the Battle of Gettysburg Resource Center
Who Shot General John F. Reynolds?
Union Major General John Fulton Reynolds was the highest-ranking officer of either side killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Speculation over who fired that fatal shot, and how and when it happened, has provided fuel for many theories since that opening battle on McPherson's Ridge began on the morning of July 1, 1863.
Sharpshooter on the ground, in a tree? Unknown skirmisher or infantryman? Aimed or stray bullet? Ask anyone, be it a Gettysburg buff, a Park Service Ranger, Battlefield Guide, or even someone with just a passing interest in the battle, and you're likely to get as many different answers. Watch the "Reynolds" scene in the Turner movie "Gettysburg" and you'll see the sharpshooter theory acted out by a determined Confederate, steadying his scoped rifle on a tree, aiming and firing at the mounted Reynolds as he urges his Iron Brigade into the woods along the ridge.
As to be expected, there are those who have taken credit for delivering the fatal shot, some even reluctantly. Infantrymen, sharpshooters, all have publicly announced they were the one who "spotted a high-ranking mounted officer," saw their chance, and brought the commander down. Let's examine some of those claims, and then evaluate their possible validity.Sharpshooter Sgt. Ben Thorpe of the 55th North Carolina One of the most famous claims of responsibility for the General's death was made very reluctantly, and not until some time had passed. Not until 1902, in fact. In the fall of that year Leander T. Hensel and others from the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, area happened to stop at a farm located near Satterwhite, North Carolina. The owner of the farm was Benjamin Thorpe, who struck up a conversation with the unannounced visitors. Thorpe had a lively and friendly discussion with the strangers until they mentioned that they hailed from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Suddenly Thorpe's demeanor changed. The visitors asked why Thorpe's mood had changed once they mentioned "Lancaster County." Thorpe explained that he knew the famous General Reyolds came from the area and was buried there. He went on to explain that he was a sharpshooter during the Civil War and had lived, for the past forty years, with the fact that he was the one who shot the man. Thorpe stated that it was some time before he learned who it was he actually shot, as the news of Reynold's death had spread like wildfire through both armies during that Battle. "...And when I did learn," he explained, "when I heard and read of what a great and good man and splendid soldier I had brought to death, I was genuinely sorry. I have been sorry ever since..." The Northerners listened closely to this fascinating confession, and knew they had to go public with it.
On November 7, 1902, residents of the Lancaster County area read with consuming interest an article that appeared in the Lancaster Intelligencer. In it was the account of the Northerners' chance meeting with farmer Ben Thorpe and his sorrowful confession of killing the General with his sharpshooter's rifle on the morning of July 1. The story related that Thorpe, a sixteen year-old, had perched himself in a cherry tree with his rifle near an old stone house when Captain Henry Webb, his superior, caught his attention. "Look to your right, at the battery on the hill, there," commanded Webb, "There's a general, take him!" Looking through his field glass, Webb estimated the range to be about 1,100 yards, and told Thorpe to take a shot based on that range. Thorpe took aim and fired too high. Based on a new range of 900 yards, Thorpe fired a second time. Webb thought the shot still too high. Taking aim for 800 yards now, Thorpe fired a third time. Webb, seeing the man fall from the horse through his glass, commended the young sharpshooter. "Well done, Thorpe, you got him!" That evening, Federal prisoners related the death of Reynolds, stating that a sharpshooter must have got him at extreme range.
Private John Hendrix, Co. F, 13th Alabama
Company F had been placed on the extreme left of the 13th Alabama regiment as they tramped through Herbst's Woods toward an unseen enemy. Suddenly, many blue uniforms appeared on their front. Private Hendrix saw, amongst the Yankees, a mounted officer and fired at him. Both Hendrix and another soldier at his side saw the officer fall from his horse. Shortly after the incident, Hendrix and 16 of his company were taken prisoner. As they were marched through Gettysburg under guard, Hendrix heard the news of Reynolds' death. "That was the man I shot!" exclaimed Hendrix to the soldier who had also seen Reynolds fall, a Private E.T. Boland. Boland returned years later to the Gettysburg battlefield and inspected the spot where Reynolds' monument was placed at the edge of the woods. "I inspected the ground," he later wrote, "and I can truthfully say at that spot John Hendrix shot a man off his horse." Another private in the 13th, W.H. Moon, went to the Reynolds monument in 1913 and wrote the following: "I had been under the impression that General Reynolds was shot by a Tennessean until I met Captain Simpson of Company F, 13th Alabama, at Gettysburg in 1913, and we went to the Reynolds monument, where he pointed to the place where he and his men were standing when he ordered them to "shoot the man on the horse" (only about 30 yards distant), which was promptly done... I have no doubt of his statement being true."
Sharpshooter Frank Wood (Claimed Unit - 55th North Carolina)
In a 1947 account, a Pennsylvanian was visiting North Carolina after the war and went to the stone quarries of Mount Airy North Carolinia, where the Pennsylvania Monument for the Gettysburg Battlefield was being made. He was informed that one of the blacksmiths working on the project was the sharpshooter who killed Reynolds. In fact, he was working on the very statue of Reynolds for the monument. The Pennsylvanian asked where this blacksmith may be found and paid him a visit, hearing the story of the incident. Sharpshooter Wood and Private Cox got separated from their company and found themselves in a railroad cut, right in the line of fire. They ducked under a rail fence for protection. A few hundred yards away they saw, on a horse, a mounted Federal officer of apparent high rank with gold braid and epaulets. He was standing in the saddle, shouting to his men, "Give them hell, boys, give them the grape!" Cox then asked Wood if he could shoot the officer at that distance. Woods thought he'd give it a try, aimed, and fired. The man fell from his horse, and Wood always assumed it was Reynolds and had not reason to doubt it.
The 1st Tennessee "Mad Dash"
The 1st Tennessee regiment proceeded through Herbst's Woods on the left flank of the Alabamians. According to Captain William Tolley of the 1st, Major Felix Buchanan led a group which made an "impetuous dash" at the enemy in blue, and in the melee, killed the General. There were no personal claims from the regiment taking credit for bringing down Reynolds.
Rosengarten's 'Overhead Sharpshooter'
After stating that the General was a "shining mark to the enemy's sharpshooters," Reynolds' aide Captain Joseph G. Rosengarten declared that Reynolds was "struck by a minnie ball, fired by a sharpshooter hidden in the branches of a tree almost overhead, and killed at once."
In his report after the battle, Confederate Major General Henry Heth attributed a shot from one of Pegram's cannons to the death of Reynolds, backed by a report by Captain E.B. Brunson of the battery. A commander of another artillery unit, Major D.G. McIntosh, also felt that one of Pegram's shots struck the General. After the war, Charles B. Fleet of Marye's battery made the same claim. Two cannoneers of the unit, Henry A. Strode and Henry G. Chesley claimed they aimed the fatal shot.
Amongst Union Officers, Lt. Colonel W.W. Dudley of the 19th Indiana, and Captain W.H. Harries of the 2nd Wisconsin, both of whom were on the scene, asserted that Reynolds was killed by one of Archer's infantrymen. Interestingly, both Major General Abner Doubleday and Colonel Chapman Biddle subscribed to the sharpshooter theory, but neither were present until after the General's death.
What Likely Happened
Let's begin first by stating what probably did not happen. Ben Thorpe's lifelong guilt and remorse was probably unfounded. This is one of the most persistent and famous of the sharpshooter stories. Thorpe's account is implausible for the officer being Reynolds on several accounts. For one, Reynolds was not posting a battery when he was shot. For another, it would have been impossible for Thorpe to even see Reynolds, if he was where he said he was (800 yards west northwest on the opposite side of the woods). Reynolds would have been screened by innumerable trees (look at the area today). No sharpshooter in Confederate ranks could have seen, let alone aimed at, Reynolds from a distance of 800 or so yards. More significantly, Thorpe himself backed off his claim just 2 years after the meeting at his farm, in 1903, that he ever shot Reynolds. He did insist, however, that he did knock some officer off his horse at that distance.
Hendrix's claim may be slightly more plausible, although he more likely was aiming at Lt. Colonel John R. Callis of the 7th Wisconsin, who had his horse shot from under him and was wounded in the side and hip in this area. However, it is not possible to deny the claim with certainty.
Wood's claim is easier to dismiss. To begin, there is no "Frank Wood" listed on the roster of the 55th North Carolina, which was the only North Carolina unit engaged at that time of the morning. Second, again, Reynolds was not posting or with an artillery battery when he was shot. And finally, Davis' men did not reach the fence adjoining the railroad cut until the battle had been progressing for at least 45 minutes, at which time the field would have been too blanketed with smoke to see Reynolds from that area, especially if he were just inside the eastern edge of Herbst's Woods.
As for the claim by the 1st Tennessee in their "impetuous dash" at the enemy, Captain Tolley's account is difficult to reconcile with the known facts, as the regiment had to skirt very swampy ground to proceed through the woods, and they joined the fight later than the 13th Alabama, likely reaching that point after Reynolds had already been shot.
Rosengarten's sharpshooter account has been persistent over the years, being as he was one of Reynolds' aides and present when the General was shot. Even famous historian Edwin Coddington accepted the account. Coddington was heavily influenced by the statement from the General's sister Jennie that the fatal ball struck Reynolds behind the right ear and traveled around his skull, lodging finally in his chest. A sharpshooter "in a tree, almost overhead the General" is very difficult to believe, however, for obvious reasons: None of Archer's men could have climbed up into and been posted in any trees as sharpshooters when their line was proceeding steadily through Herbst's Woods. There is also the problem of a sharpshooter in a tree could sight in on Reynolds' head when the General was mounted, riding just inside the woods, and had the line of the 2nd Wisconsin between him and the enemy.
All accounts of cannon fire causing the General's death are easily dismissed, due to the fact that all Federal reports show that it was a minie ball that caused the fatal wound, not shrapnel or any type of artillery ammunition. So what likely happened? Let's examine in more detail the events that took place during the time of Reynolds' death.
First, let's try to establish a likely range of time for the wounding. Most accounts vary from as early as 10 am up to after 11 am that morning. Nearly a dozen published accounts, and many historical works, place his wounding at about 10:15 am. However, it could possibly and more likely have been slightly later, about 10:35 to 10:45 am.
Brigadier General James Wadsworth is mostly responsible for the 10:15 am scenario. His post-battle report couples Reynolds' death with the opening of the hostilities of Cutler's and Davis' brigades, which occurred at about 10:15 am. Cutler's opening volley probably began a little later, perhaps as late as 10:30 am. Considering the fact that Reynolds led the 2nd Wisconsin into action after Cutler started firing, his wounding had to occur still later than that. Any claims for it to be prior to 10:30 are likely too early. Significantly, members of Reynolds' staff themselves reported to his family members that he fell between 10:30 and 11:00 am. This later time frame helps us place who was where and at what time.
The next factor to look at is the fact that the shot that hit Reynolds was not a lone, single, solitary shot. At the time Reynolds was hit, Sergent Charles Veil's horse and some of the General's other orderlies were hit by fire. As Veil recounted the following year: "The enemy still pushed on, and was not much more than 60 paces from where the Gen'l was. Minnie balls were flying thick. The Gen'l turned to look towards the Seminary (I suppose to see if the other troops were coming on). As he did so, a minnie ball struck him in the back of the neck, and he fell from his horse dead." Veil's horse was killed as soon as he dismounted, and other staff members took bullets as well. Veil and two others saw the General fall off the left side of his saddle and onto his face. Veil reached Reynolds first, turned him onto his back, and cradled his head in his lap. The three of them picked him up and began carrying him towards the Seminary.
These accounts from staff members themselves seem to point to Reynolds being hit by a volley from the front ranks of Archer's men. It may have been a stray shot, it may have been aimed, but this likely was the source. He was a tempting target; a mounted officer and staff, commanding at the front line. Archer's men would have easily seen him, and probably an unknown and unnamed Johnny Reb took aim at this tempting target and squeezed the trigger. No sharpshooter at several hundred yards could have seen him, and none were posted in the treetops. A front-line infantryman with both feet on the ground may not have even known he just killed the highest-ranking Yankee on the field.
We may prefer the glorious, dramatic tale of a trained sharpshooter, with a long brass scope on his heavy target rifle, taking aim at this dashing mounted officer and bringing his command to a close. It seems more "romantic" and fitting that way. If Reynolds must die leading his men to glory, it seems that we must elevate the scenario to this Hollywood ideal. He was one of the Union's best and most-respected Generals, a bright future ahead of him, and was offered the command of the Army of the Potomac before it was thrust upon George Meade, whom Reynolds had recommended for the position when he himself refused it. But when we consider the man, who he was and what he stood for and how he died, we must recognize his own personal decision to press the fight on those ridges west of Gettysburg; and it was this very aggressiveness that led him to be at the head of his troops, exposing him to such deadly danger. Reynolds, by being at the front line, set an example for his volunteer troops. Reynolds was probably also eager to defend his home state and drive the enemy from it. Whatever the General's motives were, there was no need for him to have been so close to the front lines, in the midst of the shooting, when he could have just as easily, and much more safely, directed the battle from the safety of the Seminary area. Regardless of the Hollywood ideal, regardless of the images of the well-trained sharpshooter holding his breath and taking aim, it is much more fitting that a common infantryman may have brought the General's life to a close. For that is what Reynolds was at heart; he was no shirker, nor a coward. He was a brave front-line officer who led his men by example into the most desperate of fights. He wouldn't ask a man to do what he wouldn't do himself. That is the quality of the greatest of leaders.
"Forward, forward, men! Drive those fellows out of those woods! Forward! For God's sake forward!"
For excellent treatments of Reynold's life and death, see "For God's Sake, Forward!" by Michael A. Riley, "Morning at Willoughby Run" by Richard S. Shue, and "Gettysburg: July 1" by David G. Martin.