General Reynolds And “dear Kate”

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Very early on the morning of July 1, 1863, on a ridge in southeastern Pennsylvania, one of history’s pivotal battles was about to begin. A division of Confederate infantry heading east on the Chambersburg Pike toward the town of Gettysburg stumbled into a body of Union cavalry; a few shots were exchanged, lines were formed, and the great struggle was joined. Not long afterward Major General John Fulton Reynolds, bringing up the main body of the Union Army’s First Corps to support his cavalry, was struck in the back of the head and killed by a Rebel sharpshooter’s Minié ball.

The death in battle of a professional soldier, even one of so high a rank, is not remarkable. But this soldier was someone quite special, and the subsequent disclosure of his secret engagement to a handsome and unusual young woman—an engagement so abruptly and tragically terminated—makes his passing one of the most poignant stories of the Civil War.

The sharpshooter’s accuracy imposed a fearful loss on the Federal Army, for John Reynolds was one of its most promising, efficient, and popular officers. “His death affected us much,” a subordinate wrote, “for he was one of the soldier generals of the army.” Only a month before, he had been offered command of the entire Army of the Potomac by President Abraham Lincoln. Fearing political interference, he had declined the post, and it had been given to Major General George Gordon Meade, Reynolds’ junior in rank and service. Meade immediately appointed Reynolds to the command of his left wing, composed of the First, Third, and Eleventh Corps. Thus, John Reynolds, instead of being at Union headquarters back at Taneytown, Maryland, on July 1, 1863, as he might have been, was on the skirmish line at Gettysburg, directing the disposition of front-line troops.

As Reynolds fell from his horse, his orderly, Sergeant Charles H. Veil, rushed to his side. He found that the General had been killed instantly. Jn loosening the collar of Reynolds’ military blouse, his aide, Major William Riddle, discovered around the General’s neck a silver chain from which hung a Roman Catholic medal—Reynolds was a Protestant—and a gold ring in the form of clasped hands. Inside the ring were inscribed the words, “Dear Kate.” In collecting the dead man’s elicits, Veil and Riddle came across several letters sent to him from Torresdale, Pennsylvania, and signed “Kate.” They noticed also that his West Point ring, always a treasured possession, was not on his finger.

Who was Kate? As far as John Reynolds’ family and friends had known, the General at forty-two was a confirmed bachelor, dedicated single-mindedly to his profession. Ever since he entered West Point in 1837 he had kept up a voluminous correspondence with his family, especially with his beloved sisters; but none of his letters contained a hint of a serious interest in any particular young woman. Now his death, after twentysix years of austere military service, had revealed an unknown “Kate,” to whom he was evidently deeply devoted.

While the battle raged on, the General’s body was taken to the home of his sister Catherine (Mrs. Henry D. Landis) on Spruce Street in Philadelphia, there to lie in state until the public funeral services, scheduled for July 4 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the family’s home town. On the morning of July 3, when the battle was reaching its climax one hundred miles away, a young woman came to the house on Spruce Street to inquire if “Miss Hewitt” could view the remains. Eleanor Reynolds, hearing the question, went to the door and asked, “Is it Kate?”

It was indeed, and Eleanor and Harriet Reynolds greeted her warmly. Catherine Mary Hewitt—for that was the stranger’s full name—and the Reynolds family got along splendidly from the start. “She seems to be a very superior person,” wrote Jennie Reynolds Gildersleeve to her brother Will, a captain in the United States Navy. “We all regret that he [the General] had not told some of us about her, and that we had [not] known her, yet are happy she came and had all the comfort we could offer her.”

While the introductions were taking place Kate maintained her composure, but on seeing the body she broke down and wept. She explained that she had hesitated to come to Mrs. Landis’ home because she knew no one of the family, but that she could not resist the wish to see John again. She returned in the evening to ask if she might sit by him; she and Eleanor shared the night-long vigil.

Eight days after the burial in Lancaster, Kate Hewitt applied for admission to the Saint Joseph Central House of the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland. This was, she said, part of the plans that she and John had made for their future. If all hail gone well, they were to have been married after the war and to have gone on a European honeymoon. But they had foreseen the possibility of tragedy: in the event of General Reynolds’ death, they had agreed that Kate would become a nun. “Kate had his consent to enter a religious convent should she lose him,” Jennie wrote to Will, “and now she intends to do it as the world has no interest for her now … [Kate] had given him first to God, then to his country, and then to herself. She said, ‘To him f stand third.’ ”

The whole chain of events had been a terrible shock to the Reynolds family. The loss of their beloved brother, the revelation of his secret engagement to Strange young woman who was a Catholic, and, finally, the entrance of their once-intended sister-in-law into a religious order were enough to throw an ordinary family oft balance. But the Reynolds family was not an ordinary one; they rallied magnificently and took Kate to their hearts.