December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
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.
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.
What happened then? Did Kate go back to “the world” and marry, and thus change her name? Or did the constant cough that Eleanor mentioned lead to her early death? Extensive inquiries have supplied no answers. All that is known is that when Eleanor Reynolds wrote to Sergeant Veil on February 3, 1870, she made no mention of his commander’s fiancée, the “Dear Kate” of General Reynolds’ ring.