By John E. Carey
Many students of the Civil War and the battle of Gettysburg know the tragic tale of Major General John Reynolds. But not as many know that General Reynolds had a secret love named “Kate” that even the Reynolds family knew nothing about prior to John Reynolds’ death at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
In May, 1863, the Army of the Potomac suffered a stinging defeat at the battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. President Lincoln was fed up with his eastern army commanders.
He had already relieved Burnside after Fredericksburg and had tired of McClellan’s plodding pursuit of General Lee and the Rebel Army.
Lincoln’s advisors told him the most well regarded officer in the Union Army was John Fulton Reynolds, the 42 year old Pennsylvanian and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (just fifty miles from the battlefield at Gettysburg), Reynolds was frequently the subject of praise-filled words by his contemporaries.
McClellan wrote that Reynolds was “remarkably brave and intelligent, an honest, true gentleman.”
Reynolds was quiet, efficient and dedicated to the Union cause. Reviews of contemporary letters and diaries can uncover no negative words about Reynolds.
Frank Haskell called Reynolds “one of the soldier generals of the army, a man whose soul was in his country’s work.”
“General Reynolds obeys orders literally himself, and expects all under him to do the same,” wrote artilleryman Charles Wainwright. “General Reynolds is very different from Hooker, in that he never expresses an opinion about other officers,” he wrote. “I can get nothing out of him.”
Lincoln invited Reynolds to the White House and, although they met privately, many historians believe that Lincoln offered command of the Army of the Potomac to the taciturn Reynolds. Reynolds wanted unfettered control of the Army: a stipulation Lincoln would not allow.
A few weeks later, President Lincoln ordered the relief of General Joseph Hooker. On the night of June 27, 1863, General George Gordon Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac in Frederick, Maryland.
Meade had to immediately deal with General Lee’s invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He drew up a defense plan that included a line of troops known as the Pipe Creek Defense Line. This line stretched from Middleburg to Manchester, Maryland.
By July 30, Reynolds and his First Corps was in the middle of this line and nearing Emmitsburg, Maryland. By the evening before the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, Reynolds was at Emmitsburg with 80,000 troops.
The Union Army campsite covered the grounds of what is now the Department of Homeland Security’s National Emergency Training Center (then the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Academy), through the property of what is now the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine, and reached almost to what is now the Post Office.
An Illinois officer wrote that the weary soldiers found themselves near a Catholic Convent. “The beauty and tranquility of this place, so strikingly in contrast with a military tumult which suddenly invested it, are vividly remembered,” he recorded.
The Sisters of Charity made bread for their new flock.
General Buford and his cavalry were the first to encounter Lee’s Confederate forces just outside of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. He hastily scribbled notes to Reynolds, the commander of the Union Army’s First Corps, urging his rapid march to the battle site.
Buford was conducting a defense in depth – all the while slowing down the Confederates of General Henry Heath’s division but also executing a slow, organized withdrawal.
Buford was at the Seminary in Gettysburg when Reynolds and his forces came on the scene. In a famous exchange, Reynolds called out, “What goes, John?” Buford characteristically replied, “The Devil’s to pay!”
Reynolds entered the fray, quickly assessed the situation and made a report to his commander, General Meade. Reynolds sent a member of his staff, Capt. Stephen Minot Weld, to Meade with this situation report: “Tell the General that we will hold the heights to the south of the town, and that I will barricade the streets of the town if necessary.”
Personally directing his men after arriving on the field, General Reynolds shouted out, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods.”
But before long a Confederate sniper shot Reynolds who wheeled and fell from his horse.
The characteristically quiet Reynolds was dead – a tragic loss to the Union cause.
The Union Army quietly removed the body of its First Corps commander from the field by ambulance. Then, because his family lived so close to the battlefield, Reynolds remains and personal effects were sent home to his family. Among those effects, the Reynolds family discovered a previously unknown ring engraved with the words “Dear Kate.”
The Reynolds family never knew that John Reynolds had a secret love. General Reynolds had met and fallen in love with Catherine Hewitt in California in 1860.
When General Reynolds was then transferred to West Point, Miss Hewitt traveled back east with him While Reynolds taught at West Point, Catherine attended the Sacred Heart Academy near Torresdale, Pennsylvania.
General Reynolds planned to marry his ‘Kate,’ but postponed the event as the war erupted.
Kate vowed to join the convent if anything happened to her John.
After John Reynolds death, Catherine Hewitt met the Reynolds family and became like a daughter to the surprised Reynolds family.
Then she traveled to Emmitsburg and entered the Daughters of Charity community (convent). Miss Hewitt became Sister Hildegardi.
Kate kept in touch with the Reynolds family until 1868 when she left the convent. The sisters at Emmittsburg, according to Kate’s biographer and author of “Is She Kate?” Marian Latimer, found Kate “unsuitable for community life.”
Brooding, mourning for a man that was neither husband nor blood relative, Kate was alone in the world. She apparently gave up on her Catholic faith and returned to her first home in Stillwater, New York.
Catherine Mary Hewitt died of pneumonia in Stillwater, New York, in 1895. She is not buried in a Catholic cemetery.
Mr. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page of The Washington Times.