General John Reynolds and his Catholic Fiancee

Hattip to Matthew Schmitz at First Things.  I have been studying the Civil War since 1964.  It is an immense subject and I still find things about it I never knew.  Major General John Reynolds, commander of the I Corps, helped save the Union by his heroic leadership of his Corps in support of Buford’s cavalry division on the First Day, buying time with blood for other corps of the Army of the Potomac to deploy.  He was a Protestant but Matthew Schmitz tells us why he died with  Catholic religious medals around his neck:

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!”

Go here to read the rest.  Maggie McLean at her first rate blog Civil War Women gives us some more detail:

Kate Hewitt’s existence was discovered by John’s family when they found her Catholic medal and a gold ring in the form of clasped hands around his neck. Inside the ring were inscribed the words Dear Kate. They also noticed that his West Point ring was missing. On the morning of July 3, while the battle was reaching its climax 100 miles away, Kate Hewitt called at the house on Spruce Street. Catherine and her sisters rushed downstairs to meet their beloved brother’s fiancee, and embraced her warmly. While the introductions were taking place Kate maintained her composure, but on seeing John’s body she broke down and wept. She explained that she had hesitated to come to Catherine’s home because she knew no one in the family, but that she could not resist the wish to see John again. Kate returned in the evening to sit by him during the night-long vigil. She returned John’s ring, but kept the Catholic medal he had worn. Reynolds’ sister, Jennie Reynolds Gildersleeve, wrote to her brother Will, a captain in the United States Navy:

She seems to be a very superior person. We all regret that he [John] had not told some of us about her, and that we had [not] known her, yet are happy she came and had all the comfort we could offer her.

Eight days after Reynolds’ burial in Lancaster, Kate Hewitt applied for admission to the Sisters of Charity Convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland. This was, she said, part of the plans that she and John had made for their future. If all went well, they would be married after the war. But in the event of General Reynolds’ death, they had agreed that Kate would become a nun. The establishment of the Sisters of Charity was located only ten miles from the Gettysburg battlefield where General Reynolds had been killed. The sisters had maintained a convent and school there since their founding by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809. Reynolds and his First Corps had passed the convent grounds only a few hours before he was killed. In her eagerness to learn every detail of her fiance’s death, Kate asked the Reynolds sisters to bring the General’s orderly, Sergeant Veil, to visit her at the convent. Veil later wrote about the occasion:

I, of course, was glad to do so: and next day we drove over and, through the influence of the [Reynolds sisters], I was allowed to enter the convent and see the young lady. Miss Hewitt was a very beautiful lady, highly educated. I had to tell her all about the General, his last moments, and so forth, and she wanted very particularly to know if he had left any last message. When we came to leave, she said, “Mr. Veil, I have a little token here I had for the General, some of my own work, and I want to give it to you as a token of remembrance of both of us,” and taking from the folds of her dress a small package, she handed it to me. I thanked her for it and left. After we had left the convent, I told the [Reynolds] sisters of what had taken place, and on opening the little package which was nicely done up and tied with a ribbon, found a very beautiful embroidered handkerchief — the Coat-of-Arms of the United States, very beautifully done — and I have the handkerchief and token to this day.

A few months later, Eleanor Reynolds wrote to Sergeant Veil that Miss Hewitt, now Sister Hildegardis (the Reynolds girls had helped her select the name), had gone to Albany, New York, and was teaching in a large school that the Sisters of Charity had recently opened there. And then on January 15, 1867, Eleanor wrote that Kate was well and that they had spent a week with her at Albany in October and had “cheered her somewhat.” She said that they tried to make Kate a yearly visit. On August 11, 1868, five years after Kate Hewitt had kept her pact with her lost fiance by entering the convent at Emmitsburg, Eleanor wrote:

Miss Hewitt is still at Albany – I hope we shall visit her in October. She is not strong and has a cough that is almost constant. She says she is happier as a ‘sister’ than she would be ‘in the world.’

But the October visit to Albany never took place. On September 3, 1868, for reasons unknown, Kate left the Community of the Sisters of Charity. She had made no vows, and was free to leave if she found the life was too much for her. The notation of her leaving was the end of Catherine Mary Hewitt’s association with the Sisters of Charity. Still mourning for a man that was neither husband nor blood relative, Kate was alone in the world. She apparently gave up on the Catholic faith and returned to her hometown of Stillwater, New York. She never married. Catherine Mary Hewitt died of pneumonia at Stillwater in 1895. She is buried in the Stillwater Union Cemetery, not far from the Saratoga Battlefield. Her stone is an octagon and symbolic of rebirth and resurrection. The word Mizpah is carved on the stone and is a Hebrew benediction meaning, ‘May God watch over you until we are together again.’ Kate Hewitt is emblematic of the generations lost forever because of civil war.


Published in: on July 21, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on General John Reynolds and his Catholic Fiancee  
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