- Historic Sites
General Reynolds And “dear Kate”
His family and aides knew John Renolds as a bachelor whose only love was soldiering. The tragic aftermath of his death at Gettysburg revealed one of the Civil War’s most poignant romances
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
The establishment of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg was located only ten miles from the spot where General Reynolds had been killed. Here the sisters had maintained a convent and school since their founding by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. Reynolds and his First Corps had passed the convent grounds on their way to Gettysburg only a few hours before the General was killed; tradition has it that the sisters and some of the students knelt by the road and prayed for the soldiers as they marched by. Later the sisters went to Gettysburg to aid in nursing the thousands of wounded and dying taken from the field.
After Kate Hewitt entered the convent, Eleanor and Harriet Reynolds visited her regularly, and during the visits learned something of her background. She was just past twenty-four, having been born on April 1, 1839, in Oswego, New York. According to a letter from Eleanor to Will, “Katie … is an orphan, has a [half] brother who is so prejudiced against her religion that she cannot be much with him … He is a Baptist.”
Kate had gone to California in 1856 as a governess in the family of a G. R. Woodward. It must have been there that she met John Reynolds, then on duty in San Francisco. When Kate returned to the East in 1860, she entered the Academy of the Sacred Heart, Eden Hall, in Torresdale, where she became a convert to the Catholic faith.
In her eagerness to learn every possible detail of her fiance’s death, Kate asked the Reynolds sisters to bring the General’s orderly, Sergeant Veil, to visit her at the convent. Veil later wrote about the occasion: … I, of course, was glad to do so: and next day we drove over and, through the influence of the [Reynolds sisters]. I was allowed to enter the convent and see the young lady. Miss Hewitt was a very beautiful lady, highly educated … She made a good deal of me. I had to tell her all about the General, his last moments, and so forth, and she wanted very particularly to know if lie had left any last message. When we came to leave, she said, “Mr. Veil, I have a little token here I had for the General, some of my own work, and I want to give it to you as a token of remembrance of both of us,” and taking from the folds of her dress a small package, she handed it to me. I thanked lier for it and left. After we had left the convent I told the sisters of what had taken place, and on opening the little package which was nicely done up and tied with a ribbon, found a very beautiful embroidered handkerchief—the Coat-of-Arms of the United States, very beautifully clone—and I have the handkerchief and token to this day.
Eleanor Reynolds kept in touch with the Sergeant, and relayed to him news of Kate. Two years later, in August, 1865, she wrote: Miss Hewitt scuds you lier kindest regards and says she is much pleased at your selection of active duty—your late commander having always taken the active part.
She is very well and is much happier looking than when you saw her. Her position is a settled one and she feels at home in her duties … on Saturday she was permitted to go alone with us to the mountains where we spent the morning. It is a very great pleasure to sec so much of her …
Later, in October, Eleanor reported to Sergeant Veil that Miss Hewitt, “now Sister Hildegardis” (the Reynolds girls had helped her select the name), had been (quite ill but was well again. Three months later she wrote, “Miss Hewitt had gone to Albany [New York] and is teaching in a large school there that the ‘Sisters of Charity’ have recently opened. She passed through Philadelphia in the night but stopped in Baltimore for a few hours. Mrs. Gildersleeve [Jennie Reynolds] had the pleasure of seeing her there.”
For the next two years Eleanor Reynolds continued to keep in touch with Sister Hildegardis and to write to Sergeant Veil about their visits together. On May 6, 1866, she wrote: “Miss Hewitt is very well now and is stationed at Albany, teaching in one of their schools … She has not been well during the winter … I hope to go and see her in a few weeks. Her letters are few and short, but she always asks for you and desires to be kindly remembered.”
Later that year, on August 9, Eleanor wrote: “Miss Hewitt was well when I heard from her last … we expect to visit her in Albany in the fall.” And then on January 15, 1867, Eleanor wrote that Kate was well and that they had spent a week with her at Albany in October and had “cheered her somewhat.” She said that they tried to make Kate a yearly visit. Kate, for her part, apparently considered the Reynoldses to be her only family, and the feeling must have been mutual, lor Eleanor wrote: “I do not know which of us enjoy [the visits] more.”
There is one more reference to Kate Hewitt—and a final one—in the correspondence between Eleanor Reynolds and Sergeant Veil. On August 11, 1868, five years and a month since Kate Hewitt had kept her pact with her lost fiancé by entering the convent at Emmitsburg, Eleanor wrote: “Miss Hewitt is still at Albany—I hope we shall visit her in October. She is not strong and has a cough that is almost constant. She says she is happier as a ‘sister’ than she would be ‘in the world.’ ”
But the October visit to Albany never took place, for on September 3, 1868, for reasons unknown, Kate left the Community of the Sisters of Charity. She had made no vows, and was free to leave if she found the life was too much for her. The notation of her leaving doses the record of Catherine Mary Hewitt’s association with the Sisters of Charity.