Exploring Philadelphia’s Civil War – Monument to Major General John F. Reynolds
By EJ Murphy - He is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Scranton, Pennsylvania and tour guide for the Waverly Community House’s Destination Freedom: Underground Railroad Walking Tour.
If one were to walk down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and take a stroll down Benjamin Franklin Parkway it would be hard to imagine a Philadelphia that was not widely adorned with grand monuments and pieces of fine public art. While this is a welcomed reality for Philadelphians today residents of the city did not always have this benefit at their disposal, at least not to the degree that they felt they deserved.
“There are a number of statues of more or less importance and of various degrees of merit or demerit scattered through Fairmount Park, where most of them, having no relation with any architectural surroundings, are misplaced and ineffective; but even including these, Philadelphia has not done very much to commemorate her great men. There is no adequate statue of Penn; none of Franklin, except that in front of the Ledger building; none of Morris or Rittenhouse or Pastorius or other of our early civic worthies, and heretofore there has been no public statue of any of the military heroes of the Commonwealth, of either the earlier or later period.”[i]
This apparent lack of recognition would start to change in the 1880s. On July 1, 1881, the 18th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union League of Philadelphia held a meeting to address a generous offer from Mr. Joseph E. Temple. Temple had pledged $25,000 to the construction of a monument to Major-General John F. Reynolds who, on that bloody day 18 years ago, had fallen on the battlefield in South-Central Pennsylvania. Born in Lancaster, Reynolds was a popular commander in the Army of the Potomac at the time of his death and his memory as one of the martyrs of the greatest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere made him the perfect man to honor.
An association was formed for the development of the Reynolds monument project which included various military and civil organizations with close ties to the deceased general and who had also attended the meeting. Fundraising for the rest of the project moved quickly and by 1883 artist John Rogers’ equestrian statue honoring Reynolds, commissioned by the Reynolds Monument Association and the Grand Army of the Republic, was complete and ready for installation. Gathering the materials for the monument was even done in haste as the governor’s office was authorized to supply old brass guns from the state arsenal to be used for the statue which depicts Reynolds at Gettysburg in the moments leading up to his death.[ii]
The monument, which would be the first ever equestrian statue in the city, was unveiled on September 18, 1884 in front of thousands of patriotic Philadelphians. Also in attendance were members of the Reynolds family, the General Reynolds Post No. 71 of the G.A.R., and various military and political leaders including the governor of the Commonwealth and the mayor of Philadelphia. In the days leading up to the dedication former comrades of Reynolds penned Pennsylvania’s wartime governor and speaker at the event, Andrew Curtin, to express their approval of the choice of Reynolds for the monument and to reflect on the character of their old friend.
“His character and services will doubtless be adequately set forth by your orators, and the painter and the sculptor have done their part to transmit his forms and features to posterity; but, as I was associated with him for many years, it may not be out of place for me to give some personal reminiscences,” wrote Abner Doubleday who assumed command of the I Corps of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg after Reynolds was struck down. “He seemed to think if he could once meet them [the enemy] with the First Corps there would be no doubt of the result. He was right in this estimate, for the desperate fighting of his men on 1st of July contributed to, if it did not insure, the success of the two succeeding days.”[iii]
William Tecumseh Sherman noted that “During our civil war our spheres of action were wide apart, but knowing his ability, I watched his upward career with intense interest, and mourned his death as a brother. His death was heroic, at the head of his corps, at the very beginning of the great battle of Gettysburg, and the State of Pennsylvania does herself honor in thus stamping with approval the career of one of her bravest, best, and most heroic sons.”[iv]
At the dedication Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison urged the crowd gathered on the North Broad Street side of the “new public buildings” (Philadelphia City Hall was still under construction at the time of the monument unveiling) to not only use this monument to remember the man, but to use it as motivation to emulate Reynolds’ character. “Such a tribute should, to youthful minds, be an incentive to zeal in public service and honor in private life.”[v]
“In accepting this memorial of the departed and distinguished soldier, General Reynolds, permit me on behalf of the municipality to guarantee the reverence and admiration of a liberty-loving and loyal city whose proudest page in history shall be that which marks her influence in all that makes the nation prosperous, her people happy and her heroes respected,” commented Philadelphia Mayor William B. Smith after accepting the statue on behalf of the city.[vi]
The monument still serves as a testament to the brave character of one of the Union’s greatest soldiers and Reynolds’ brothers in arms did not forget the importance of his death even in the years after the guns had gone silent. Concluding the unveiling ceremonies, Colonel R. Biddle Roberts once again alluded to the weight of Reynolds’ command during the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. “The advance was coming. The great rebel host was in force upon the soil of his native State, and desecrated it…and he advanced to meet him with all these surroundings, which eagle-plumed his gallant soul as he approached the spot that was soon to become the great battle-field of the war, and where was to be left to the arbitration of the sword the question of freedom or slavery.”
The loss of the general and the impact it had on the war and the individuals who served with him stuck like glue in the post-war years. Recalling an interaction he had with George Gordon Meade, victor of the Battle of Gettysburg and close friend of Reynolds, Roberts proclaimed “desire to bear my humble testimony to the worth and strength of that friendship; I knew it from both, I have heard it in the strongest language from both, and I saw General Meade after the close of the war and had a most pleasing conversation with him in relation to the battle of Gettysburg, in which, with tears in his eyes, he exclaimed, ‘At that moment, on that first day, I lost my great first lieutenant.’”[vii]
[i] “In Memory of Reynolds.” The Philadelphia Times, September 18, 1884, 2.
[ii] Reynolds Memorial Association, Unveiling of the Statue of General John F. Reynolds. Philadelphia, 1884. Accessed via Archive.org.
[iii] Ibid, 18.
[iv] Ibid, 21.
[v] Ibid, 28.
[vi] “THE HONORED DEAD.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 19, 1884, 2.
[vii] Unveiling of the Statue of General John F. Reynolds, 33-34.