hours based on the length of everyone’s speeches) Colonel Chapman Biddle, who commanded the 121st Pennsylvania on July 1, and did not reach the field until well after Reynolds death, joined Rosengarten in stating that Reynolds was killed by a minie-ball fired by one of “Archer’s sharpshooters.” [See Addresses Delivered . . ., p. 65] With Rosengarten and Biddle, both respected veterans of the battle and Reynolds old 1st Corps, the sharpshooter tale had gained a legitimacy and traction it would never relinquish.
    General Abner Doubleday added additional weight to the sharpshooter story with the 1882 publication of his widely read Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. In Doubleday’s account, Reynolds felt anxiety as to the result of the Iron Brigade’s clash with Archer “and turned his head frequently to see if our troops would be up in time. While looking back in this way, a rebel sharpshooter shot him through the back of the head, the bullet coming out near the eye.” The only factual part of Doubleday’s account was that a Confederate had killed Doubleday. The only regiment of the Iron Brigade engaged when Reynolds was killed was the 2nd Wisconsin, and he had turned his head back to look for the other regiments of the brigade when he was killed. Also, the bullet had not struck him in the back of the head and neither had it come out near the eye. The bullet had not exited his body but glanced down into his breast probably after striking a bone. But Doubleday, the general who assumed command of the 1st Corps following Reynolds fall, added considerable weight to the story that it had been a sharpshooter that had killed the general. [Abner Doubleday, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg (Harrisburg: The Archive Society, 1992, reprint of 1882 edition), p. 131.]
    Reynolds orderly, Charles Veil, remained strangely silent during this period. Following Reynolds death he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the 1st U.S. Cavalry, and subsequently earned brevets for the battles of Todd’s Tavern and Five Forks. His service records indicate that he was honorably mustered out of the service on January 1, 1871, but Rosengarten’s 1876 letter to Samuel P. Bates contained a note that Veil had been found guilty of unbecoming conduct and been mustered out in January 1876. But, Rosengarten also added that Veil “was a very fine soldier in my time.” Perhaps Veil became something of an outcast after his discharge from the army, although there is no evidence to suggest this, he may have simply been too busy with the routine of life to engage in writing about the war, or he may have felt that publicly refuting Rosengarten, Biddle and Doubleday to be impolite But when Benjamin Thorpe published his 1903 article (see part 1 of this series) about picking off Reynolds from a cherry tree at 900 yards it stirred Veil to action, and on July 9, 1903 he responded in the popular Union veterans’ newspaper The National Tribune. Veil was “quite sure that Mr. Thorp is mistaken,” and that at the time he was shot the general was in the woods “and it was not possible for sharpshooters to reach him.” Veil continued:
    To understand his [Reynolds] position more fully , his horse was facing the enemy, while the General turned in his saddle so as to be looking to the rear, the ball striking him directly in the back of the neck and just over his coat collar, so that when he fell from his horse and I rapidly glanced over his person I could discover no wound, the coat collar having covered it, leaving me under the impression that he had been struck by a spent ball and probably only stunned.
    The averment that the woods were occupied by Confederate sharpshooters, up the trees is all imaginary. The foliage was too dense to enable men to get a distant view and, then, they didn’t have time to get up the trees anyway, for our cavalry skirmishers were occupying the ground in front or beyond the house [McPherson house] and woods, when the General arrived on the ground. [Charles H. Veil, “Death of General Reynolds,” National Tribune, July 9, 1903.]

Detail from mid-July 1863 Brady photograph of the McPherson farm looking south to Herbst Woods. Note the mature nature of the woods and lack of undergrowth. NPS

    Within the next seven years, Veil wrote his reminiscences of the war for his family. These were edited and published in 1993 by Herman J. Viola, as The Memoirs of Charles Henry Veil (New York: Orion Books). Veil reminiscences were consistent with his wartime and 1903 accounts with two exceptions. He claimed now to have been the only person present with Reynolds when he was shot, and he wrote that the Confederates were so close that as Veil dragged the general’s body off they called out for the private to “drop him.” The latter may well be true since it is documented that Confederate soldiers were within 50 yards. But Veil’s 1864 letter to McConaughy is clear that he was not alone with the general when he was shot. This part of the reminiscences is purely the embellishment of an aging veteran seeking to place himself as the central actor in a dramatic moment of the greatest battle of the war. [Charles Henry Veil, “An Old Boy’s Personal Recollections and Reminiscences of the Civil War” GNNMP Library, Vertical File 5-Veil, Charles H.]

Herbst Woods c. 1900, showing the monument marking the approximate location where Reynolds fell. The monument was placed in 1886. NPS

    One fact that is clear from the Union accounts of Reynolds death is that the only Confederates that could have been responsible were those of General James J. Archer’s Alabama and Tennessee brigade. In the regimental files of Gettysburg NMP we have copies of several post-battle letters and numerous post-war accounts from veterans of this brigade. One of the more significant letters, for our purposes, is from Major A. S. Van de Graaff, of the 5th Alabama Battalion, to his wife on July 8, 1863. Van de Graaff’s entire battalion, consisting of four companies with a total of about 135 men, were deployed as skirmishers for the brigade, along with two companies of the 13th Alabama. Surely, had the major known that a general of Reynolds stature had fallen in front of his brigade, he would have claimed credit for it or at least mentioned it in his letter. There is not a word. Lt. Colonel S. G. Shepard, 7th Tennessee, as the senior surviving officer of the brigade, wrote the after-action report for Archer’s brigade on August 10, 1863. He too makes no mention of Reynolds fall. The only remark about Reynolds death is found in General Henry Heth’s after-action report, written on September 13, 1863, well after knowledge of Reynolds death would have reached the Army of Northern Virginia. Heth claimed that Reynolds had been killed by one of the first shells fired by Mayre’s battery of Pegram’s battalion! [A. S. Van de Graaff to Wife, July 8, 1863, GNMP Library, Vertical File 7-AL5Bn]
    In 1899 Ferguson S. Harris, formerly a captain in the 7th Tennessee visited Gettysburg to go over the field with the battlefield commissioners of the four year old national military park. Harris described his visit in an article published in the Lebanon Democrat on August 10, 1899. When the group walked to the spot where Reynolds was killed, which Harris wrote “could not have been seventy-five yards from our line,” one of the commissioners asked him if it was not a fact that a member of Company B, 7th Tennessee had shot Reynolds. Harris replied that “I had always understood it that way,” but he admitted that this information came not from his wartime experience but from a visit Harris made to Nashville during the city’s centennial (which would be 1879), where he told of an old soldier living in the neighborhood who claimed to have killed Reynolds. In March of 1900 Harris found the name of the “old soldier,” and passed this information to William Robbins, a member of the GNMP Battlefield Commission and a former officer in the 4th Alabama Infantry. The soldier was Samuel J. Duke, Company B, 7th Tennessee, and described as a “quiet & good man and now about 63 years old,” who owned a farm on the Cumberland River near Chestnut Mound. Service records confirm that Duke did indeed serve in this company and regiment, but his claim to be the man that shot Reynolds suffers on numerous counts. 1) In the existing wartime correspondence from Archer’s brigade, there is not a single mention of Reynolds, or of the death of any notable officer in their front on July 1. 2) Harris did not know who Duke was in 1899. 3) The 7th Tennessee was directly confronted by the 2nd Wisconsin at the time of Reynolds death. [F. S. Harris, “From Gettysburg,” Lebanon Democrat, Aug. 10, 1899; William Robbins journal, typescript, March 5, 1900 entry, GNMP Library]
    So who shot J. R.? We will never know what soldier pulled the trigger but the evidence we do have permits us to make the following conclusions. First, we can eliminate friendly fire as the cause of Reynolds death. As Veil makes clear Reynolds horse was facing the Confederates when a bullet struck him in the neck. Since the 2nd Wisconsin was facing the enemy and not Reynolds, they could not have fired the errant bullet, and the next regiment in the brigade, the 7th Wisconsin, had not yet appeared on McPherson’s Ridge. Second, he was shot by a member of Archer’s brigade. No other Confederate units were in the area at the time. Third, and finally, he was not shot by a sharpshooter. The action was extremely fluid at the moment of Reynolds death and as Veil noted there was no time for sharpshooters to set up in concealed positions. Based on Veil’s account and the sketch that accompanied Alfred Waud’s drawing of Reynolds death, the shot that killed Reynolds came from south of Herbst Woods which meant that the soldier was likely either a skirmisher or a member of the 13th Alabama, which occupied the right flank of Archer’s brigade, and which Archer ordered to move against the flank of the 2nd Wisconsin. This would account for why Confederate soldiers had closed to within 50 yards of Reynolds party when he was hit. Although Veil did not mention it, probably because he was consumed with getting Reynolds body off the field, was that these nearby Confederates did not pursue or fire upon him because moments after Reynolds fell the 7th Wisconsin appeared on McPherson’s Ridge immediately south of Herbst Woods and occupied the Confederates full attention.
    At the end of the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, after Ransom Stoddard, played by Jimmy Stewart, tells the true story of what happened the night that Liberty Valance was killed, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott indicates that he is displeased. “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott,” asks Ransom. “No sir,” responds Scott, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Mr. Scott’s adage has been applied countless times through the centuries in the recounting of historical events, particularly those events that stand out as prominently as Gettysburg. What really happened is often less interesting or exciting than what can be invented. John Reynolds being felled by a random shot or a bullet fired by a skirmisher is far less dramatic than if he is picked off by a sharpshooter in a tree hundreds of yards away. In the long and lengthy historiography of Gettysburg, we might revise Maxwell’s Scott’s line to, when the legend encountered fact, the legend often prevailed.

D. Scott Hartwig,
Supervisory Historian

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Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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12 Responses to Who Shot J.R.? Part Three

  1. Andrew Dalton says:

    Scott, I understand that there is some debate as to which regiment of Archer’s brigade occupied the right flank (13 Alabama or 1st Tennessee). What do you believe, and why?

    Thanks!

    • The Staff says:

      Andrew,

      I believe it was the 13th Alabama and base this on three pieces of evidence. Both E. T. Boland and W. H. Bird, of the 13th, in reminscences of the battle, wrote that they were on the right flank of the brigade. Third, the casualties tell the tale. The 13th suffered the highest losses in the brigade on July 1, losing 168 killed, wounded and captured. The 1st Tennessee ranked second with 109 casualties. The flank regiment in a brigade that is outflanked will always suffer the highest losses.

      Best,
      Scott Hartwig

  2. Great conclusion to the series!

  3. Scott B. Wood says:

    Mr. Hartwig:
    Thank you for this outstanding serial. I have read many of the supposed facts about Gen’l Reynolds’ death previously and learned much that was new to me through your article. I think the General’s sisters’ and Veil’s accounts to be closest to the truth and I think your conclusion is sound. Reynolds’ death was such a huge loss to the Union that day and I sometimes wonder how things might have been different had he not been lost and so early in the battle. Again, my hearty thanks.

  4. Steven J. Pacholyk says:

    Dear Scott,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your writings. The first days fight has long been a favorite of mine.
    Thank you for all you do in conveying your vast knowledge of these key topics. Your
    writings inspire and educate. It has been so
    many years since I wore the guides uniform at Gettysburg, but I have great memories of my
    Interaction with you and will always think of you as the last of the great Gettysburg Park
    Rangers. Thanks for all you do. I hope to see you in my many trips to the great battlefield !!

    Steven J Pacholyk

  5. Rob says:

    That was great. I guess Scott didn’t have time to create the poll though. Nevermind.

    Maybe we could have a final show of hands to see how everyone feels now? Everyone who thinks it was a sharpshooter say I…

  6. Aewl says:

    Very interesting article. Just today discovered that my great-great-grandfather served in Co. C of the 13th Alabama. He was Pvt. Marion E. Dunlap. I wonder if that company was one of the nearest ones to Reynolds?

  7. john frank sellers says:

    I, ve often heard it was the 13th Ala. Boys who were responsible. It makes sense as they were in position in front of Reynolds. My great grandfather(Lt. C.C. Sellers),and his two brothers Capt. Samuel sellers, and little brother Sidney were in co.A of the 13th. Sidney was captured at falling waters.

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