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Friday, June 16, 2017

The "The Mystery Of The Handkerchief" Story

It was an ordinary day.  Searching the Internet for information on a young woman by the name of Catherine Mary Hewitt, or Kate Hewitt.  And, why am I searching for this young woman you may want to know.  Story starts back in 1958 when I was a 9th grade student at Manheim Township High School.  Was playing quarterback for the freshman football team while my friend Jerry was my center.  Another young man, by the name of Josh Reynolds, was a senior starter for the varsity that year.  I remember Jerry and I getting a chance to suit up for a varsity game close to the end of the year and watching the varsity team members in the locker room gather around the star of the team, Josh Reynolds.  I also remember Josh when we both were members of the high school youth group at St. James Episcopal Church in downtown Lancaster, PA.  We knew of each other, but weren't close friends.  Josh went on to wealth and stardom when he created the Mood Ring in 1975 with his friend Maris Ambats.  As for me, I taught high school and went on to stardom as the writer of this blog you're reading.  
Major General John Reynolds
Well, anyway, what Josh or I did doesn't have anything to do with the rest of my story except for the fact that Josh was a distant relative to Major General John Reynolds and I thought that was pretty neat to be related to someone that famous.  Major General John Reynolds was born in Lancaster County and went to school in nearby Lititz, PA.  He then went to school in Long Green, Maryland and then returned to Lancaster for schooling at the Lancaster County Academy.  At the age of 17 he was nominated by Senator James Buchanan to the United States Military Academy.  Graduated in 1841 and commissioned a brevet second lieutenant in the 3rd U.S. Arltillery and was assigned to Fort McHenry.  His service time saw him travel with tours of duty throughout the United States and Mexico.  
Catherine Mary Hewitt
He participated in the Rogue River Wars of 1856 in Oregon and the Utah War with the Mormons in 1857-58.  He returned to the east coast and became Commandant of Cadets at West Point from 1860 to 1861.  Upon his return from the West, he became engaged to Catherine Mary Hewitt.  Since he was Protestant and she was Catholic, the engagement was kept a secret.  Then in 1863, Reynolds was commanding the "left wing" of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania during the Civil War when he yelled to his men, "Forward men!  For God's sake forward!"  At that instant he fell from his horse with a wound from a sniper in the back of the upper neck, or lower head, and died almost instantly.  
An etching of Reynolds being shot.
Reynold's body was quickly removed by field ambulance and then, along with his personal effects, were sent to the home of his sister Catherine on Spruce Street in Philadelphia.  There he laid in State until his funeral on July 4 in his home town of Lancaster.  Now for the part of my story about Kate Hewitt or John's fiancee.  While going through John's belongings, his family in Philadelphia discovered Kate's Catholic medal and a gold ring in the form of clasped hands which he had around his neck.  Inside the ring was inscribed the words Dear Kate.  On July 3 Kate called at the house on Spruce Street.  
Reynolds monument in
Lancaster's Cemetery.
Catherine, John's sister heard the knock on the door and rushed to the door to meet their beloved brother's fiancee and embrace her warmly.  Kate, after seeing the body, broke down and wept. Kate returned John's ring, but kept her Catholic medal he had worm.  Eight days after Major General John Reynolds was buried in Lancaster Cemetery, Kate Hewitt applied for admission to the Sisters of Charity Convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland. This, it seems, was the vow that Kate and John had made before he was killed in action.  Their plans for the future, if all went well, was to be married after the Civil War, but in the event that John would die, Kate would become a nun.  The establishment of the Sisters of Charity was located only ten miles from the Gettysburg Battlefield where her fiancee had been killed.  Seems that Reynolds and his First Corps had passed the convent only a few hours before he was killed.  Kate, wanting to know every thing about John, asked the other nuns to bring the General's orderly, Sergeant Charles Henry Veil, to visit her at the convent.  Shortly Veil met Kate at the convent to tell her of John's last days.  
Inscription of the grave of Reynolds.  Click to enlarge.
Veil was the one who pulled John's body to safety after he was killed.  When he was ready to leave she said, "Mr. Veil, I have a little token here I had for the General, some of my own work, and I want to give it to you as a token if remembrance of both of us."  She took from the folds of her dress a small package.  After leaving the convent Veil found the package to contain a very beautifully embroidered handkerchief with the Coat-of-Arms of the United States on it.  A few months later one of the nuns wrote to Veil telling him that Kate Hewitt had taken the name of Sister Hildegarde and had gone to New York to teach in a Catholic school.  
Monument at Gettysburg to Reynolds.
Then on September 3, 1968 Kate left the Community of Sisters of Charity.  She was still in mourning for the love of her life and finally gave up on the Catholic faith and returned to her hometown of Stillwater, New York.  She never married and died of pneumonia in 1895 in Stillwater. On her headstone was the word Mizpah which is Hebrew for "May God watch over you until we are together again." She had finally returned to the love of her life.  As for the handkerchief, Veil left the Sisters of Charity and went directly to his home in Johnstown, PA and gave the handkerchief to his mother for safekeeping.  
The cover of Charles Henry Veil's Memoirs.
Veil returned to service and his mother died, but his elder sister took charge of the handkerchief.  She had it in her little "casket" or pocketbook when the Johnstown Flood washed through town, killing thousands of people.  As the wall of water washed down her street she managed to save the precious handkerchief.  The Army dismissed Veil in 1871, but he didn't return to Pennsylvania until 1891 when he retrieved the handkerchief once again and wrote about it in his memoirs.  Charles Henry Veil died in 1910, but his memories weren't published until 1993 as "A Soldier's Recollections of the Civil War and the Arizona Territory: The Memoirs of Charles Henry Veil."  But, what ever happened to the handkerchief meant for Lancastrian John Reynolds is an unsolved mystery.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy.    


  1. A photograph of a handkerchief embroidered with General Reynolds name was featured in the Gettysburg Magazine inside cover this past winter, but I couldn't afford to buy an issue. It does not fit the same description here, and was perhaps one that was with him. Do you know if a handkerchief owned by Reynolds is in the Park Service museum at Gettysburg? Or have you seen the issue I mention? Thank you for your article. --Minnesota Lady

  2. Dear Minnesota Lady. Thank you for reading my story. I'm sorry to say I know very little other than what I have written. I never heard or read about the handkerchief you have described, but that could very well be another one that he carried with him. I will have to make an effort to visit the Park Service Museum when I get to Gettysburg again. I will have to check out the magazine online and see if I can find the story. Thanks for the information. LDub