Friendly fire has been a recurring problem throughout history. This incident occurred on the evening of September 14, 1862 at Fox’s Gap, Maryland. Ever since I first published an article about Jesse Reno’s death in the June issue of Civil War Magazine historians, including a very prominent one, have discounted the entire story. One said that Reno would never have ridden toward the front without a large entourage; another said that when Reno mistakenly told General Orlando Willcox that he had been shot by his own men; another dismissed the account of one of Reno’s orderly’s printed in the National Tribune as hearsay.
What evidence supports the real story behind Reno’s death?
1. On September 17, 1862, while waiting to assault the Lower bridge, Private Albert A. Batchelder ( Company C, 6th New Hampshire) wrote his father, while griping about army sutlers and the poor condition of Maryland farms, “Gen. Reno was killed by a Massachusetts Regiment by mistake he was in front of the lines.”
2. Professor Gabriel Campbell, former captain, Company E, 17th Michigan, wrote Ezra Carmen on August 23, 1899 helped carry the general off the mountain on a blanket when they encountered General Willcox. Campbell heard Reno tell the general, “Willcox, I am killed. Shot by our own men.”
3. Campbell then explained his interpretation of the event by writing, "This implies that Gen. Reno did not, in the gathering darkness, satisfy himself that the rebels were so close at hand…he thought the shooting random and not intentional. Possessed of the conviction that the rebels were not there, it was the necessary inference that he was killed by his own men.”
4. He said he saw Reno on horseback, about half a length in front of his aides.
5. On July 6, 1883, in the National Tribune, in an article titled “How Reno Fell,” Sergeant Alexander H. Wood (Company L, 6th New York Cavalry) one of Reno’s two orderlies reported what Private Martin Ficken, the orderly riding by Reno’s side saw.
6. Ficken and the division surgeon, Doctor Calvin Cutter, flanked him within arm’s reach. It was about 6:00 p.m. and the fields on the eastern side of South Mountain were getting quite dark. The brand new 35th Massachusetts was coming out of the woods into the fields on both sides of the Old Sharpsburg road and were lighting lanterns and shouting for their scattered regiment to reform. Reno was in Wise’s field south of the road behind the 21st Massachusetts and the 51st New York.
7. According to Ficken a lost soldier from the 35th Massachusetts, upon entering the field, stumbled upon the riders and yelled, Rebel Cavalry!” He aimed his musket at the general, as Ficken yelled, “Don’t fire!” The gun discharged. Almost immediately, six shots rang out from the woods across the road from the northwest.
8. The startled 35th Massachusetts across the road to the north opened fire in the darkness into the backs of the 51st Pennsylvania, which was lying along the eastern side of the “wood road” – Appalachian Trail, facing the woods.
9. Reno turned toward Ficken and gasped he was wounded. Reno dismounted. While Cutter tended to Reno, Ficken ran into the regiment behind them and got a blanket.
10. While they put the general on the blanket to carry him to the base of the mountain, Sergeant Wood led their horse off the field behind them.
11. At the northeastern corner of the field they transferred the general to a stretcher at which point Willcox approached him and Reno told him he been shot by his own men.
12. The general’s staff told the two orderlies not so speak about anything they had seen.
13. According to Ficken and Cutter, the bullet had glanced off Reno’s sword hilt and glanced into his chest below the heart.
14. Just last week I found a letter written by General Samuel Sturgis published in the New York Times, November 30, 1878. He did not see Reno get shot. His account came from one of his two staff officers who saw Reno fall from the saddle. One of them said he helped get the general out of the field.
15. Sturgis said that either Dr. Cutter or a Dr. Watson said the bullet was fired close at hand and from behind.
16. Sturgis was not with the general when he died nor was he present when the doctors examined the wound.
While I believe Reno died from "friendly fire", I would prefer that my readers draw their own conclusions.