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

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
It might be apropos to point out here that in a properly functioning corps the corps commander is at the nexus of information coming from his subordinates (brigade and division commanders). Sometimes getting an up close and personal view is necessary to do the job, of course, but it's an extremely poor use of a corps commander for him to go and find out whether a wood is occupied by seeing if he gets shot - that kind of up close and personal recce can be done by a cavalryman or staff officer, because, yes, they are less valuable than the general. Under normal operating circumstances in a properly functioning corps then the exposure involved by a recce should be minor because the enemy location should be known and they shouldn't go too close to it.

Similarly, if the corps general has to go up front himself and give a formation a good kicking to get them moving in the right direction, then that is a failure of command - either at the division and brigade level (who should have handled it first) or in the system of passing on orders from the corps commander (meaning the DCs haven't found out about the problem in the first place). The corps commander going up to sort it out himself is at best papering over the fact that there is a major failure going on, rather than being the right thing to do, and to make things worse if the CC then gets himself shot doing it then the most competent person in the corps (apparently...) has just taken himself out of the equation.

Leading the corps into battle in a do-or-die this-is-the-decisive-battle situation, where it could make the difference... is something which can make sense. But I don't think you can reasonably argue that the influence Reynolds was having on the 2nd Wisconsin by leading them (from the front, where he got hit) was decsive in the battle; the worst case if Buford is completely broken is that the Union line has to form on Seminary Ridge, which they did anyway.
 

ErnieMac

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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.
I must respectfully disagree on a number of these points. Jackson was reconnoitering in advance of Confederate lines when he was shot. The fact that it was his own men that shot him does not change the fact that it could questioned why a corps commander was conducting a reconnaissance mission. Reynold's is to be criticized for "assimilating the role required by a colonel", but Jackson is given a pass for performing the duties of a staff officer? A.P. Hill was killed in a similar circumstances though it was Federal troops that shot him. Sedgwick was within his own lines (as was Reynolds) but harshly berating nearby officers and men who were flinching because of the fire of Confederate sharpshooters when he was shot. Maybe he should have taken the hint.

Reynolds was in fact coordinating the positioning of his command. He had communicated his plan to Wadsworth who was positioning his troops and to Doubleday who had just arrived on the field. It seems you are assuming Reynolds was directing the placement of the 2nd Wisconsin. My reading of the situation is that the 2nd Wisconsin knew their business and Reynolds was shouting out encouragement as they passed.
 

Saphroneth

Major
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On Jackson - that's fair, and it is a point against him. I may have conflated his situation with what I read about Longstreet, or just outright misremembered.

On Sedgwick - my understanding is that they weren't close enough to the enemy for aimed fire to be directed at him and that the bullet that hit him was a "random chance" (not a bullet with his name on it, but a bullet with "placeholder" on it). If he was indeed killed by sharpshooter fire then that would also count as a point against him, though I suppose for consistency I should say that if he was in the beaten zone then he'd be in a bad spot anyway.

As for Reynolds, it seems pretty clear that he was far enough up front that he was shot; was his position right there actually vital or is it something Doubleday could have handled?
I was under the impression that it was only when someone went through Reynolds' pockets that they found his actual orders from Meade; if he'd communicated to Wadsworth and Doubleday his intent to disregard those orders and fight it out then that's fair enough, though he still should have been far enough back that he was in comms. Seminary Ridge actually seems like a good spot as it'd give him the visibility over the valley anyway...
 

ErnieMac

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As for Reynolds, it seems pretty clear that he was far enough up front that he was shot; was his position right there actually vital or is it something Doubleday could have handled?
I was under the impression that it was only when someone went through Reynolds' pockets that they found his actual orders from Meade; if he'd communicated to Wadsworth and Doubleday his intent to disregard those orders and fight it out then that's fair enough, though he still should have been far enough back that he was in comms. Seminary Ridge actually seems like a good spot as it'd give him the visibility over the valley anyway...
My understanding is that Wadsworth's two brigades were the first on the field, Cutler's brigade first followed by Meredith's Iron Brigade. Wadsworth was at the head of his division overseeing Cutler as the Iron Brigade was just arriving on the field. Doubleday had ridden ahead of his division, received his orders from Reynolds and returned to his division to bring it forward. Also keep in mind that Solomon Meredith, the Iron Brigade commander, was not the sharpest pencil in the box.
 

Cavalier

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@Saphroneth We may, (or may not), know in hindsight weather Reynolds was actually needed at the front but his perception of events as they were unfolding may have been quite different than ours, with 150+ years to study what actually transpired.

If I was his his superior I would find more fault with a commander who allowed the situation to deteriorate because he was not at the front than one who was killed or seriously wounded while attempting to fulfill his mission, regardless of the risk to himself.

Two commanders at Gettysburg whose contributions to their army remain a mystery to this day, at least to me, are Hill and Anderson. Maybe their presence at the front might have lead to a different result on July 2nd.

Anyway, I always enjoy your posts and have learned a lot from them!

John
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
If I was his his superior I would find more fault with a commander who allowed the situation to deteriorate because he was not at the front than one who was killed or seriously wounded while attempting to fulfill his mission, regardless of the risk to himself.
I think the problem here is twofold.

Firstly there's the idea that a commander who isn't at the front is allowing a situation to deteriorate. That's not really correct - a commander who's not in comms is one who can allow a situation to deteriorate.
It doesn't matter where you are, so long as you can (1) assimilate information, (2) make the appropriate decisions, and (3) get those decisions propogated to where they will be useful.
(Reynolds at Fredericksburg, suffice it to say, was not.)

Being up near the front does add efficiency to those steps, but it also raises the possibility you'll become a casualty - which leads to the second point.

A commander who is dead (or incapacitated by wounds) can no longer exercise effective command.
(Reynolds at Gettysburg was unable to command his corps because he became a casualty.)


I think the problem with Reynolds is that there's no strong evidence he was an effective commander, that there is at least one case of him completely screwing up (Fredericksburg) and that that same Fredericksburg behaviour means we need to consider the idea he was getting focused in on a "small problem" again at Gettysburg when he got killed.
Of course, perhaps he was extremely capable, but I think his death has led to the forgivance of the flaws in his command record and to the idea he was somehow the best Union corps commander - and if he was indeed the best Union corps commander then his life only becomes more valuable.
 
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Reynolds was not disregarding orders when he proceeded to Gettysburg. Meade clearly gave him discretion to fight. Nelson's article 20 years ago in Gettysburg Magazine suggests Reynolds took too great a risk on July 1. It's a great article and he made a good argument. I do fault Reynolds in First for the Union at Gettysburg not for taking a risk, but rather for not getting the First Corps moving fast enough. If he wanted to fight on July 1, his men should've been in town sooner than 10 a.m.

I also agree with Pula -- in his history of the 11th Corps -- that Reynolds failed to move the First Corps fast enough in early May 1863. I'm not sure the First Corps could've made it in time to save Howard's western flank, but Pula makes a sensible case that I agree with.

Reynolds was a non-entity at Fredericksburg, a day when his corps suffered 3,300 casualties. An uncoordinated attack by two of his divisions did not speak well for him being a great commander. I'm not sure anyone knows what the heck Reynolds was doing as the Pennsylvania Reserves were sustaining 1,800 casualties that day. He then wrote later how his men "let it slip" at Fredericksburg.

For the above reasons, I think Reynolds is overrated as a corps commander. He was a hero because he was killed in action, not because he was a great general.
 

Saphroneth

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Feb 18, 2017
Reynolds was not disregarding orders when he proceeded to Gettysburg. Meade clearly gave him discretion to fight. Nelson's article 20 years ago in Gettysburg Magazine suggests Reynolds took too great a risk on July 1. It's a great article and he made a good argument. I do fault Reynolds in First for the Union at Gettysburg not for taking a risk, but rather for not getting the First Corps moving fast enough. If he wanted to fight on July 1, his men should've been in town sooner than 10 a.m.
The point about his movement speed is interesting, though I think there's at least the scope to make allowances depending on how hard 1st Corps had marched on previous days. I know one of the marches in the Gettysburg Campaign is so good that in the GCACW series they actually had to change the start date of a scenario (to the day after that high speed march) because it wasn't really feasible to have it happen within the game rules.

As for Meade giving him discretion to fight, that's perhaps so, but what I mean in that discussion is that either Reynolds is planning on executing his orders as given or he's exercising his discretion - but if he's exercising his discretion (which is something a CC should do) then his going too far forwards and getting killed (without making clear to his subordinates that he is exercising discrtion) means that question is at odds. Imagine what happens if Reynolds has the intent to stay and fight, but after he's killed Wadsworth immediately goes through his pockets, finds the orders, and Doubleday then tries to withdraw from contact as per the orders.
It means that Reynolds' decision (if correct) is not being sustained because he's not told people about it.

Of course, the better approach here is probably to plan on not being killed...
 
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They marched a lot in the previous week, but only about five miles the previous day. The corps was much better off moving out sooner than later. Two extra hours of rest five miles from Buford while the cavalry was fighting for their collective lives? That doesn't make sense to me.

What is the order in Reynolds' pocket ordering him to not march to Gettysburg? He was not ordered to do that by Meade. I'm not sure what order you mean. The Pipe Creek Circular likely never made it to Reynolds, and that didn't require a retreat immediately. Doubleday wrote he was very interested in staying to defend the place after Reynolds was killed, because that's clearly what Reynolds intended, based on his understanding of his orders. Your What If scenario isn't aligned with the reality on the ground that morning.
 

Saphroneth

Major
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Feb 18, 2017
They marched a lot in the previous week, but only about five miles the previous day. The corps was much better off moving out sooner than later. Two extra hours of rest five miles from Buford while the cavalry was fighting for their collective lives? That doesn't make sense to me.
That's fair - I hadn't remembered offhand what their movement had been on June 30, and knew there was a long march but not when.

What is the order in Reynolds' pocket ordering him to not march to Gettysburg? He was not ordered to do that by Meade. I'm not sure what order you mean. The Pipe Creek Circular likely never made it to Reynolds, and that didn't require a retreat immediately. Doubleday wrote he was very interested in staying to defend the place after Reynolds was killed, because that's clearly what Reynolds intended, based on his understanding of his orders. Your What If scenario isn't aligned with the reality on the ground that morning.
My understanding is that Meade's orders to Reynolds were to extract Buford from the contact. If that's incorrect, I apologize.
Beyond that it's inference from how Meade sent Hancock to try and get Howard to pull 1st and 11th back (though Hancock concurred with Howard on seeing the situation).
 
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