COVID-19 INFO • Vaccine REGISTRATION • COVID-19 Incident REPORT
Main Menu

“A gallant soldier, an able general, endeared to his troops and associates”- The Life of Major General Jesse L. Reno

            “A gallant soldier, an able general, endeared to his troops and associates”- The Life of Major General Jesse L. RenoBy Tim Ware, George Tyler Moore Center Administrative Assistant

Quickly an orderly comes back leading several horses. To my inquiring “what happened?” he answered, “Reno’s shot.” Immediately men bearing the General on a blanket follow. They pause as they meet me, and are glad of a little assistance in carrying the middle of the blanket on the right side, which duty fell to me. It was too dark to see Reno’s face at all closely. He seemed pale but perfectly composed. No one of us spoke. We bore our beloved commander silently, slowly, tenderly. – Captain Gabriel Campbell, 17th Michigan Infantry to Ezra Carmen, 1899                   

Major General Jesse Lee Reno, a native of Virginia, came from humble beginnings in Wheeling, Virginia, today West Virginia. An 1846 graduate of West Point, Reno was a career U.S Army officer rising to the rank of Major General before meeting his demise on the slopes of South Mountain in September 1862. In their respective official reports, Confederate General Daniel H. Hill describes Reno as a “renegade Virginian” and Major General Ambrose Burnside lamented the country lost “one of its most devoted patriots.”[1] Largely forgotten except by the most dedicated students of the Civil War, who was Jesse Reno?

                                                      Early Years and Pre-Civil War

            On June 20, 1823, in Wheeling, Virginia, Lewis Thomas and Rebecca Reno welcomed into the world their third child, a boy, and named him Jesse Lee Reno. With a few years of his birth, the Reno family will move to Franklin, Pennsylvania in the northwestern part of the state where Lewis Reno will open a hotel to take advantage the economic boom that started with an extension of the Erie Canal into the area.[2] Spending his formative years in Pennsylvania, the young Jesse Reno will excel in school. His school accomplishments, and a little luck, garner Reno an opportunity of a lifetime. In 1842, Jesse Reno receives an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point and graduates in 1846 eighth in a class of 59 that included future Civil War generals, Darius Couch, Samuel D. Sturgis, and Thomas J. Jackson, George Pickett, and George B. McClellan.

            Upon graduation, Jesse Reno is commissioned as a brevet second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps. His first assignment is as an assistant ordnance officer at the Watervliet Arsenal in New York. However, war with Mexico means this assignment is short-lived and Reno is given command of a rocketry and mountain howitzer battery.[3] Fighting in Mexico with General Winfield Scott’s army, Reno will be cited twice for “gallant and meritorious conduct” for actions at the Battles of Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. Following the American victory in Mexico, Reno is given leave and returns to Erie, Pennsylvania to recover from wounds received at the Battle of Chapultepec.

             Following the war with Mexico, the early 1850s prove to be quite eventful for Jesse Reno. In his professional career with the United States Army, he will serve in various different assignments teaching for a period of time at West Point and serving as a member of various ordnance boards including as assistant to the Ordnance Board in Washington, D.C., conducting a topographical survey for a road from the Big Sioux River to Mendota, Minnesota. Personally, it was during this time, while serving in Washington, D.C. that Lieutenant Reno met his wife Mary Cross. The couple will marry on November 1, 1853 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.[4] In 1854, the young Reno and his wife move to the Philadelphia where Jesse Reno had been assigned as the assistant ordnance officer at the Frankford Arsenal where he will serve until 1857 when he is ordered to join Albert Sidney Johnston’s Utah Expedition.[5] Reno will serve in Utah until 1858 when he returns to the Frankford Arsenal.

            While Lieutenant Jesse Reno was experiencing growth in his professional career and in his personal life, the country he is serving finds itself unable to prevent a sectional crisis. Various legislative actions will look to prevent the crisis but each only buys time for a hopeful compromise. In 1859, on the eve of an incredibly consequential presidential election, Jesse Reno is given command of the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama.

                                                                       The Civil War

            Arriving at the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama, Jesse Reno, newly promoted to captain, took command of the small but important post. The arsenal served as the point where manufactured parts shipped to the arsenal were assembled into functioning weapons and stored. The storage of these weapons of war will make the arsenal a target in the secession crisis. On December 20, 1860, David F. Jamison, President of the South Carolina Secession Convention declared, “ The Ordinance of Secession has been signed and ratified, and I proclaim the State of South Carolina an Independent Commonwealth.”[6] News of South Carolina’s secession speed across the landscape and other southern states began contemplating their own secession. In Alabama, Governor Andrew B. Moore ordered state troops to seize the arsenal. On the morning of January 4, 1861, four companies of Alabama troops scaled the walls of the arsenal and captured the arsenal. The capture of the arsenal was such a surprise that Reno later reports, “they had scaled the walls and taken possession before I knew anything about the movement.”[7]

            Following the loss of his post at Mount Vernon, Reno is ordered to Leavenworth Arsenal at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He will remain at this post until the fall of 1861 when he will be promoted to brigadier general and assigned Ambrose Burnside’s command that was forming for an attack on the North Carolina coast. Taking command of a brigade of men from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, Reno will participated in northern victories at the Battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern and he will lead an unsuccessful raid on the Dismal Swamp Canal. Overall the expedition was a success and in July 1862, Reno will be promoted to major general. In August, two divisions of Burnside’s command, now christened as the 9th Corps, will be dispatched to John Pope’s Army of Virginia in northern Virginia. These two divisions are placed under the command of Jesse Reno and will take part in the Second Battle of Manassas in late August 1862.

            Entering into the battle on August 29, battering the Confederate forces of Stonewall Jackson in his sector, and meeting some success, Reno’s divisions will provide cover for retreating Union forces following the devastating flank attack by James Longstreet’s Confederates on August 30. Reno was clearly in his element, providing a sense of calm and steadfastness in a sea of chaos. As one of his subordinates, Orlando Willcox, remarked two decades after the battle:

        “Look upon the picture, I pray you, for a moment. A man shorter than Grant, about the height of Sheridan, with whom he was most comparable in stature and equally unpretending, quietly sitting on horseback on the hill around which the battle rages. The last rays of the sun shines upon his calm, determined face. Nothing but the flash of his eye and a few sharp phrases falling from his lips denote the man of action and concentration of force. Right and left troops are giving way and batteries limbering up and fleeing, by him unnoticed, his attention fixed upon his own command. The enemy is surging over the field like waves of the sea, yet Reno sits like a rock, and there the proud waves are stayed.”[8]

With Pope’s army in retreat towards Washington, Reno will lead a skillful rearguard action at Manassas and again at Chantilly. By early September 1862, Reno is back in Washington, D.C. waiting with the rest of the Union Army to get back at the victorious Confederates. He will not wait long.

                                                       1862 Maryland Campaign

            On September 4, 1862, the Confederate division of Daniel H. Hill crossed into Maryland marking the first major excursion of Confederate forces north of the Potomac River.[9] On that very same day, Jesse Reno’s two 9th Corps divisions are encamped near Rockville, Maryland as the Union army was reorganized by George McClellan and a new Army of the Potomac emerged. After three days of reorganization, Reno is placed in command of the entire 9th Corps following the elevation of Ambrose Burnside to command of the left wing of the army consisting of his (Burnside’s) 9th Corps and Major General Joseph Hooker’s 1st Corps. Bolstered by the Kanawha Division of Brigadier General Jacob Cox, Reno’s four infantry divisions, cavalry detachments, and artillery numbered over 13,000 men.[10] By itself, it was a powerful force. Combined with the full might of the Army of the Potomac, Reno and his corps are prepared to find and force the Confederates off of northern soil. On September 5, 1862, McClellan begins issuing orders to pursue the Confederates. Reno’s corps is to march from their encampments to Frederick, Maryland via Damascus and New Market.[11]

            Arriving in Frederick on September 12, Reno’s divisions narrowly miss the Confederates who had vacated the town just two days prior. Staying in Frederick for one night, Reno leaves the town the following day and has an encounter with Barbara Fritchie. Fritchie is well known for reportedly mocking Confederates with the national flag as they marched out of Frederick. Reno’s encounter with the widow is much more cordial and after a brief visit, Reno his gifted the very flag that Fritchie had waved in the faces of the Confederates. A flag that he passed to his aide-de-camp, his brother, Frank Reno.[12] The same day that Reno leaves Frederick, a small piece of paper is found by some Indiana soldiers wrapped around three cigars. What they had in their hands were orders detailing the Robert E. Lee’s plan for Confederate movements in western Maryland. With this information, McClellan orders his cavalry and Reno’s corps to march towards South Mountain. By the evening of September 13, Reno and his corps are encamped near Middletown, Maryland. Unaware of what awaited, Reno and his corps go into camp with the dark slopes of South Mountain looming in the distance.

            South Mountain is not a singular mountain but a long ridge line that is an extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is an incredibly rugged landscape marked by massive boulders and impenetrable undergrowth with few gaps allowing for passage over the mountain. In western Maryland, the main thoroughfare is the macadamized National Pike that crosses South Mountain at Turner’s Gap. Other crossings in the area of Turner’s Gap included the Frostown Gap about a mile north and Fox’s Gap about a mile south.  In mid-September 1862, the Confederate division of Major General Daniel H. Hill is tasked with watching these mountain gaps in case McClellan’s army moved with uncharacteristic speed. On the morning of September 14, only one of Hill’s four infantry brigades are posted on South Mountain, holding a strong position at Turner’s Gap. On a morning reconnaissance towards Fox’s Gap, Hill reported hears the sound of wagon wheels in the direction of the gap and after an artillery shell bursts in the vicinity, Hill races back his headquarters at Turner’s Gap. Upon arrival, the brigade of Brigadier General Samuel Garland arrives and he is immediately ordered by Hill to hold Fox’s Gap.[13] Garland’s brigade is in position sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 am.

            In the camps of Jesse Reno’s 9th Corps, Sunday September 14, 1862 dawned with a clear sky and Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasonton pushing towards Turner’s Gap. To support the Union cavalrymen, Reno orders the Kanawha Division, Jacob Cox commanding, to move towards South Mountain. Pleasonton, facing a stiff resistance on his reconnaissance towards Turner’s Gap, orders the supporting infantry to move to the left, up the Old Sharpsburg Road towards Fox’s Gap.[14] Moving up the eastern slope and deploying in line of battle, Cox reported that it “became evident the enemy held the crest in considerable force.”[15] With his division in position, Cox orders the advance. Around 9:00 in the morning, the scatter sounds of small arms fire began floating across the wooded slope and then the first volley of musketry shatters the silence. The Battle of South Mountain is on.

            For the next hour, Confederate and Union forces battled for control of Fox’s Gap. Scores of men are falling in the chaos including General Samuel Garland mortally wound, shot through both lungs, and Lieutenant Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes whose left arm has been mangled. Once Garland falls, command and control in the Confederate ranks breaks down and one final push from Cox’s Ohioans nearly overruns Fox’s Gap and push on northward towards Turner’s Gap. Only the timely arrival of Confederate reinforcements stops the Union advance.  A lull hangs over the battlefield as both sides rush reinforcements to the scene.  

            For Jesse Reno, the remainder of his 9th Corps was slowly moved towards Fox’s Gap. With Cox’s division bloodied and precariously holding a position just south of Fox’s Gap, Reno deploys the rest of this corps on the eastern slope of South Mountain straddling the Old Sharpsburg Road. By 3:00 pm, Reno has his entire corps on the mountain waiting to launch his final assault. However, the Confederates have managed to push reinforcements to Fox’s Gap as well. Hill’s remaining two brigades not engaged (G.B. Anderson and Roswell Ripley) along with two brigades from David R. Jones’ division (G.T. Anderson and Thomas Drayton) are deployed down the western slope with the plan to hit Cox’s division in the flank and roll them down off the mountain. Unfortunately for Hill’s plan, confusion causes Drayton to launches his brigade against Cox’s division before the rest of the Confederates were in position. Drayton’s attack instead met Cox’s division head-on but also the assault of two Union divisions from the east against its left flank. Within minutes, Drayton’s brigade is routed and Union forces are rolling over Fox’s Gap. Yet another timely arrival of Confederate reinforcements, John B. Hood’s division stops the advance and ends the fighting.

            With darkness falling, desultory skirmishing continues as the opposing sides remained in close contact until about midnight. Despite this random firing, Jesse Reno determines that he must endeavor to personally see the situation on the battlefield. Moving towards Fox’s Gap along the Old Sharpsburg Road around dusk, Reno and his staff will come within sight of the gap before the flash of musketry pierces the darkness. It is just after 6:00 PM when Reno is struck, the bullet lodging in his chest.[16] Within minutes, Reno is being carried down the slope of the mountain and laid under a large oak tree where he will expire just after 8:00 PM. He was 39 years old.

             In the immediate aftermath of his death, questions arose over who shot Reno. If it was a Confederate soldier, the likely culprit would likely be found in the brigades of Evander Law or William Wofford but no accounts have surfaced in regards to Reno’s wounding. In his official report, D.H. Hill lays credit at the feet of a soldier from the 23rd North Carolina.[17] Despite Hill’s assertion, the likely cause of Reno’s death was friendly fire. In two different accounts, Union veterans of the battle describe what happen. In the darkness, according to one of Reno’s orderlies, a terrified Union soldier fired his musket at Reno’s party striking the general.[18] In another account, Gabriel Campbell, remarks that the mortally wounded Reno himself believed that he had been shot by his own men. Reno’s death was a loss that was grieved but for a moment before the war moved on and more well-known, high ranking officers sacrificed their lives for their respective causes. However, while Reno’s memory gradually faded, to those who served under him, he would be remembered in their own way.

                                                          Remembering Reno

                                           

                   In the decades after the war, veterans of the conflict gathered at reunions or formed societies to remember their service   and commemorate fallen comrades. Veterans of the 9th Corps were no different and at a meeting of the Society of the Burnside Expedition and 9th Army Corps, plans were developed to erect a memorial to General Reno at South Mountain at a cost of over $1,000.[19] Following their commanders reported final words, “Tell my command that if not in body I will be with them in spirit,” Reno’s former soldiers gathered on the battlefield at Fox’s Gap to remember their general.[20] It was on a rainy September 14, 1889, 27 years after Reno fell, when Reno’s veterans unveiled to a crowd of nearly 1,000 a monument of granite adorned with the badge of the 9th Corps and the name of Major General Jesse Reno. Today, the monument is cared for by the National Park service.

Citations

[1] United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 1, Volume 19: Part 1-Reports, (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1887),  423, 1020.

[2] William F. McConnell, Remember Reno A Biography of Major General Jesse Lee Reno (White Mane Publishing Co., Inc: Shippensburg, PA),  2-3

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 21-22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] State of South Carolina, Journal of the Convention of the People of South Carolina Held in 1860, 1861, and 1862, Together with the Ordinances, Reports, Resolutions, ETC. (Columbia: E.W. Gibbes, 1862), 49.

[7] United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Series 1, Volume 1 (Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C., 1880), 327.

[8] McConnell, Remember Reno, 62.

[9] United States War Department, The War of the Rebellion: Volume 19, 145.

[10] Ibid., 67.

[11] Ibid., 25

[12] McConnell, 75.

[13] Official Reports Vol. 19, part 1, 1019.

[14] Ibid., 210.

[15] Ibid., 458.

[16] A.H. Wood, “How Reno Fell”,  The National Tribune, July 23, 1883, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016187/1883-07-26/ed-1/seq-1/.

[17] Official Records

[18] Ibid.

[19] The Society of the Army of the Potomac, Report of the Nineteenth Annual Re-Union at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania July 1st, 2d and 3d, 1888 (Macgowan & Slipper, Printers, 1888), 81.

[20] McConnell, 82.