Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jesse Reno

Mike Dittman at Venangago-go a few weeks back posted a reference to local war hero Jesse Reno, which reminded me of this piece that saw print ten years ago. It[‘s reprint time!
(News-Herald, May 1999) My friend Richard brought to my attention the book Remembering Reno by William F. McConnell, recounting Jesse Reno’s life and military career. Reno was born in 1823 and raised in Franklin. His West Point graduating class (1846) included George McClellan and Stonewall Jackson.
24-year-old Lieutenant Reno was part of Winfield Scott’s force attacking Vera Cruz, Mexico, in March of 1847. The war with Mexico trained many young officers; Captain Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant distinguished themselves against Santa Anna.
In 1853, Reno surveyed a road to run roughly 280 miles from Sioux City, Iowa, to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Upon completion of the nearly three-month trip, Reno submitted his report to U. S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis.
Reno was thirty before he was able to marry. He and his wife settled into a fairly cushy posting at a Philadelphia arsenal for a few years, but then Reno was called up when Pennsylvania’s own President Buchanan decided to sic the US army on the Mormons.
The tension had been building since the 1846 settlement by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah; the Saints were determined to maintain control of their territory, while some other portions of the country were unwilling to admit a polygamous state to the union.
President Buchanan attempted to remove Brigham Young as governor of Utah; Mormon fanatic John Lee reportedly incited a band of Native Americans to kill 120 settlers bound for California.
Reno was part of the federal force sent to get matters back under control. The whole business might have turned ugly (or uglier, at any rate) except that commanding officer Colonel Alexander dithered until the troops were forced to dig in for the winter and devote all their energy to staying alive, far away from any remotely grumpy Mormons. By the spring thaw a peace had been brokered, and Reno could return to his family after nearly two years.
When the Civil War broke out, Reno was jumped from captain to brigadier general in order to serve under old friend Ambrose Burnside, who was serving under Reno’s old classmate McClellan. Reno’s first work under Burnside was successful; unfortunately, he next served under Pope in the Union’s disastrous defeat at Bull Run.
I can’t look at the Civil War without being struck by how many men faced familiar opponents. Reno found himself battling Stonewall Jackson, former classmate and good friend, three separate times in his last months in battle. They would cross paths one more time. John Greenleaf Whittier immortalized Barbara Fritchie, a 90-year-old Union supporter in Frederick, Virginia, who waved her flag at Jackson’s troops. When one raised his musket to shoot, the poet gave her the line, “Shoot if you must this old grey head but spare your country’s flag.” Two days later, Reno passed Fritchie’s home and was invited in for a glass of homemade currant wine. Upon departure, the widow presented him with the large bunting flag from her window. It was that flag which would cover his casket at his funeral.
Shortly before the Battle of South Mountain, Reno met future President Colonel Rutherford B. Hayes. It was not a particularly pleasant meeting; the terms “sons of bitches” and “court martial” both came up.
A week later, while traveling up a line of troops, Reno was shot. At the rear he was greeted by old friend and classmate Brigadier general Sam Sturgis. “Hello, Sam, I’m dead,” said Reno.
Reno was thirty-nine years old when he died.
His wife never remarried; she died in 1880. Of their five children, only two lived to adulthood. Conrad was a prominent Boston lawyer. His brother Jesse was an engineer who perfected a plan for the construction of subways in New York City and invented the escalator. The brothers also supposedly introduced Dwight F. Davis to the game of tennis; you may have heard of a small cup named after him.
Reno, Nevada, was named after Jesse in 1868. Reno, Pennsylvania, was dedicated to his memory in 1865. According to Hildegarde Dolson, the Pithole to Reno railroad hired as its head engineer Reno’s old classmate and commander, Ambrose Burnside.
Reno is a good reminder of how much soldiers sacrificed. Not just the premature death in battle, but all they gave up before then: the opportunity for a home, a stable family life, the emotional cost of being pitted against old friends in battle. I think that all deserves at least a moment of silence before we light the charcoal on Memorial Day.

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