Jesse Lee Reno: Civil War Hero

There are a handful of towns in the United States named after General Jesse Lee Reno, a Civil War hero who died fighting for the Union in 1862. Gen. Reno was acclaimed by his contemporaries as an outstanding military leader and his troops probably saved the nation’s capital from capture. But people with a knowledge of American history often confuse the namesake of these communities with Maj. Marcus A. Reno, who, until recently, historians had blamed for the brutal defeat of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn in 1876. The misrepresented major has since been exonerated, but he was not the source.

Reno, Nev., got its name when Gen. Irvin McDowell petitioned Charles Crocker, the construction superintendent for Central Pacific Railroad, to pay tribute to the deceased war hero. Like other communities along the transcontinental tracks of CPRR, the company’s directors took the prerogative of naming towns along the line: “Truckee,” after the erroneous identity of a friendly Paiute Indian chief and nearby “Verdi,” for the Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi — locals pronounce it Vur-dye.

It is only fitting Jesse Lee Reno’s dedication is honored in Nevada, the “Battle Born State,” which owes its own statehood to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Residents first learned that “Reno” had replaced the original “Lake’s Crossing” after reading the April 23, 1868, issue of Stars and Stripes, a military publication. With the devastating American Civil War still fresh in everyone’s mind, pro-Union Nevada was proud to have an important city bear the name of such a fine man and illustrious soldier as Gen. Reno.

Jesse Lee was born to Thomas and Rebecca Reno in 1823 in Wheeling, W.V., a fifth generation American of French descent. At the time of Jesse Reno’s death 39 years later, Confederate officers would accuse Reno of being a renegade Virginian, a Southerner who betrayed his homeland and heritage. But Reno was barely 7 years old when his parents moved back to Pennsylvania and he had no true Southern heritage. When Jesse was 19, he was appointed to West Point Military Academy by Pennsylvania Congressman Arnold Plumer.

Reno was an excellent student graduating eighth in a class of 58 in 1846. Members of the class of ’46 included many soon-to-be-famous military officers such as Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the best-known Confederate general who would die early in the Civil War, a victim of friendly fire. Other future generals included McClellan, Foster, Stoneman and Gibbon, who fought for the North. Following his graduation from West Point, Reno was ordered to active duty in the Mexican-American War, which had just started. As lead officer of a howitzer battery (field artillery), he participated in the battles of Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo and Chapultepec. At that last skirmish, Reno was wounded and brevetted as captain for “gallant and meritorious conduct.” Following the war in 1848, he was named professor of mathematics at West Point.

Reno next found himself involved in the 1857-59 conflict between U.S. government troops and Brigham Young and the Church of Latter Day Saints in Utah Territory. On termination of that expedition, Capt. Reno was placed in command of the Leavenworth arsenal in Kansas.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Reno was assigned to the North Carolina Expedition and commissioned a brigadier general, a rank held by only eight other men in the U.S. Army. Gen. Reno accompanied the expedition as it sailed to Hatteras Inlet, N.C., and then stormed the beaches of heavily fortified Roanoke Island in February 1862. Three columns of 10,000 Union troops advanced upon the Confederates’ stronghold with the center column marching up a narrow causeway and taking the brunt of Rebel artillery fire. Gen. Reno, leading one of the flanking columns, secretly advanced through densely wooded swamps to surprise and rout the defenders. The tactic captured Confederate forts, artillery and guns with a garrison of 3,000 soldiers. It was one of the most important battles of the Civil War.

The North Carolina Expedition continued its march into the deep South in a hard-fought campaign that initially brought important battlefield victories for Northern troops. Gen. Reno was a key part of this success and subsequently promoted to the full rank of Major-General. Under command of Major General John Pope, Reno led his Ninth Corps into the Second Battle of Manassas where 62,000 Union soldiers would lose this strategic skirmish with Confederate Gen. Jackson. Nearly 14,000 men in the Union Army were killed in this strategic win for the Rebels. Relieved of his command after this defeat, Gen. Pope sought out scapegoats, but in his report, wrote: “I cannot express myself too highly of the zealous, gallant, and cheerful manner in which General Reno deported himself from the beginning to the end of the operations. He was ever prompt, earnest, and soldierly.”

Reno had survived another battle against an enemy with superior numbers and better field position, but his luck was not to last. The Confederate army under Gen. Robert E. Lee, decided to invade Maryland hoping that the Mason-Dixon Line state would support the Southern cause with open arms. His troops cut communication lines as they surged north in an audacious attempt to capture the Union capital of Washington, D.C., but the welcome they expected was not forthcoming. Resistance to the Confederate Army was intense and Lee found himself confronted by the Union Army of the Potomac at South Mountain near the Potomac River. Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the terrain is rugged and both armies met on opposite ends of Turner’s Gap, an extremely narrow pass. Whoever scaled the 1,000-foot-high ridges on either side of the gap would control the battlefield.

After great difficulty and terrific fighting, Gen. Reno occupied the ridge on the south side of the gap. The battle raged all day and as Reno was leading an attack at 7 p.m. he was mortally wounded. This was the end for the brave and intrepid fighter who fell on Sept. 14, 1862, at age 39.

In his obituary, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, whose style of facial hair became known as “sideburns,” said, “By the death of this distinguished officer, the country loses one of its most devoted patriots, and the Army one of its most thorough soldiers.”

It is only fitting Jesse Lee Reno’s dedication is honored in Nevada, the “Battle Born State,” which owes its own statehood to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.

Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.