Reynolds: Great Corps Commander or Famous for dying at Gettysburg?

mofederal

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I believe Reynolds was a great Corps commander. He was a fighter and he was competent, and he was very confident. He fought well on almost every battle he fought in, and above all he was both dependable and reliable. He took risks, and his audacity cost him his life at Gettysburg. Given three options by Meade, he quickly decided it would be best to choose the riskiest option, to trade his men's lives for time, and screen the enemy from the key terrain of Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Culp's Hill, and the road network that brought the rest of the Army to the field. He chose the ground for the battle, and he helped to secure the victory with the sacrifice of the 1st and 11th Corps in the early stages of the battle. While others won the battle, he secured the ground, thus forcing Lee to fight on ground not of his choosing. Most importantly about Reynolds was that he was not public with his politics nor with his opinions of other officers in the Army, a very rare trait in a political Army.
 

Belfoured

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Aug 3, 2019
Getting killed in battle always helps ones reputation as a leader of men. Reynolds was good, made a critical key decision at Gettysburg and then got killed. Given some of the AoP commanders 1861-1863 it was easy to look good.
Good point about the effect of being KIA/MW on a reputation. I also think that Reynolds gets full credit for the decision on July 1 when Buford should certainly share in it. I also think that too much weight is placed on deciding to defend higher ground/obviously good defensive ground. It's only a small exaggeration to say that a subaltern fresh out of West Point should have been able to see the positives of the ground at Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, or Malvern Hill. Speaking of Fredericksburg, that was Reynolds' only "full game" at this command level. He grades out at "C" - at best - IMHO. Had he acted more efficiently and decisively, the attack on the Union left may have completed its initial success. In hockey terms, he might have been another guy who "looks good getting off the bus". (It wasn't his fault that he had no real chance to prove himself at Chancellorsville)
 

Jamieva

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Reynolds reputation benefits from being killed. He was a solid commander in an overall average command team. Wasn’t he captured earlier in the war? His lure is sorta like other generals killed, based more on what coulda been than what was
Yes captured after Gaines Mill. He fell asleep and his command left him there. When he woke up he was surrounded by Confederates
 

CivilWarTalk

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Remember, don't start threads with just a link, that's a rule actually. You should be providing some commentary and your opinion to the question you asked. It's a discussion forum, this isn't Facebook.
 

neyankee61

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Darrin Wipperman gives a pretty account of Reynolds in his book "First for the Union". Wipperman believes that Reynolds may have been overrated. Solid but not outstanding
 

jackt62

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I must admit my lack of knowledge about Reynolds. His main historical reputation seems to be based on his presence at the opening of Gettysburg and his untimely passing. Wonder what his legacy and further career would have been like had he remained in command of I Corps that day and would have been able to avert the federal rout at all?
 

Jamieva

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For those that think he was a good/great corps commander, what is that based on? From what I see people site his work at the brigade and division level and carry that over to what he could have been as a corps commander, not what he actually was. If that is the standard then AP Hill would have been a great corps commander. It seems to me Reynolds is more of a what if than a complete picture of what he would do at the corps level.
 

rpkennedy

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I would describe John Reynolds as solid, dependable, courageous, aggressive, and held in high esteem by his peers. That said, I think that many do overrate him mostly due to his death at Gettysburg. He was one of the relatively few senior officers in the regular army when the war began (he was promoted to lieutenant colonel in May 1861) and was a commandant of West Point (1860-1861). In addition, he was offered the position of aide-de-camp to Winfield Scott which he turned down and George McClellan specifically asked for his orders to change which brought him to the Washington area and he was given a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserves. As a brigade and division commander he did well but as a corps commander he tended to focus too much on the small things rather than the bigger picture. At Fredericksburg, when Meade is in desperate need to reinforcements, Reynolds is personally directing the fire of a single battery rather than either supporting Meade or covering his retreat. At Gettysburg, he is killed leading a brigade forward and while it was a moment of crisis, this could have been handled by either the brigade or division commander. Where he was really missed was in post-Gettysburg campaigns when an aggressive corps commander would have been a real asset but Gettysburg gutted the most aggressive officers in the high command (Reynolds, Hancock, and Sickles). Having a John Reynolds commanding the Fifth Corps instead of Gouverneur Warren could have made a big difference.

Ryan
 

rupert822

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Maybe a trick question? I'm not sure our Civil War produced a Davout, Lannes, or a Massena, maybe a few Neys. But then again what would you expect in a conflict where Ben Cheatham was repeatedly advanced to corps command over Pat Cleburne.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
Reynolds has three battles and some campaigning between them as a corps commander.

Fredericksburg
At Fredericksburg Reynolds does very poorly. He is out of position and not in comms during the crisis of the battle on the Union left (during the 1st Corps assault) and had become hyperfocused in on directing the 1st Corps artillery instead of being ready to commit his reserve division. Since that was his specific job and he was not doing it, he failed and possibly cost the Union their best chance at a breakthrough at Fredericksburg.

Chancellorsville
At Chancellorsville Reynolds' command is "average". He does not make any particular error, but nor does he stand out; his corps does little if any fighting.

Gettysburg (campaign)
During the Gettysburg campaign the Army of the Potomac as a whole moved very fast. Reynolds' corps kept up and was able to move rapidly without becoming completely exhausted; this is a point in his favour.

Gettysburg (battle)
Reynolds was sent with the orders to pull back from Gettysburg, but rode at the front of his corps and got himself shot. This meant that Meade's orders went unfulfilled because the man who knew what they actually were was dead; this is dereliction of duty in a sense, in the same way as the Fredericksburg incident.


What comes out of this is that Reynolds may be a good fighting general at the head of a brigade or even a division, but he is not a good corps commander. A corps commander is a manager rather than a fighter - he should not be leading from the front, he should not be commanding individual batteries or sighting individual guns - and Reynolds errs repeatedly in ways which show he does not understand this.
 

ErnieMac

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The list of corps commanders killed or wounded at the front reads like a who's who of the Civil War. Are we to assume Jackson, Longstreet, McPherson, Hancock, Sedgwick and a number of others were poor corps commanders because they were leading from the front? I have questions about the capabilities of some of these individuals, but the presence of a corps commander at the front seems to have been fairly common.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
The list of corps commanders killed or wounded at the front reads like a who's who of the Civil War. Are we to assume Jackson, Longstreet, McPherson, Hancock, Sedgwick and a number of others were poor corps commanders because they were leading from the front? I have questions about the capabilities of some of these individuals, but the presence of a corps commander at the front seems to have been fairly common.
Not necessarily - it's not the only thing that matters about a commander - but it actually is a point against them, depending on the circumstances.

Jackson and Longstreet both got shot by their own men, which is essentially a mishap in what they could believe to be "safe" territory. They were not endangering themselves unduly.
Hancock, meanwhile, was knowingly exposing himself to danger as part of keeping his men steady. He knew about the risk, certainly, and judged that the benefit (of keeping his men steady) was worth it; he was within his own line of battle, and at a time when the main thing his corps needed to do was to withstand fire. This could be considered to be a mistake if the possible risk of losing the corps commander did not make up for the benefit.
Sedgwick, likewise, was within his own line. The nature of his death suggests that he was hit by what was essentially a random bullet; he did not unduly expose himself to danger.
McPherson was possibly at error for not having a sufficiently large escort. The area he was shot in had previously been "rear area" territory for the Army of the Potomac and he could believe it to be safe.


What Reynolds did was to ride at the front of his men during an advance into enemy territory (high risk) and there was no significant benefit that accrued from this. That's why it's a point against him.
 

Cavalier

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Jul 20, 2019
@Saphroneth I am not sure what to think about Reynolds. But as his being at the front, I do not agree. In my opinion it's a Corps commanders job to accomplish his orders and if that requires being at the front so be it. If he needs to be at the front to rally his men, or to get the picture of what's really going on, or to bust some a-- in order to accomplish his Corps goals then he would be remiss in his duties of he is not there.

Just an opinion of course.

John
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
@Saphroneth I am not sure what to think about Reynolds. But as his being at the front, I do not agree. In my opinion it's a Corps commanders job to accomplish his orders and if that requires being at the front so be it. If he needs to be at the front to rally his men, or to get the picture of what's really going on, or to bust some a-- in order to accomplish his Corps goals then he would be remiss in his duties of he is not there.

Just an opinion of course.

John
But what about Reynolds' duties at the time required him to be at the front?

This is the thing. A corps commander is a valuable commodity and they should have a very good reason for being exposed to danger - better than for a division commander and much better than for a brigade commander - and when Reynolds got shot he was riding at the front of the 2nd Wisconsin, which is perhaps an appropriate position for a regiment commander if that. That's not something you need a corps general for, it's why colonels exist, and 1st Corps has dozens of colonels but only one corps commander.

If the corps is making a do-or-die assault where the close presence of the corps commander to see the situation on a moment to moment basis is absolutely vital, then the corps commander being at the front of the advance might make sense. If the corps is deploying and advancing on the enemy when the primary responsibility of the corps commander is to manage the engagement before pulling back as ordered (which is what Meade's orders to Reynolds actually were) then his position is by no means at the front.

To put it another way, the job "coordinate 1st Corps" is a job which Reynolds has the responsibility to do and which nobody else does; if he becomes a casualty (and he does) then nobody else actually knows what Meade's orders are (and if he's decided to ignore them then nobody else knows that other decision he made either). The job "be at the front of the advance" is one which anyone above about the rank of captain can do acceptably.


Reynolds' problem is not one that's unique to generals in the Civil War, and it's basically the result of someone assimilating the role required by a colonel and then never re-adjusting to the different responsibilities at higher command. Part of what made Hancock "superb" is that he didn't lose sight of that coordination role (and in fact on some occasions "stepped up" and took over coordinating larger formations when someone else wasn't - during the Northern Virginia campaign there was a period when as a brigade commander he was actually coordinating 6th Corps).
 
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