Editor's Note: This article is part of an occasional series on the Civil War sesquicentennial provided by members of the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee.
One of the city's unsung Civil War heroes is Jesse Reno, born in Wheeling, Va., on April 20, 1823.
Jesse was the third oldest of eight children born to Lewis and Rebecca Quinby Reno and lived in our city until he was 7, when his family moved to Franklin, Pa. His ancestors had changed the family name from Reynault to Reno when they immigrated to this country in the 1700s.
He attended West Point where he soon became close friends with Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Other classmates included George McClellan. He graduated eighth in his class and was soon fighting in the Mexican-American War. He was seriously injured at the Battle of Chapultapec.
After the war, he taught mathematics at West Point and instructed in the use of the howitzer. After conducting a road survey in Minnesota, he married and had five children. His son, Conrad, was a Boston attorney and writer. His son, Jesse W., invented the first escalator.
Reno was known as a "soldier's soldier" and though young, led his men bravely. During the Civil War, it became imperative to stop Lee's advance through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Maryland. South Mountain presented quite an obstacle to McClellan's troops and so he divided his army into three units in an attempt to cross it. Lee's plans (known as Order 191) detailing troop movements fell into Union hands, and McClellan was able to position his soldiers at the three gaps in the mountain where Lee's men were entrenched but badly outnumbered.
Gen. Ambrose Burnside, whose second in command by request was Jesse Reno, now a brigadier general, commanded the right wing of troops. At 9 a.m. Sept. 14, 1862, the armies clashed. Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes (later to be elected president) was severely wounded.
The exhausted Union troops were overwhelmed by reinforcements of Confederate soldiers who spread out around the Daniel Wise farm. Reno was killed by a North Carolina sharpshooter as he stood in front of his troops, his uniform as general an easy target. After the battle, Union men dumped the bodies of 60 Confederates down the well of farmer Wise and paid him $60 in compensation.
Although an important boost to Northern morale, South Mountain saw the death of 2,325 Union men of 28,000 and 2,685 of 18,000 Confederate troops.
After he was shot, Reno was taken by stretcher to the command post of Gen. Samuel Sturgis where he said, "Hallo, Sam, I'm dead." His voice was so strong, that Sturgis replied that things could not be as bad as all that, yet minutes later Reno stated, "Yes, yes, I'm dead - good-bye!" and passed on. Other historians say his last words were "Tell my command that if not in body, I will be with them in spirit."
Jesse Reno is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Reno was just 39 years old.
Some say his body is wrapped in the famous flag which belonged to Barbara Freitchie, of the noble poem by John Greenleaf Whittier which extolled Confederate soldiers passing through Fredericksburg to "Shoot if you must this old gray head, but spare your country's flag, she said." Freitchie was 90 years old at the time. The poem is a myth as she was bedridden at the time the troops passed through her town, and they did not come within 1,000 yards of her door.
The town of Reno, Nev., was named for Jesse Reno who was admired by the town's sponsor, Charles Reno, who liked the sound of the name and admired the soldier as a hero. His statue stands in that town.