Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fox Gap panorama: Where Jesse Reno was mortally wounded

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Jesse Reno
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On Sept. 14, 1862, 39-year-old Union Major General Jesse Reno, a native Virginian, was mortally wounded by a shot to the chest at Fox Gap during the Battle of South Mountain (Md.).

At least one Rebel did not mourn his passing.

"The Yankees on their side lost General Reno," General D.H. Hill sarcastically noted in his official report, "a renegade Virginian, who was killed by a happy shot from the Twenty-third North Carolina."

Twenty-seven years later, nearly 100 Civil War veterans were among the 1,000 people who gathered for the dedication of a monument near the spot where Reno met his demise. After members of Reno's wartime staff unveiled the 8-foot granite marker and patriotic music was played, former Union General Orlando B. Wilcox delivered a speech that highlighted the general's distinguished service in the army.

But the best event of the day may have been saved for last.

"The farmers and others in the vicinity had an ample dinner spread on the grounds," reported the Herald And Torch Light, a Hagerstown, Md., newspaper, on Sept. 19, 1889, "and all of the visitors were made guests of the citizens."

The monument at Fox Gap to Jesse Reno was dedicated on Sept. 14, 1889.

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  1. The following is a transcription of a letter draft written by Gabriel Campbell (Captain of Company E) in 1899. The letter was sent to General Ezra Carman. It may have been written to offer a view on the death of General Reno and the location of where he was shot as well as detail the significant battlefield features related to the Seventeenth Michigan’s actions at Fox’s Gap on 14 September 1862. George Brigham of Middletown, Maryland sent the transcription copy to me. It is from the Carmen Papers in Antietam National Battlefield Park library, Sharpsburg, Maryland. At the time that the letter was written Gabriel Campbell was a professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College.
    A map of the battlefield drawn by Campbell was included with the letter. Lower case letters in parentheses refer to locations on the map. A modern topographical map with corresponding notations has been provided for reference. My annotations are in [brackets]. Campbell’s are in (parenthesis).

  2. The letter in several parts due to length:
    Dartmouth College
    Hanover, N.H.
    Aug. 23, 1899

    Dear General Carmen,

    I think you will find the following a very accurate itinerary of the 17th Mich at South Mountain, Sept 14, 1862.

    Leave camp [East of Middletown] 9:00 a.m.
    March through Middletown 10:00 a.m.
    At foot of mountain [Mentzer’s?] 11:30 a.m.
    Enfiladed by battery 12:00 noon
    Prostrate in cornfield 1:00 p.m.
    “Attention” called 3:00 p.m.
    First charge 4:00 p.m.
    Began firing

    The ridge of S. Mountain ran nearly north and south. The road at the summit [ran] nearly east and west.
    When I visited the field in 1892 I found that most of the woods had been cut away. The woods on the east of Wise's field, however, remaining; while the little field (o), about an acre and a half was quite overgrown by trees and bushes, the woods to the west of (p) remaining. Meanwhile the walls of the lane (l) had been rebuilt about 20 yards to the west, the lane running close by the East end of the Wise house. Near the road the south part of the wall (p) had been carried to the east bringing it nearly (more nearly) in a line with the lane. At (a) the ditch-like ascent had been washed away and much leveled and an ordinary wagon road or highway had taken its place.
    Of course the so-called “lane” (l) was the “ridge” road which here had a stone wall on either side. The walls were about (scarcely) three feet in height. The road (wagon track), however, was worn or washed (down) out so that the center of the “lane” was some six inches deeper than the sides.
    Where we filed to the right at (b) the deep cut (of the road) suddenly ended, the road sides becoming level. As we began to leave the cut, the rebels began to enfilade us. I stood at the edge of the track until my company (E) had all filed past. I could see the cannon balls coming bounding down the road. One came within arm's length of me, dashing through the head of the company just behind. There was an immediate scramble up the sides of the ditch and out of range.

  3. Just as I was turning into the field General Willcox came flying up on his horse, saying to me "Is this my Michigan?" "Form into line." The expression "My Michigan" was applied to the 17th because we had been his escort in Detroit when he was given the reception upon his return from the rebel prison to which he was taken from the First Bull Run. Our colonel Col. (William H.) Withington, was Captain in the 1st Michigan under Colonel Willcox and was taken prisoner with him. Willcox applied to the Secretary of War and had the 17th for that reason, put in his division.
    Crossing to the left of the road we marched forward in line of battle until we came in range of rebel batteries to the northwest and west, and of infantry in the woods before us. Here we fell on our faces, the grape shot canister cutting off the leaves of corn until we were quite thoroughly covered—considerable number were wounded.
    Falling back a short distance we passed into the woods to the right of the road. Here we formed in column of battalions, the left wing forming behind the right, the two mingling, companies mixing as we moved on.
    Although there was a sharp fire from the stockade [a line of posts or stakes set in the earth as a fence], which reminded me of a hailstorm on the roof, our men gave tremendous shouts as they were coming out of the woods pressing on without pausing. Although met by a terrific storm of bullets from the stone wall (g) we simply rushed forward giving a storm in reply. But before we could make a bayonet thrust the enemy fled. The rebel batteries now fairly swept the open field between (g) and (p). This drove us to the left across the road into the woods. At the edge of the woods came the tug of war. We were square in front of the double lines at the lane. The batteries played upon the woods bringing down an abundance of branches, but doing little damage. The discharge of musketry from the lane was a constant blaze. Evidently they were unable to take aim and fired over us. We aimed at the top of the wall.

  4. After a while the artillery fire relaxed motinally (?) [momentarily] and our right moved forward into the field across the road (g,k,p) and advanced to the stone wall (p) when the rebel regiment was seen dislodged, but fought as it fell back across that field (o). Our men now obtained a raking fire from behind the wall (k) then a flank fire from the north on the men behind the lane walls. Upon this the major part of the regiment pressed across Wise's field from the east, but the rebels fell back. We pursued them down the slope and into the woods, taking many prisoners. We at once began to reform the regiment at the edge of the woods to the east of Wise's field where we had done most of the fighting. Here we rested on our arms for the night.
    As soon as we had fixed the point of rendezvous, I secured a small detachment of men and started to care for the wounded who had been left in the field. Just as we finished removing or caring for the wounded in the field (o) a few rebels without arms appeared coming into the field, ostensibly looking for their dead or helpless comrades. I quickly observed that they were pilfering from our dead as well as their own, and also gathering up arms, occasionally discharging a musket into the air. When I remonstrated with them for picking pockets and firing at random, they answered saucily. As I was now the only Union soldier in the field, I walked quietly towards the exit. Just as I reached the bar way at the southeast corner, I met General Willcox who asked with some indignation what the firing meant. I replied the men were rebels who were robbing the dead and picking up arms. I pointed to several who were just then climbing the fence, coming in from the woods, and added this was evidently the beginning of a rally. General Willcox turned his horse, touching him with his spur, and rode back hastily. The twilight was now growing dusky. Meditating on the stranger events of the day—a most suggestive Sunday eve—I was winding my way slowly back to the regiment when, about 50 yards from where I met General Willcox I encountered General Reno and four or five members of his staff riding quietly to the front.
    Reno, who was about half the length of his steed in advance, was leaning forward peering steadily through his field glass, in order, evidently, to reconnoiter for himself. I stood and watched. Just as I reached the end of fence (p) there was a sudden fusillade—five or six shots in about a couple of seconds. There was at once commotion among the Reno horsemen, a dismounting and a catching of someone. Evidently the rebels had begun to form behind the stone fence (p). Quickly an orderly comes back leading several horses. To my inquiry, "What happened?" he answered, "Reno is 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 spoke. We bore our beloved commander silently, slowly, tenderly.

  5. Reaching the corner of the wood east of the Wise field we were met by attendants and a stretcher. As we placed him on the better resting place he looked up at us gratefully. It was the last I saw of the brave General Reno. I may add that although conscious that he was mortally wounded, he (I did not hear him) did not utter a word or a groan as we were carrying him off the field. When the commander of the division came up, Reno said, “Willcox, I am killed. Shot by our own men.” This implies that General Reno did not, in the gathering darkness, satisfy himself that the rebels were so close at hand. Generals Sturgis and Rodman with their supporting divisions were very nearly abreast of Reno, coming up, as they did, across the fields to the north of the road. He could scarcely have recognized such a mistake as possible on their part. Of course he thought the shooting random and not intentional. Possessed of the conviction that the rebels were not there, it was the necessary inference that he was killed by his own men.
    It is my recollection that Cox, his successor, at first accepted this opinion. In the Chicago Tribune for 1877 or 1878, there was a discussion by D.H. Hill and Cox as to the death of Reno, the article of each representing a different view. My article following practically closed the contention. When the committee was locating the Reno monument at South Mountain General Hartranft sent me a diagram of the field asking for facts as to where Reno was shot. General Hartranft died before I learned the result, but his chief of staff told me my testimony settled the question. The monument stands on the side of the road close beside where the lane (l) was.
    Our supporting troops promptly met the rallying rebels who fought several hours (firing continued until 10 at least) to regain what they had found to be an uncommonly strong position. In the forenoon the 30th and 36th Ohio had each struggled valiantly to dislodge the enemy from the lane but without success. A considerable number of the dead behind the lane wall were evidentially the result of the struggles earlier in the day. I never saw it where dead men [were] so emphatically heaped up. I recollect the group photograph in the Century War Book.

  6. The 17th Michigan was no doubt chosen for this emergency because it was strong (numerically) and new. The report that there were about 500 for duty (Colonel Swift then Captain Company F in Michigan in the War) must be a mistake. Company A was absent on Provost duty at Frederick, and say, 10 to 15 per cent sick or detached; this would mean between 700 to 800 for duty. Evidently the new regiments were thought more reliable by the commanding generals than old ones for an attack in front of stone walls, old ones being more inclined to "shy off" and attack the flank in such cases. When General W(illcox) in his report speaks of a "contest of some minutes" he, of course, refers to only the carrying of the first stone wall (g) on the right of the road.
    My company, E, was composed mainly of students from the Michigan School and University. I do not see how better soldiers could exist. Their one impulse was to press forward and win. I prefer, however, that others should commend. As I have been writing, the seven and thirty years seemed to pass out of existence, and again its [sic] only the day after the battle. I hear again the church bells of Middletown ringing as we march through the town.

    Very truly yours
    Gabriel Campbell (signed)
    Captain 17th Michigan

    Map keys...

    a. (describing terrain) Steep ditch-like, first ascent
    b. Our first line being enfiladed
    c. Where we lay under fire of batteries in corn
    d. Where knapsacks were left and double lines formed in woods
    e. Stockades of wood in edge of woods sheltering rebel skirmishers
    f. Hollow declivity [a descent of land, sloping, inclination downward] deeper toward the north
    g. First and highest stone wall [along Tony Papalardo's old driveway?]
    h. Wise field on east side of which 17th Mich made stand in edge of woods
    i. Reno monument
    k. Stone wall on north (side) of road
    l. Lane both stone walls stone (a farm lane lined by stone walls)
    m. Single wall were 45th Pennsylvania fought
    n. Wise house
    o. Field where rebels began to rally and shot Reno [Seventeenth marker located here]
    p. Stone wall surmounted by single fence rail (stone and rider)
    q. Road down steep declivity (Old Sharpsburg road)
    xxxxx Woods

  7. Unfortunately, the comments will not let me post the map.

  8. GWj Chris: You can email me at Would love to see the map.