After meeting John Reynolds, Abraham Lincoln called him “our gallant and brave friend.” Dashing, energetic and courageous, he was considered one of the most competent leaders in the Union army. One army officer described Reynolds as “a superb looking man…and sat on his horse like a Centaur, tall, straight and graceful, the ideal soldier.” Upon seeing Reynolds in the distance, one anxious cavalryman blurted out, “Now we can hold this place.”
His sense of fairness gave him an extraordinary reward. A year before Gettysburg, instead of plundering a town he captured, he insisted on his troops’ respect for the property rights of its private citizens. When he was captured and became a prisoner in the same town one month later, these same citizens petitioned Confederate authorities for his release. Reynolds became a free man.
Unlike many officers who gained their high rank through political connections, he earned his promotions based on performance. Past duties on the Western frontier earned him the position of Commandant of his alma mater: West Point. But Reynolds refused an offer to be the commander of the Union’s largest army because he detested the politics of the highest command echelons. To the individual who took command, General Meade, he wrote a brief message prior to the battle. Never one to bluster he promised to fight the Rebels “inch by inch, and if driven into the town [of Gettysburg] I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible.” Meade’s response was predictable: “That is just like Reynolds, he will hold out to the bitter end.”
On the morning of the first day’s battle, he offered a woman five dollars (the modern equivalent is eighty-five dollars) for the breakfast she made for him. When she refused, he told her, “Take it, for I may not live to come back this way and reimburse you for your great kindness.”
Once he was on the battlefield he soon discovered that he was up against a numerically superior foe. Several divisions of the Union army had not yet arrived at Gettysburg to gain the right location in the time needed to do battle as one massive body. Reynolds’s job was to purchase both time and location. He took a calculated risk and decided to lead an attack that was so vigorous and violent that it would deceive his opponent into thinking they were outmatched. It was psychological warfare at its best.
Reynolds believed that men were better fighters when properly led. “His whole brigade is most decidedly attached to him,” said one of his aides earlier in the war, reflecting on Reynolds’s relationship with his men, “and I do not think the love of any commander was ever felt more deeply or sincerely than his.” Reynolds led admirably, and his men responded by fighting admirably, but the consequences for their beloved leader would quickly turn tragic.
Reynolds succeeded in deceiving the Confederates that their opponent was formidable. After all, they were up against the Union army’s famous Iron Brigade, with seasoned fighters whose reputation for “iron” resolve was well known. Still, the Rebels’ greater numbers would eventually gain the upper hand. Nevertheless Reynolds’s delaying action, at a staggering price in casualties exceeding sixty percent, was able to gain the time needed for the Union army to position itself against the mounting odds of the moment. In leading the attack himself, a move not required of an officer with the rank of general, he was killed instantly with a bullet burrowing into the back of his head.
Major odds require risks.
A very strong competitor can influence you to take risks that need to be calculated to gain advantage. Along the way your attitude of fairness with associates will be a big help. By achieving position and time, Reynolds proved that competition is a positive influence in disguise.
Copyright Paul Lloyd Hemphill 2012
The Definition Of Leadership