One-hundred and fifty years ago today, Gen. John F. Reynolds made the crucial tactical decisions that would start the Battle of Gettysburg, then became one of its first fatalities.
Reynolds was widely admired for his personal qualities and military skill—we have found no recorded negative comments by his contemporaries—and scholars today generally share the assessment. (Shelby Foote called him perhaps the best general the Army of the Potomac had.) Yet as Edwin C. Bearss records in Fields of Honor, Reynolds’ death revealed that the well-liked man had a secret:
As his aides loosen his collar, they find two Catholic medallions hanging around his neck. This is surprising because he is not Catholic, and none of them knows that he is seriously interested in any woman.
They carry Reynolds’ body to the rear, with instructions to send it to his home in Lancaster after it is laid out in Philadelphia. And as they’re laying him out on July 4, with his sisters there, a lady comes in. She is Katherine “Kate” May Hewitt. Kate has his West Point ring and tells his sisters that they met on a boat from California to New York and that they’re engaged.
Reynolds was a Protestant, she a Catholic. That is why he had not told his family. The two agreed that if he was killed and they couldn’t marry, she would join a convent. After he’s buried, she will travel to Emmitsburg and join the St. Joseph Central House of the Order of the Daughters of Charity.
Reynolds’ last words—meant martially but also capable of being read spiritually—were, “Forward men! For God’s sake forward!”
Regrettably, things did not work out in quite so straightforward a manner. Hewitt later left the Sisters of Charity and lost her Catholic faith, receiving burial in a non-Catholic ceremony in Stillwater, Minnesota—far from the man she loved and from the church to which she had hoped to devote her life.