Drive east out of Chambersburg along the Lincoln Highway to Gettysburg – following the same route that Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s marauding Army of Northern Virginia marched unknowingly into the largest battle ever fought on American soil – and the first two bronzed monumental figures you will encounter just outside of town are Generals John Buford and John Reynolds.
Kentucky-born General Buford was the Union army’s best cavalry officer with a trained expert eye for terrain. The West Pointer chose to set up a defensive line west of Gettysburg to meet Lee’s army coming east from Chambersburg in search of supplies on July 1, 1863. That Buford only had 4,000 cavalrymen at hand against some 20,000 Rebel infantrymen caused him great angst. When one of his officers quipped that his troopers could handle anything the Confederates threw at him, the stern and caustic Buford snapped back, “No, you won’t. They will attack you in the morning and will come booming.” And booming the Rebs came.
Buford knew that if he could hold out a few hours west of town, he could preserve the heights that crowned Gettysburg’s southern edge. Held hills like Cemetery, Culp’s, Wolf and Little Round Top, all etched in Gettysburg historical lore for bloody fighting on July 2 and 3, would not have occurred had Buford not made the momentous decision to sacrifice his cavalry division. He would not have decided this daring tactic had he not known General Reynolds was only a few miles south in Emmitsburg, Maryland, with his First Corps infantry less than two hours from Gettysburg. Buford and Reynolds had discussed the unfolding events of the great Confederate invasion just the night before, and the two of them knew a big fight was coming.
When Reynolds rode ahead to Gettysburg as the fighting raged, he came across the grounds of the Lutheran Seminary and saw Buford in the seminary cupola some three stories up. “How goes it, John,” Reynolds yelled up. “The Devil’s to pay, John,” Buford fired back, knowing his troops could not hold much longer. General Reynold’s infantry had arrived just in time to help stave off the Confederate onslaught coming down the Chambersburg Pike into Gettysburg.
Leading the way for the Union infantry was the Iron Brigade, men from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana who were battle-tested and hardy fighters who took Reynolds’ verbal command, “For God’s sake men, forward,” to heart.
These were the last words General John Reynolds spoke, as a Rebel sharpshooter nailed him in the back of the head. Knocked off his horse, he was dead before he hit the ground. It was Reynolds who, just three days prior to the battle, had turned down President Lincoln’s offer to command the Army of Potomac. Reynolds, a politically conservative Democrat, feared he would never satisfy an aggressive-minded Republican administration led by Lincoln. One of the more ironic occurrences of the Battle of Gettysburg may well be that the Union army’s most cautious and judicious general, Reynolds, made one of the war’s most audacious, aggressive decisions to support Buford’s hazardous forward defense. Nobody would have been surprised had Reynolds chosen to form a retreat and make haste for the high ground south of town. Now dead on the field, Reynolds had courageously chosen the great dare which ultimately helped set up winning the biggest battle of the Civil War.
John Reynolds was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on September 20, 1821. His family was a wealthy, prominent Red Rose City clan who fit into the city’s old conservative Democratic political base. The family was close friends with James Buchanan, who became the country’s 15th president in the late 1850s just before the war erupted. Young John went to boarding school in Lititz, and he and his brothers loved hunting and fishing along Lancaster’s wildlife-rich lots along the Conestoga Creek. The family moved briefly to the rural heart of Lebanon County for business, but soon returned to their beloved home in Lancaster.
Given that Reynolds had political connections, John received a West Point appointment where he was never a great student, but an able one. After graduating, he lived the life all West Point graduates did by being assigned to wilderness outposts mostly in the western territories like Utah, California and Texas, where settlers were having more hostilities with Native Americans none too happy with the westward expansion influx of pioneers hoping to seize “free” lands.
By 1860, a year before the South fired upon Fort Sumter in Charleston igniting civil war, Reynolds was in San Francisco, California, on duty in a state that was growing fast during the gold rush of the 1850s. Summoned east by the army to teach at West Point, Reynolds boarded the boat the SS. Golden Gate on July 21 for the six-week voyage that would take him south around Mexico to Panama. There, after a short overland carriage trip, he would arrive in a port to then board another boat to sail through the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida to New York City. It was an arduous trek fraught with storms and sickness.
There on the boat, Reynolds met 24-year-old Catherine “Mary” Hewitt on board with a ten-year-old Mary North. Both Kate and Mary were on board with alias names of Kate Wentworth and Catherine Dunn, respectively. Kate was running from a life she was not proud of and decided to travel under alias names to not draw attention.
Kate Hewitt was born in April 1836, in Owego, New York, a charming little town still today along the banks of the Susquehanna River not far from Binghamton. Orphaned as a child, Kate ended up traveling west to Sacramento with a prominent family that had connections with Kate’s brother. Kate served the wealthy family as a seamstress, child-care provider and every other type of servant help. Soon she grew quite weary of the servitude’s toil and began working in an industry that was thriving in Sacramento – prostitution. One in every seven women who lived in the city worked in a brothel. It was there in Sacramento that Kate met young Catherine Dunn and began supporting the 10-year-old. By newspaper accounts in The Sacramento Bee, Kate Hewitt was a much sought after lady, and she was able to make a very lucrative income from her indiscretions, which likely also included bribery and extortion of prominent men who were not keen on having their illicit lives known to their families and public.
Kate Hewitt was fleeing this guilt-riven life when she boarded the SS. Golden Gate that July morning. When Reynolds met Kate on the deck, he was smitten and the two spent the next six weeks on the boat falling in love. At 40-years-old, Reynolds was one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. Just weeks earlier, he had bemoaned the fact that he was convinced he would be a life-long single man in letters home to his beloved siters who lived in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Lancaster.
War separated the two lovers as John Reynolds was a sought-after officer in the Union army. The two made promises to each other that when the war was over, they would get married. To seal the engagement, Reynolds gave Kate his West Point ring to wear, and she gave him a ring of hers that said, “dear Kate,” on the band. He shoved it onto his pinkie and wore it with pride through battle after battle. Kate also gave him a crucifix and a heart medallion that he wore around his neck.
After arriving in New York, Kate Hewitt began her journey into Catholicism, converting to the Catholic faith when she attended Eden Hall Academy of the Sacred Heart in Torresdale outside of Philadelphia. There, she had her adopted ward Catherine baptized, and she received her first Holy Communion as well. Kate Hewitt thrived at Eden Hall, and in its annual letter, the academy extolled her conversion as “remarkable,” and that she had an “honorable heart.” It is also said: “Never has she forgotten self-control, finding within herself the reflection of light. She had a natural character of a strong impetuous nature, but the religion has helped her conquer it.” Kate left Eden Hall a fully committed, devout Catholic and lived near Philadelphia while waiting to see her beloved John. The two had made tentative plans to see each other July 8 in Philadelphia after the great Confederate invasion was repelled.
John Reynolds came from a proud Protestant family, and it may be the reason that the two’s engagement was kept completely silent. Kate also made a promise to John that if he should fall in battle, she would join the convent for the rest of her life.
When General Reynolds fell dead, his staff picked him up and rode him into Gettysburg, unknowing that he had been killed, as there was no blood or sign of a wound. When one of his aides felt the back of his skull, he found the hole where the Confederate musket ball had entered. With no casket available, the aides jammed the body into an ill-fitting crate made to carry stones. They found some ice and packed the corpse in the frost cubes to preserve the body as it went to one of his sister’s homes in Baltimore. There the body was embalmed, placed in a burial casket, and put on a train for Philadelphia where his sister Catherine lived on Spruce Street. John’s grieving sister Ellie was there, too.
Kate Hewitt found out about her beloved fiancée’s demise via a newspaper. Distraught, she traveled into the city and waited hours outside the Spruce Street house. Finally, she got up enough courage to knock on the door. When John’s sister answered, she said, “You must be Kate.”
“Yes, I am Kate,” she replied.
Reynolds had not told the family of his love, but when the sisters found the inscribed ring on his pinkie finger and the crucifix, they knew their brother had been in love. Kate Hewitt sat with the body all night, murmuring, “Dearest, how can I give you up? It is very hard to give you up.” She cried copiously as she sat with her hand on his. The ring he gave her was still on her finger.
On July 4, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was over and the Union army celebrated arguably its greatest victory of the war thus far. General Reynolds’ body arrived in his beloved hometown of Lancaster on Independence Day. That evening, he was buried in Lancaster Cemetery where he still rests today in the family plot. After saying her good-bye to John, his sister remembered Kate’s crestfallen look. “John’s death was a devastating, crippling loss,” Ellie Reynolds wrote her friend. “We feel for her, tis like crushing the life out of her.”
Kate Hewitt kept her word and joined the Daughters of Mercy in Emmitsburg, Maryland – an order that dates back to 1633 in France founded by St. Vincent de Paul. The order is dedicated to carrying for the sick and poor. In February of 1864, Sister Hildegardis completed her postulancy and entered the order, removing John’s West Point ring form her finger. It broke her heart to remove it.
She was happy in Emmitsburg and thrived as a Sister, according to Reynolds’ sisters, who wrote and kept in touch with her as a kindred spirit had developed between her and the family. But after four years, Sister Hildegardis was transferred to Albany, New York, where she taught at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. Suddenly though, in September 1868, she abruptly left the order. The Sisters’ council stated, “The council is of the opinion that Sister Hewitt of St. Joseph’s School had better return to her friends – being of very violent temper.”
Kate Hewitt continued to teach in various schools in the Albany region, even starting her own private Catholic school. While immersed in teaching, she fell in love with a florist named Joseph Pfordt who had been a frequent visitor to St. Joe’s for funerals and weddings. A widower with children, Joseph fell in love with Kate and the two were married in a Nuptial Mass at St. Joseph’s Church in June of 1874.
On October 6, 1876, Kate Hewitt tragically died of tuberculous after only two years of marriage at the age of 40. She is buried in St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands, New York. Her memorial stone added a few years ago reads:
Catherine Hewitt Pfordt
Apr 1, 1836 — Oct. 6, 1876
Loving Wife of Joseph Pfordt
One Time Fiancée of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds
Who was Killed in Action at the Battle of Gettysburg
Gettysburg’s love story would be lost to history without the marvelous detective work of Jeffrey Harding – a licensed battlefield guide at Gettysburg and author of the book Gettysburg’s Lost Love Story: The Ill-Fated Love Romance of General John Reynolds and Kate Hewitt (2022 – The History Press). It is a terrific read and surely is the place to turn if you have any interest in this remarkable 19th Century. John Reynolds has not had little attention by historians since he fell dead on McPherson’s Ridge along the Chambersburg Pike on July 1, 1863. The best biography remains Toward Gettysburg: A Biography of John F. Reynolds (1958 — Penn State University Press). Finding a copy of this 65-year-old book takes some scavenger hunting skills. My special thanks goes to Katie Parry of The History Press who kindly gave me permission to use the photo of Kate Hewitt in this article. It is a rare photo taken before her fateful love boat voyage on the SS. Golden Gate that fateful summer of 1860. Eden Hall, operated by the Society of the Sacred Heart Sisters, no longer stands in Torresdale (Northeast Philadelphia) as it fell into disrepair and was destroyed by a deliberately-set fire in January 1979. The academy’s 157-year-old stone chapel survived, but it too was victim to an arson’s torch in July 2007 and was condemned and demolished soon after.
(Kate Hewitt photo courtesy of The History Press, Charleston, S.C.; General Reynolds photo from the Library of Congress; Tipton photo from the Tipton Collection – Gettysburg NMP. Monument and leaf photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness