President Lincoln Appoints General John F. Reynolds, Whose Actions Secured the High Ground at Gettysburg, Including the Iconic Little Round Top, and Saved the Day for the Union

Reynolds selected the site of the battle, ensured it would be fought, and would be the highest ranking Union officer killed at Gettysburg

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In a document also signed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln also names General William Barry, Sherman’s artillery chief who was with him through the campaign through Georgia and March to the Sea

In June 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee marched north into Pennsylvania, knowing the move would draw the...

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President Lincoln Appoints General John F. Reynolds, Whose Actions Secured the High Ground at Gettysburg, Including the Iconic Little Round Top, and Saved the Day for the Union

Reynolds selected the site of the battle, ensured it would be fought, and would be the highest ranking Union officer killed at Gettysburg

In a document also signed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, Lincoln also names General William Barry, Sherman’s artillery chief who was with him through the campaign through Georgia and March to the Sea

In June 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee marched north into Pennsylvania, knowing the move would draw the Union’s Army of the Potomac up to meet him. There, in the north, Lee was certain, a major victory would destroy the Union’s main army and the Union cause, all at one stroke. It was a very plausible hypothesis, as morale in the north would have collapsed. But instead the victory – at the battle of Gettysburg – went to Union forces, and it was that victory that saved the Union. And that battle, the greatest of the Civil War, happened because General John Reynolds decided to make it happen.

In early June 1863 President Lincoln offered Reynolds command of the Army of the Potomac, but Reynolds declined. Later that month, Reynolds was in command of the three corps (First, Third, and Eleventh) comprising the left wing of the Army of the Potomac as it advanced north towards Pennsylvania to meet Lee.

On the morning of July 1st, General John Buford’s Union cavalrymen were deployed in defensive positions on the northwest side of Gettysburg and engaged Confederate forces under the command of General Henry Heth as they advanced towards the town. The dismounted cavalrymen fought a delaying action and waited, hoping for the rest of the Union army to arrive. Buford sent word of the fighting to Reynolds. Reynolds immediately determined to ride in advance of his troops to meet with Buford and examine the situation and ground at Gettysburg. It proved a crucial decision.

On the way to Gettysburg Reynolds encountered civilians fleeing south on the Emmitsburg Road, describing fighting ahead. When he soon learned the Rebels were advancing on the Chambersburg Pike, Reynolds hurried to the Lutheran Seminary, west of town, and found Buford. Reynolds reined in at the seminary’s tower, asking, “What’s the matter, John?” to which Buford shouted, “There’s the devil to pay!” He filled Reynolds in, saying that his outposts were being driven in by Confederate General A.P. Hill’s Corps, James Longstreet’s Corps was in Hill’s rear, and Richard Ewell’s Corps was north of Gettysburg. This meant that up to 60,000 Rebels were approaching on the pike, with 30,000 more north of town. Reynolds had only a 3,500-man division within an hour’s march. The rest of the 1st Corps would not arrive before 11 a.m.; the 11th Corps not until early afternoon. He surveyed the terrain from the tower, saw the high ground around offered by Cemetery Hill and the long ridge connecting it to the Round tops, and recognized it provided a fine defensive position. He was impressed that if conditions could be managed properly, this could be the perfect site for a Union/Confederate confrontation. But he needed to make an immediate decision on what to do.

Reynolds’ had three options. First, he could withdraw Buford and the 1st Corps – retreat – and concentrate them with the 3rd and 11th Corps above Emmitsburg—the safest option, though ceding the initiative to the enemy. This meant defeat, and he flatly refused to do it. Second, he could have Buford and his own oncoming units make for higher ground on and around Cemetery Hill. This was the best defensive terrain in the area, but it left the sparse Union forces at risk of being overwhelmed by the hugely superior Confederate force, which would then hold the high ground and would be free to avoid a battle or choose the ground if they wanted one. Third, he could give battle now – engage the Rebels head on, trading men for time. This was the riskiest option, as it could lead to all his forces being exposed and overwhelmed. Buford argued for the latter option nonetheless, wanting to actively thwart the concentrated enemy advance to Gettysburg, and secure the high ground to the south, as the five corps of the Army of the Potomac arrived to support and occupy the best terrain. Reynolds accepted Buford’s recommendation, and chose option three, thus selecting the site for the battle of Gettysburg, ensuring it would be fought, and creating conditions designed to allow Union forces to seize the high ground in maintainable numbers once they arrived. Almost surely General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, would not have chosen it had he been there to decide. Reynolds then sent off a note to Meade reading, “I will fight [the enemy] inch by inch, and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him aback as long as possible.”

For reaffirming Buford’s advice and selecting option three, the Army of the Potomac’s Chief of Artillery Gen. Henry Hunt later wrote, “He [Reynolds] had opened brilliantly a battle which would require three days of hard fighting to close with victory.”

Reynolds then directed the deployment of the arriving Union regiments. The two brigade First Division of the First Corps were the first Federal units to arrive. His Iron Brigade clashed with the Tennessee and Alabama troops of Rebel General James J. Archer’s brigade in the Herbst Woods. Reynolds was in the thick of the action mounted on his horse, issuing orders, just east of the woods. As the 2nd Wisconsin rushed past Reynolds into the woods, Reynolds shouted “Forward men, forward, for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods.” The two sides blasted away at each other with devastating effect. Reynolds, in his hazardous forward position, was hit in the back of neck by a bullet and killed instantly. He was the highest ranking Union officer killed in the battle.

William F. Barry was Chief of Artillery under General George B, McClellan, and in that post organized ordnance for the Army of the Potomac during the Peninsular campaign, taking part in the battles there. After later supervising forts and ordnance surrounding Washington, D.C., Barry became Chief of Artillery under General William T. Sherman, serving with him in Georgia, on the March to the Sea, and in the Carolinas campaign.

Autograph letter signed, Executive Mansion, Washington, August 20, 1861, to Secretary of War Simon Cameron, appointing both Reynolds and Barry. “General McClellan requests that John F. Reynolds and William F. Barry be appointed brigadier generals of volunteers; and so let it be done.” Below Cameron has added, “Let it be done. S.C.”

This is the most important Lincoln military appointment letter we have had in all these decades, with both Reynolds and Barry.

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