- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Maj. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno commanded a Union Army corps, yet he remains relatively unknown.

Although Reno distinguished himself in two of America’s wars, commanded two armories and superintended several national projects before the Civil War, his early death in the battle at South Mountain, Md., in 1862, prevented him from attaining the great glory achieved by many others.

Reno led his men and conducted himself with bravery throughout his service. During the war against Mexico, he distinguished himself as an artillery officer and was mentioned in Gen. Winfield Scott’s dispatches more than once.

Scott called Reno “highly effective and distinguished.” On another occasion, Scott wrote that Reno “deserves to be particularly mentioned.” High praise for a young lieutenant.

During the Civil War, Reno accompanied Gen. Ambrose Burnside on his foray into North Carolina in early 1862. Commanding the 2nd Brigade, Reno led the 21st Massachusetts, 51st New York, 51st Pennsylvania, 9th New Jersey and the 6th New Hampshire.

Arguably, Reno and the 2nd Brigade proved the key to victory in the attack on Roanoke Island on Feb. 8, 1862. Reno and his men captured the island, along with more than 500 men of the 31st North Carolina Regiment, their colors, five forts, hospitals, and tons of arms and supplies. The Union victory and occupation bottled up North Carolina’s major ports for the duration of the war.

A few days later, in the attack on New Berne, Reno’s leadership again proved vital in the Union victory. He captured the port, nine forts, 64 guns, two steamers, a number of smaller vessels and tons of arms. Reno then led a successful raiding party of 3,000 men at South Mills.

Reno also led men in combat at Second Bull Run, at Chantilly and during the sparring battles between Gens. George McClellan and Robert E. Lee leading up to Antietam. He led men facing or chasing his friend and West Point classmate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at least three times.

On the first day of Second Bull Run, Aug. 29, 1862, Reno and his men forced Jackson to leave behind his dead and wounded and flee the field. The next day, after Gen. James Longstreet’s corps arrived, a flanking movement on the Union left caused the Army to crumble. When Union forces broke and ran under the withering Confederate fire, Reno’s stoic stand near the center proved memorable.

Maj. Gen. Philip Kearney, commanding the 1st Division of the Union III Corps, rode up to Gen. John Gibbon and shouted, “Reno is not stampeded. I am not stampeded, you are not stampeded. That is about all, sir. My God, that is about all!”

Reno again faced Jackson at Chantilly. Taken ill, Reno temporarily transferred his command to Maj. Gen. Isaac Stevens, but Stevens died by enemy fire on Sept. 1, and Reno again had to command his men in battle. Repulsed by Jackson, Reno’s men moved back in good order.

Reno summoned Kearney, who eloquently had recorded Reno’s stand at Second Bull Run, to come immediately to assist the IX Corps. Kearney responded, only to die by enemy fire as he moved up.

Reno is credited with masking the Union Army’s retreat, allowing McClellan’s army to fight another day.

With the loss of such distinguished officers as Kearney and Stevens, the Union Army accelerated promotions and reassignments. On July 12, 1862, Reno was promoted to major general and given command of the entire IX Corps. Reno had earned his new position in combat. He now had 29 infantry regiments plus contingents of artillery and cavalry under his command.

A little more than two months after his promotion, Reno received orders to relieve and assist Brig. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton’s cavalry at Fox Gap on South Mountain. Lee was moving north in what would become the Antietam campaign.

Reno sent the 4th Division commanded by Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox to Pleasonton’s aid. They met heavy opposition and passed word back to Reno for reinforcements.

On Sept. 14, 1862, while riding along his lines and positioning troops on South Mountain, Reno was mortally wounded.

His men carried him to the rear, where he saw his classmate and friend Gen. Samuel Sturgis. Reno knew immediately that he was finished, telling Sturgis, “I’m dead.”

Thus Reno, at 39, faced death the way he had always faced battle: with bold, sure determination and matter-of-fact practicality.

After Reno’s death, Burnside sent this proclamation to the IX Corps:

“The commanding general announces to the corps the loss of their late leader, Maj. Gen. Jesse L. Reno. By the death of this distinguished officer the country loses one of its most devoted patriots, the army one of its most thorough soldiers.

“In the long list of battles in which General Reno has fought in his country’s service, his name always appears with the brightest luster, and he has now bravely met a soldier’s death while gallantly leading his men at the battle of South Mountain.

“For his high character and the kindly qualities of his heart in private life, as well as for the military genius and personal daring which marked him as a soldier, his loss will be deplored by all who knew him, and the commanding general desires to add the tribute of a friend to the public mourning for the death of one of the country’s best defenders.”

While crossing Antietam Creek near Burnside’s Bridge on Sept. 17, 1862, the IX Corps began to chant “Remember Reno!”

Jesse L. Reno also was remembered in Nevada, where the city of Reno was named after him.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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