It was approaching noon. It had been about four hours since the cannon volley had initiated the ambush. His 3300 men were hunkered down behind the low hill known as McPherson’s Ridge that ran south to north along the entire west edge of the town. His plan was unfolding as expected. The flow of men out of the woods had halted; Lee’s movements has come to a full stop. But things were getting a bit desperate. Heth’s regiments had been launching steady, if piecemeal, attacks throughout the morning. His men were holding steady but were undoubtedly getting tired and running low on ammunition. Their carbines could fire quickly and just as quickly consume what ammunition they could carry. He hadn’t brought any wagons with additional supplies as he wasn’t expecting a long campaign. He regretted that now.
As he watched the ebb and flow of the battle from his vantage point in the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary, Buford turned east. He once again gazed at the series of contiguous hills that lay just to the south of the city. Was it time to give his last pre-arranged flag signal for his men to fall back to the cemetery? He pivoted more to look south. There in the distance was a large cloud of dust and just at that moment a small group of riders came galloping out of the dust.
It was, indeed, LTG Reynolds and his command group. His First Corps command flag flapping as they came up the Emmittsburg Road and jumped a fence line moving towards the sounds of the battle. As he got nearer, Reynolds spotted Buford’s flag and raced up the slope to the seminary.
This is one of the most poignant scenes in the novel KILLER ANGELS and the movie version. Buford explains to Reynolds that he was worried that Meade had possibly rejected his request for First Corps to be added to his ambush plan. Reynolds officially assumes command of the battle field and tells Buford to get his men to safety as soon as they are replaced by infantrymen.
Buford takes Reynolds up into the cupola to familiarize him with the lay of the land and to point out those hills where he suggests that the Union forces need to withdraw to by evening no matter the outcome of the day’s battle. Meanwhile, the lead elements of First Corps are double-timing their way up the Emmittsburg Road. Reynolds and Buford part as Reynolds goes off to see to the placement of those troops as they arrive. Buford’s day is done and he rides to the south end of the town to collect his men at the designated rally point.
One of the first of the First Corps units to arrive is the famous Iron Brigade so known because many of them were iron miners in Wisconsin and Michigan. That moniker had been extended by their reputation for steadfastness on the battle field. They were easily and widely recognized by the large black hats that were their trademark apparel (Hardee hats). Reynolds directed them to take their place as the left flank of the line thereby relieving Buford’s men positioned along the far southern end of McPherson’s Ridge.
As the first regiments aligned for battle, Reynolds noted movement in Herbst’s Woods and ordered them to stop whatever rebel force was there threatening this flank. The entire Iron Brigade (less the 6th WI in reserve) charged into the woods. They managed to push Archer’s brigade back to Willoughby’s Run. But then they were counter-attacked and nearly surrounded. They managed to complete a rather orderly, if hasty, retreat back to the lower end of McPherson’s Ridge. There they would be joined by BGs Biddle’s and Stone’s Brigades and they would hold off a number of rebel charges.
Just to the north the first brigade that had arrived was under the command of BG Lysander Cutler. Reynolds had positioned them across the Chambersburg Road to help cover the withdrawal of the cavalry. They immediately became engaged with a Rebel brigade under BG Davis. At this point in time, less than an hour after arrival, LTG Reynolds was struck in the back of the head and was dead before he hit the ground. Fortunately, for all concerned he had communicated his plan to his staff and as MG Doubleday assumed command of the corps, those senior staff carried out his orders. These included a withdrawal to the cemetery by nightfall.
AFTERNOTE: Reynolds’ direct role in this battle was short-lived. Soon after issuing the orders to deploy his units, he was shot in the head by a Confederate sniper and died on the field of battle. But his subordinate commanders executed the plan as he would have expected. Meade assigned Buford’s remaining cavalry to guard the exposed right flank of the advancing Union Army. They all knew that Stuart was out there somewhere and expected him to try to disrupt Meade’s advance. The cavalry spent a few quiet days prepared for an attack that never came.