Major Belle Reynolds: a Civil War saga

By Terry Hogan

Galesburg has its famous Mother Bickerdyke, complete with a statue on the courthouse lawn, memorializing all that she did for the Civil War troops. Her efforts are well established. She "outranked" officers by sheer determination and performance of good deeds, in the saving of lives of wounded troops. Her hard work and contribution to the saving of lives are beyond question.

Peoria had a short-time resident (1860-1864) that had her claim to fame. Perhaps by the token of "It’s better to be lucky than to be good," she received an army rank of Major issued by then Illinois Governor Richard Yates. Here is her rank story.

Belle Reynolds was born in 1840 in the sleepy but beautiful little village of Shelbourne Falls, Mass., nestled in northwestern Massachusetts, along the Connecticut River Valley. She was named Arabella L. Macomber. She was the daughter of a famous family. Her father was a well-known lawyer. In April of 1860, she married William S. Reynolds of Springfield, Mass. Mr. Reynolds became a druggist in Peoria.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, William Reynolds enlisted and became a lieutenant in the 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This unit had companies that were formed in Peoria, Fulton, Henry, Knox, Warren, Woodford, Mercer, and Mason counties. Company E was from Knox and Company F was from Warren. Lt. Reynolds served from 1862 to June 1864, and was the Regiment’s Adjutant for at least a portion of the time. Among the officer ranks of the Regiment was Francis M. Smith from Galesburg who served as a Major and was promoted to Lt. Colonel.

As was allowed in the Civil War, Belle Reynolds became a "camp follower" in the best context of the phrase. She was one of several women who followed the unit and traveled with their husbands.

It was during this phase of following her officer husband about, that she encountered her moment of fame. She was at the Battle of Shiloh (Pittsburg Landing) in Tennessee on April 6 and 7, 1862. At this bloody battle, the Confederates nearly succeeded in pushing Grant’s troops into the river by attacking his forces before Union reinforcements could arrive by boat. The Union position was overrun and the soldiers were backed up to the river after the first day of fighting. However, in a movie-script ending, the Union forces did arrive and on April 7, the well-reinforced Union troops were able to push back the Confederate troops. With the aid of General Buell’s and General Wallace’s fresh Union troops, the nearly successful Confederate effort to end Grant’s military career in 1862 failed.

Caught in all the turmoil, confusion, death, and destruction of battle, Belle Reynolds and other camp followers found themselves shoved back to the river’s edge where wounded and dead troops were stacked among retreating soldiers. She and a friend found relative safety upon a Union steamer, Emerald, that was headquarters for a Captain Norton. Emerald soon became a hospital ship of sorts, receiving an estimated 350 wounded troops.

With nightfall, the Emerald left its mooring and traveled to Savannah and unloaded the wounded troops, and then returned to the battle site. It is reported that Belle and her friend worked on board to help the wounded soldiers. During this period of time, she had no word about the fate of her husband, and feared that she would encounter his wounded or lifeless body.

But once again, keeping with the Hollywood-like script, she felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see her husband: "I hardly knew him-blackened with powder, begrimed with dust, his clothes in disorder, and his face pale. We thought it must have been years since we parted. It was no time for words; he told me I must go. There was a silent pressure of hands. I passed on to the boat."

She boarded a steamer, the Black Hawk, and headed back for Illinois. On board the Black Hawk was a collection of visitors who were interested in the details of the battle just completed. It seems that although tired from recent events, Belle Reynolds proved to be an apt storyteller. She told her story of the battle and the wounded, and presumably it was all the greater, being told by a woman rather than by a soldier who actually fought in the battle.

Among the delegation of visitors was none other than Illinois Governor Richard Yates. Belle wrote in her journal: "The terrible scenes were still before [me] and seemed to be a dreadful part of me, which I was glad to have removed, if relating them might have that effect. I told my story to quite an audience of ladies and gentlemen, Governor Yates being of the number. As I was one of very few ladies who were present at the battle, and had witnessed so large a portion of its scenes, the story seemed to interest all who heard."

As the story goes, at the end of the tale, there were comments from the crowd about her bravery and that she deserved a commission. Governor Yates obliged the crowd and had his secretary fill out a commission, establishing her as an army officer with the rank of Major. Thus, she became an army officer without enlisting, and also outranked her husband. This event placed her squarely in the media’s eye. Beyond local Illinois newspapers such as the "Peoria Daily Transcript" (e.g. May 22, 1862 and January 9, 1863), she was also featured, complete with photo, in the May 17, 1862 issue of the national "Harper’s Weekly". It is interesting that the newspapers, having apparent difficulty with the military rank for a female, referred to her as "Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds".

Subsequent newspaper accounts of the period made brief reference to Belle as traveling with the Governor, and in at least one article, made note that she arrived in town, without the Governor:

"No news of importance from Pittsburg. ... Gov. Yates and Mrs. Major Reynolds have arrived as passengers on the City of Alton." (Cairo, May 23. 1862; Chicago Times, May 24, 1862, Special Dispatch to The Chicago Times);

"Governor Morton, of Indiana, arrived this morning from Pittsburg Landing, and is stopping at the St. Charles Hotel. Mrs. Major Reynolds is a guest of the St. Charles Hotel in this city, awaiting the return of Governor Yates, or the event of a battle near Corinth, it is not definitely known which." (Cairo, May 26, 1862);

"Mrs. Major Reynolds made a sudden departure to-day for St. Louis. Her tarry here, it is said, was the occasion of too much remark to please her." (Cairo, May 28, 1862);

"Mrs. Major Reynolds.—Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds, who has been on Gov. Yates’ staff, seems to be having rather a rough time. The recent reports concerning her and Yates have caused them to part company for the present, and she was last heard of in Missouri. The Hannibal Herald says that on Thursday evening, the 29th, two rowdies, formerly under Price’s command, then under the influence of whisky, appeared at the quarters of Mrs. Major Belle Reynolds, at Hannibal, and demanded ‘an unconditional surrender,’ which was ‘declined’. After taking another drink they proceeded to make ‘a regular investment of the Major’s entrenchments,’ and, ‘having gained favorable positions,’ commenced an attack with brickbats and paving stones. While thus amusing themselves they were set upon by a detachment of police, captured and placed in limbo. The next morning the Major appeared against the miscreants, and they were fined according to their demerits."—Rock Island Argus"(Chicago Times, June 6, 1862); and "Mrs. Major Reynolds arrived here to-day, en route from the Tennessee River to St. Louis. The Governor was not with her." (Cairo, June 9, 1862.).

There was even an article in the "Peoria Daily Transcript" (May 22, 1862) that reported "An Unexpected Family Difficulty" alleging that her husband wanted to be promoted to Colonel so that he would outrank his wife. Perhaps doubting the story itself, the "Peoria Daily Transcript" attributes the story to the "Cincinnati Times".

Nevertheless, she did return to her husband, still in the field, and was with him to observe the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863. At the end of his enlistment, he mustered out of the military in June of 1864.

The "Adjutant General’s Report" for the 17th Infantry Regiment’s three year’s of service makes no mention of "Major" Belle Reynolds, nor does it list her among the officers of the regiment.