Jesse L. Reno is most often remembered for his death at the battle of South Mountain. His death in service of the U.S. Army earned his namesake for Reno, Nevada, and several other western cities. But did you know that Reno was born in Wheeling, Virginia? When Reno was born on April 20, 1823, Wheeling was a bustling and nascent industrial city along the busy Ohio River. The city was the terminus of the National Road and saw extensive growth as a result of this and increasing river traffic from Pittsburgh. Reno’s family lived in Wheeling for a total of sixteen years, Jesse only living there for seven, before moving to Franklin, Pennsylvania.
Wheeling was the industrial hub of western Virginia. By 1850, 86% of Wheeling’s population was born outside of the state, many of them immigrants. Following the National Road or the Ohio River, these transplants sought employment in Wheeling’s many industries which had already developed by 1850. Textiles, glass, ironworks, and tobacco production were all well developed and continuing to grow. The opening of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge in 1849 extended the National Road over the Ohio River and further towards the western United States. These ethnographic and economic differences detached Wheeling from the agrarian and plantation systems which characterized the larger cities of antebellum Virginia.
Northwestern Virginia became a bastion of unionist sentiment in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Despite its continued legalization of slavery, Ohio County voted overwhelmingly to remain in the Union at the Virginia Secession Convention on April 4, 1861. These divisions would eventually lead to two subsequent conventions in Wheeling on May 13 and June 11 of that same year. From the Restored Government of Virginia to the newly admitted state of West Virginia on June 20th, 1863, Wheeling remained a central hub of unionist sentiments. Just like the city of his birth, Reno remained loyal to the United States throughout his military career. These sentiments were not shared by his graduating classmate at West Point and fellow Virginian, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson.
Reno was commissioned a brevet second lieutenant following his graduation at West Point in 1846. That same year the United States entered into war with Mexico. Reno served under General Winfield Scott commanding an artillery battery at the Siege of Veracruz. Reno also served at the battles of Cerro Gordo, Mexico City, and Chapultepec. Throughout his service in the Mexican American War, he was brevetted twice and became a member of the Aztec Club of 1847, a military society exclusive to U.S. Army officers who served in the Mexican American War. Other members included Robert E. Lee, William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and Franklin Pierce.
Following the Mexican American War, Reno continued his career with the US Army. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1853 and served under Brigadier General Albert Sydney Johnston during the Utah Campaign. Upon his return from Utah, Reno was promoted to Captain and given command of the Mount Vernon Arsenal in Alabama. Captain Reno held this position for a little over a year until January 4, 1861. Just before dawn, four companies of Alabamans seized the arsenal. Reno was stationed with only seventeen men and surrendered the arsenal in a bloodless exchange. One week later, Alabama seceded from the Union.
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Jesse Lee Reno left Alabama knowing that the political climate of the previous decade had finally reached the point of no return. In these few months, Reno and the citizens of Virginia’s western counties were met with choices they had never considered prior. While Reno marched towards his eventual death at the Battle of South Mountain, delegates and statesmen in Wheeling desperately sought to create a new representative body in line with the Union and separated from the antiquated economic system so many of their fellow Virginians were dying for.
Just after dusk on September 14, 1862, Major General Jesse Lee Reno rode ahead of the Ninth Corps of McClellen’s Army of the Potomac looking for an answer to the delay of their advance. Reno and his men had been pursuing detachments of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia throughout Maryland for the last two days, enduring limited skirmishes and extensive logistical delay. Reno’s brother Benjamin, a colonel and occasionally his aide, accompanied Reno to South Mountain. That day, McClellen sought to push through Turner’s Gap and confront Lee’s Army head-on. This advance led through Fox’s Gap. While riding ahead, Reno was mistakenly shot by a rookie infantryman from the 35th Massachusetts. Eventually succumbing to his wounds in the presence of his former West Point classmate Samuel Sturgis, Reno is credited with saying, “Tell my command that if not in body, I will be with them in spirit.” The men of the IX Corps famously cried, “Remember Reno!” after his death leading them on to a tactical victory at the Battle of Antietam three days later, the bloodiest single day in the entirety of the American Civil War.
Reno spent the first seven years of his life along the Ohio River in Wheeling, looking towards the unknown potential of his future, witnessing the advancing industry of the United States of America, experiencing the diverse cultures which composed the city, and eventually dedicating his life to the advancement and preservation of it all. The memorials and dedications to his name in the West–such as Reno, Nevada–are nods to Jesse L. Reno’s career and service as far west as Utah and as far south as Mexico City.
William F. McConnell, Remember Reno: A Biography of Major General Jesse Lee Reno, Shippensburg: White Mane Publishing Co. Inc., 1996.
Stephen W. Sears, Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
John Michael Priest, Before Antietam: The Battle for South Mountain, Shippensburg: White Mane Publishing Co. Inc., 1992.
John S. Sledge, “Rebel River.” In The Mobile River, 113-31. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2015.
Jerry Thompson, “Winfield Scott’s Army of Occupation as Pioneer Alpinists: Epic Ascents of Popocatepetl and Citlaltepetl.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 105, no. 4 (2002): 549-81.