Jesse Reno’s death cost the Federals one of their best generals.
IT WAS AROUND DUSK on Sunday, September 14, 1862, when Maj. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s IX Corps, arrived at Fox’s Gap, near the summit of South Mountain. Darkness was already descending across the battle-scarred mountain, the roar of combat giving way to the piteous cries of the wounded lying on the slopes. For most of the day, Reno’s men had been in a vicious fight for control of the critical mountain gap not far from Frederick, Md. The survivors were now preparing to settle in for the night, some boiling coffee as others tended to the wounded. Hundreds of dead Confederates littered the ground, mute testimony to the battle’s intensity. Two Confederate brigades—under Brig. Gens. Samuel Garland and Thomas Drayton—had been wrecked, each suffering losses approaching 50 percent. Casualties in the IX Corps had been heavy as well, and now Reno, for the first time that day, made his way to the front, to see for himself the results of the Union soldiers’ efforts.
Reno passed behind each of the regiments on the front line, congratulating the men. He also met briefly with two of his division commanders, Brig. Gens. Jacob Cox and Orlando Willcox, inquiring why they had been unable to press their advantage further. Making his way to the cleared fields surrounding farmer Daniel Wise’s cabin, Reno saw the rookies of the 35th Massachusetts Infantry returning from a reconnaissance of the distant treeline. The Bay Staters had detected no Confederate activity to their front, but Reno wanted to be sure the field they had just crossed wasn’t occupied. He turned to Colonel John Hartranft, commanding the veteran 51st Pennsylvania, and directed him to move his men into the field just north of the Old Sharpsburg Road, which bisected the mountain at Fox’s Gap. “Take your regiment across the road and into that open field,” Reno told Hartranft, and “stack arms and let the men make some coffee.” As the Pennsylvanians set off, the 39-year-old general took out his field glass and peered into the twilight, in what would be one of the final actions of his life.
Born in Wheeling, Va., on June 20, 1823, Jesse Lee Reno had spent most of his youth in mountainous western Pennsylvania, after his parents relocated there. Interested early on in the military, Reno secured an appointment to West Point in 1842. Orlando Willcox, who would graduate from West Point a year after Reno and later command one of his divisions at South Mountain, described the future IX Corps commander as quiet and unassuming, though resolute and ambitious during his time at the Academy. But Jesse Reno also loved to joke around. IX Corps historian Augustus Woodbury described him as a “boy of quick parts and impetuous disposition, ready at all times for a fight or a frolic.” During his time at West Point, Reno accumulated 131 demerits, a few of them for laughing or being inattentive in the ranks. Still, Reno graduated near the top of the illustrious Class of 1846, ranked eighth out of 59 graduates.
Upon graduation, Reno was breveted a second lieutenant in the Army’s Ordnance Corps, and along with most of his classmates—including George McClellan, Thomas J. Jackson, Samuel Sturgis and George Pickett— was sent to Mexico. He distinguished himself in combat there, commanding a rocketry and mountain howitzer battery during General Winfield Scott’s campaign from the amphibious landing at Vera Cruz to the capture of Mexico City. Reno earned two brevet promotions for gallantry, one for the Battle of Cerro Gordo and the other at the storming of Chapultepec, where he was wounded and earned a commendation from Scott.
After the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Reno served briefly as a professor of mathematics at his alma mater, followed by a three-year stint at the Ordnance Bureau in Washington, D.C. There he fell in love with Mary Bradley Beanes Cross, whose maternal grandfather, Dr. William Beanes of Baltimore, had been held captive along with Francis Scott Key on the British ship Surprise during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in September 1814. Mary’s father, Colonel Trueman Cross, who served as General Zachary Taylor’s assistant quartermaster general, had been murdered in April 1846 during a scouting expedition near Fort Brown, Texas—one of the first casualties of the Mexican War. Indeed, news of his death had helped spark the outbreak of hostilities.
Reno married Mary late in 1853. Their marriage would be marred by tragedy; of their five children, only two lived to adulthood. Several months after the wedding, they settled in northeastern Pennsylvania, where 1st Lt. Reno served as the commanding ordnance officer at the Frankford Arsenal. A later assignment had him commanding ordnance under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston during the so-called Mormon Expedition of 1857.
In 1859 Reno was appointed commander of the Mount Vernon Arsenal near Mobile, Ala. The following year on July 1, 14 years to the date of his graduation from West Point, Reno was promoted to captain. During the secession winter of 1860-1861, he found himself caught up in the whirlwind of the developing national crisis. On January 4, 1861, even before Alabama officially severed its ties with the United States, Reno and his garrison of 18 U.S. soldiers were overwhelmed and taken prisoner when four companies of Alabama state militia scaled the arsenal walls. Reno was forced to turn over roughly 22,000 small arms and 150,000 pounds of powder.
Released from captivity, Reno was next assigned to Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He remained there until the fall of 1861, when he was called east, promoted to brigadier general and given command of one of the three brigades being organized to take part in an expedition to the North Carolina coastline, in an effort to further strengthen the naval blockade. He had been selected by his good friend General Ambrose E. Burnside, who would be in overall command of that expedition.
During Burnside’s seven-month operation, Reno helped lead attacks that secured the capture of Roanoke Island, New Bern and Fort Macon. By early April 1862, he had advanced to divisional command. With operations in North Carolina completed by the beginning of summer, Burnside and most of his expeditionary force were ordered to Virginia, where they reinforced General John Pope’s newly formed Army of Virginia. Officially designated the IX Army Corps, Burnside’s force fought valiantly under Pope at Second Bull Run. Although his two brigades sustained terrific losses, Reno garnered kudos for his skill in handling troops in battle.
Despite Pope’s army’s ultimate defeat at Manassas, he was effusive in his praise of the IX Corps division commander, saying: “I cannot express myself too highly of the zealous, gallant and cheerful manner in which General Reno deported himself from the beginning to the end of the operations. Ever prompt, earnest, and soldierly, he was the model of an accomplished soldier, and a gallant gentleman.” He added that Reno’s “force and manner” were “so bright and encouraging at all times, but most especially noticeable in the fury of battle, that it was both a pleasure and a comfort to see him.”
Following the debacle at Second Bull Run, President Abraham Lincoln turned once more to George McClellan, who immediately went to work reorganizing his forces and set off quickly in pursuit of Lee’s Confederate columns, which began crossing the Potomac River into Maryland on September 4. McClellan divided the army into three wings, placing Burnside in command of the right wing, which consisted of the I and IX corps. With Burnside’s elevation to wing command, Reno, as ranking officer, took his place at the helm of the IX Corps. Reno’s four divisions marched north from Washington before turning west toward Frederick, with the soldiers of his 4th Division— the Kanawha Division under Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox—the first Federal troops to arrive in the Maryland city. Lee’s entire army had traveled through Frederick a few days earlier, on its way west across South Mountain and into the Cumberland Valley beyond.
On September 13, while Reno was passing through Frederick, he was persuaded by one of the town’s most loyal citizens, 96-year-old Barbara Fritchie, to come inside her home for a glass of homemade wine. Before Reno left, Fritchie presented him with a large American flag that he placed in his headquarters baggage.
Meanwhile McClellan was preparing for action. Acting on knowledge garnered from a lost copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191, which spelled out the directions of march for the components of the Army of Northern Virginia, the Union commander was determined to “cut the enemy in two and beat him detail.” His plan was to send the bulk of his army west along the National Pike and across South Mountain at Turner’s Gap, to engage Lee’s “main body,” which McClellan believed was near Boonsboro, at the mountain’s western base. At the same time, Maj. Gen. William Franklin’s VI Corps was to punch across the mountain six miles farther south at Crampton’s Gap before turning south to strike Lafayette McLaws’ command on Maryland Heights, thereby lifting the siege the Confederates were conducting at Harpers Ferry. Reno’s IX Corps was to lead the way to Turner’s Gap.
By sunrise on September 14, the Army of the Potomac was on the move. Lee, caught off guard, sent orders to division commander D.H. Hill to hold Turner’s Gap at all hazards and directed Lt. Gen. James Longstreet to march his three divisions from Hagerstown to Hill’s support. As Lee scrambled to cope with the crisis, Union cavalry chief Alfred Pleasonton directed his horsemen to reconnoiter the ground and locate enemy positions. They detected a strong defensive line astride the National Pike below Turner’s Gap, but also discovered two other roads that crossed the mountain both to the north and south, through Frosttown and Fox’s Gaps, respectively. The plan was to secure these passes and make the Confederate position at Turner’s Gap untenable.
Pleasonton met the lead elements of the IX Corps as they approached South Mountain and directed them south to the Old Sharpsburg Road, which traversed the mountain at Fox’s Gap. General Cox, whose Ohioans marched in the forefront, notified Reno of this, and the IX Corps commander promised to send up the rest of the corps to his support. By 9 a.m., Cox’s men became heavily engaged with the North Carolinians of General Garland’s brigade, which had just gone into position to defend Fox’s Gap. Combat raged for the next 2½ hours, with Garland killed and his brigade cut to pieces. Cox gained the summit around noon, then halted to wait for the promised support.
During the ensuing lull, more Confederate brigades were directed to Fox’s Gap. At 3 p.m. the battle resumed. Orlando Willcox’s division entered the fray, inflicting tremendous casualties on the Georgians and South Carolinians of Drayton’s brigade. Losses in Willcox’s regiments were heavy, and after an hour of sustained action, they were relieved on the advance line by Samuel Sturgis’ fresh troops. Behind Sturgis marched Reno’s final division, two brigades under Isaac Rodman. As Rodman’s men went into position, Reno made his way toward the summit.
Reno had spent most of the day with Burnside, Pleasonton and McClellan near Bolivar, at the mountain’s eastern base. But as daylight faded, anxious for his men at Fox’s Gap to make one more determined push northward toward Turner’s Gap, Reno rode to the summit to talk with Cox and Willcox. After speaking with his troops, the general told Colonel Hartranft to take the 51st to the open fields north of the Old Sharpsburg Road.
Standing nearby was Captain Gabriel Campbell of the 17th Michigan. “Reno, who was about half the length of his steed in advance,” recalled Campbell, “was leaning forward peering steadily through his field glass, in order, evidently, to reconnoiter for himself.” Just as the 51st was moving into its assigned location, “there was a sudden fusillade—five or six shots in about a couple of seconds,” wrote Campbell. “There was at once commotion among the Reno horsemen, a dismounting and a catching of someone.” As Campbell soon learned, that someone was Reno, who had been struck in the chest. (Another account claimed that he was also hit in the thigh and groin.)
Confederate infantry—most likely from John Bell Hood’s division, which had just arrived in the treeline that skirted the open field where Hartranft’s men were then advancing—had no doubt opened fire on the mounted party, with one or several of the first “five or six shots” striking Reno. The sudden fusillade prompted return fire from the rookie 35th Massachusetts, which had taken up the position just vacated by the 51st. The skirmish erupted quickly, with the 51st caught in between. The Pennsylvanians, according to regimental historian Thomas Parker, were “getting shot down like dogs.” Order was soon restored within the 35th Massachusetts, and the men ceased fire. In front, the 51st now directed its full attention toward the enemy, “concealed within a thicket that skirted the field, only about twenty or thirty yards distant….It was now nearly or quite dark, but the men came to ‘front’ as if by impulse, and although the enemy’s position could not exactly be seen, yet their whereabouts could be near enough told by the blinding flashes of their guns.” The thicket was cleared, and the fighting at last came to an end.
While that action unfolded on the summit, Reno was being carried down the mountain, one of the last Union soldiers to fall that day. Reno’s staff placed the mortally wounded general on a blanket and proceeded down the Old Sharpsburg Road. Captain Campbell of the 17th Michigan lent a hand. “It was too dark to see Reno’s face at all closely,” remembered Campbell. “He seemed pale but perfectly composed. No one of us spoke. We bore our beloved commander silently, slowly, tenderly.” Medical staff bearing a stretcher intercepted the party, and Campbell noted that when they placed the commander “on the better resting place he looked up at us gratefully.”
Division commander Orlando Willcox, who had been friends with Reno since West Point, spoke briefly to him as he was being carried from the field. “Willcox, I am killed,” Reno stated, “Shot by our own men.” Reno had said that, Campbell explained, because he did not believe there were any Confederates so near his own men’s positions on the summit. Yet these few words, combined with the fact that Reno and his staff were caught between the fire of Hood’s men and the 35th Massachusetts, gave rise to the idea that the IX Corps commander had indeed fallen to friendly fire, a conception that persists to this day.
Writing more than 30 years later, Oliver Christian Bosbyshell, historian of the 48th Pennsylvania and a survivor of the fight, was still not satisfied that Reno fell to enemy fire. “[W]ho can say what bullets pierced him— friend’s or foes?…The little general was well-loved—his loss a great blow, the bitterness would have been lessened but for the lingering doubt of his having been killed by rebel shots.” But taking into account the eyewitness accounts of those nearest to Reno when he fell—including Captain Campbell of the 17th Michigan and Corporal Parker of the 51st Pennsylvania—it is most likely that Reno was in fact struck down by “rebel shots.”
The attendants carrying Reno put him down under an oak at the mountain’s eastern foot. Samuel Sturgis, a IX Corps division commander and another of Reno’s classmates, saw him lying there. “Hallo, Sam. I’m dead,” Reno said. At first Sturgis thought that Reno was joking, and responded, “No, no, general, not so bad as that I hope.”
“Yes, yes,” Reno replied, “I’m dead. Good bye.” It was later claimed that he added, “Tell the boys that if I cannot be with them in body, I will be with them in spirit.” Whether or not those were actually his last words, we do know Jesse Reno drew his last breath under that oak.
Jesse’s brother, Benjamin, who had been serving on his staff, escorted the general’s body to Baltimore, where it was embalmed. He then traveled with the remains to Boston, where Mary was living. At the funeral, held on September 19 in Boston’s Trinity Church, the slain general’s casket was covered with the flag presented him the day before his death by Fritchie.
On September 20, one day after Jesse Reno was laid to rest and three days after the Battle of Antietam, Ambrose Burnside issued General Orders No. 17, officially announcing his friend and comrade’s passing. “By the death of this distinguished officer, the country loses one of its most devoted patriots, the army one of its most thorough soldiers,” declared a grieving Burnside, “For his high character and the kindly qualities of his heart in private life, as well as for the military genius and personal daring which marked him as a soldier, his loss will be deplored by all who knew him, and the commanding general desires to add the tribute of a friend to the public mourning for the death of one of the country’s best defenders.”
Captain William Bolton of the 51st Pennsylvania recorded in his diary that Reno, “the intrepid and gallant solider and noble Virginian, died as he wished to die, dauntless as became his heroic character, ever prompt, earnest, and soldierly, he was the model of an accomplished soldier, and a gallant gentleman….” George McClellan, who visited the spot where Reno had fallen after the Battle of South Mountain, wrote: “The loss of this brave and distinguished officer tempered with sadness the exultations of triumph. A gallant soldier, an able general, endeared to his troops and associates, his death is felt an irreparable misfortune.” McClellan later added that “In General Reno the nation lost one of its best general officers. He was a skillful soldier, a brave and honest man.” But it was perhaps Alfred Pleasonton who said it best, commenting that with Reno’s loss, “a master-mind had passed away.”
John Hoptak, an NPS ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park and Antietam National Battlefield, is the author of The Battle of South Mountain and Confrontation at Gettysburg, among other books.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.