Civil War Profiles: John and Kate: A Civil War love story


Valentine’s Day dates back to the Roman Empire, when people observed a holiday on Feb. 14 to honor Juno, the queen of Roman gods and goddesses, and the goddess of women and marriage. The fertility festival known as the Feast of Lupercalia followed this celebration.

In modern times, Valentine’s Day is a time to remember our loved ones with a gesture of affection through cards and gifts. It is a time to recollect the reasons why love blossomed between man and woman, as well as family members and friends.

During the Civil War, Union Gen. John Reynolds held a secret he told no one prior to his death on the first day of battle at Gettysburg. He had met and fallen in love with his Valentine, by the name of Kate.

Reynolds was universally admired by those who knew him for his character and professionalism as a soldier fighting to prevent the breakup of the Union. In 1863, he was a 42-year-old bachelor who hailed from Lancaster, Pa., and had graduated from West Point in 1841.

On July 1, 1863, Reynolds was a major-general in command the Army of the Potomac’s left wing, numbering more than 32,000 men. It was his decision to initiate the battle at Gettysburg, in response to an appeal from Brig. Gen. John Buford for assistance for his cavalry brigades under attack just west of this small south-central Pennsylvania community.

Reynolds led elements of his First Corps into position out the Chambersburg Road in the area of Edward McPherson’s farm. A general who led from the front, Reynolds was with the “Iron Brigade,” charging into Herbst Woods to challenge the oncoming Rebels, when he fell from his horse — a bullet had pierced his head.

As Michael A. Riley describes in a Farnsworth House booklet, Reynolds’ death occurred almost instantaneously. He had called upon his men to prevent the Confederates from capturing the town of Gettysburg with the urgent plea: “For God’s sake, forward!”

When aides carried Reynolds’ body from the battlefield and loosened his collar, they unexpectedly found a Catholic medal and a gold ring hanging around his neck. Matthew Schmitz wrote that this was surprising, because Reynolds was a Protestant.

The truth would not be learned until July 4, in Philadelphia where Reynold’s body was laid out for the public to pay tribute. A young lady by the name of Katherine May Hewitt walked into the viewing, wearing John Reynolds’ West Point ring, and informed his stunned family that she and Reynolds had been engaged to be married.

John and Kate had met in San Francisco, where he was stationed at the time and she worked in a Catholic girls’ school run by the Daughters of Charity. Evidently, neither one had told their families about their love interest, because of religious differences. Kate’s association with nuns at the school had led to her conversion to Catholicism.

Kate made a pact with John. In the event he was killed in battle, she would never marry, but rather would enter a convent. Consequently, Kate decided to join the Sisters of Charity, founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, located in Emmitsburg, Md., a few miles south of Gettysburg. She took the name of Sister Hildegardis.

The story does not end there, however, because Kate left the convent five years later, without taking formal vows to be a nun. In “Civil War Women” (http://civilwarwomenblog.com/kate-hewitt/), Maggie MacLean relates that Kate, who was ill and still brooding over John’s loss, returned to her hometown of Stillwell, N.Y.

Kate kept her promise and never married. She remained in Stillwell until her death in 1895. On her tombstone is carved the Hebrew word “Mitzpah.” It refers to a blessing meaning, “May God watch over you until we are together again.”

The moral of this story of unfulfilled love may be to treasure each other for the time we are permitted to be together. Valentine’s Day is set aside for that purpose.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” (available at Bethany Beach Books). It is a History & Military Book Club selection, and rated five stars on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.