The Reynolds Gang, formally members of Company A of Wells’s Battalion, Third Texas Cavalry, was a group of about fifteen Confederate cavalrymen who conducted raids and robberies in the South Park area near the end of the Civil War. Initially considered to be a group of Confederate sympathizers, not actual troops, the group was known at the time and for many years after as the Reynolds Gang after two of its members, brothers James and John Reynolds. Like many of their fellow soldiers in Wells’s Texas Battalion, the brothers had lived in Colorado Territory before the war and were jailed for supporting the Confederacy. On account of the gang’s mythologized history, reports of buried loot, and the cold-blooded execution of several of its members, the story of the Reynolds Gang reflects the strong yet often overlooked Confederate presence in Colorado during the Civil War and is regarded as one of the state’s greatest outlaw legends.
Civil War in Colorado
By 1860, tensions related to the looming Civil War ran high across Colorado Territory. Many miners in the Colorado Gold Rush (1858–59) came from Georgia and Alabama, so the mining camps held plenty of support for the Southern cause. Prominent businessmen and military commanders in the region sent letters of support to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, assuring him that Colorado Territory could be easily secured for the Confederacy. Armed skirmishes between unionists and secessionists broke out across the state in various mining camps and saloons, with some of the worst occurring in Georgia Gulch near Breckenridge. The fledgling territory was on the brink of chaos, and all early indicators pointed to the territory going to the Confederacy. To restore order and secure the Colorado goldfields for the Union, Territorial governor William Gilpin commissioned former Methodist preacher John Chivington as the military commander in the territory.
James and John Reynolds were brothers who first came to Colorado Territory in late 1859, traveling with a group of prospectors who had left the placer fields and gold mines of California. Some evidence suggests that the Reynolds brothers briefly stopped at Gregory’s Diggings (Central City), then made their way to Tarryall, a bustling placer mining camp in South Park. By the time the brothers made it to Tarryall, all the claims had been staked, so they traveled south to a tiny new camp called Fairplay. At the new camp, they panned gold and eked out a living. Amid rising national tension, Jim and John Reynolds, along with a third Reynolds—a man named George who was either another brother or a cousin—left the goldfields of Fairplay in the summer of 1861. No record exists of the exact date the men left town, but their names would appear again in Colorado lore a few months later.
In the late summer and fall of 1861, over 600 Colorado Confederates rallied in a secluded valley about thirty miles southwest of Pueblo at an old trading post called Mace’s Hole. South of the Arkansas River, the Colorado Territory was almost entirely supportive of the Confederacy, and soon every available rifle, pistol, and provision in the region was funneled into Mace’s Hole. Capt. George Madison assumed command of the Colorado Confederate volunteers at Mace’s Hole, and Confederate general Henry Sibley gave Madison direct orders to disrupt mail service, capture Union supply columns, and secure the Colorado goldfields for the Confederacy. Word soon spread to Union troops in Colorado about the rebel encampment, and troops were sent to intervene before Madison could put the Confederate plan into action.
Many of the Mace’s Hole Confederates were away on recruiting missions when Union forces descended on the encampment in October 1861. The federal troops drove the remaining Confederates into the surrounding hills, and many retreated to Sibley’s army in New Mexico. After the skirmish, a handful of Confederates were taken prisoner and marched to Denver, where they were jailed and charged with treason. A recently discovered newspaper clipping from the Colorado City Journal dated November 28, 1861, lists the names of forty-four men taken prisoner at Mace’s Hole. Among the names on the list were James Reynolds and John Reynolds.
In January 1862, a group of armed men launched a failed attempt to free the imprisoned Confederates from the Denver City Jail. On February 27, 1862, with the help of a guard named Jackson Robinson, a second attempt successfully freed thirty-six of the forty-four men, including James and John Reynolds. The archives of the Third Texas Cavalry, Confederate States of America, show that the Reynolds brothers and the mysterious “George Reynolds” enlisted in Company A of Wells’s Texas Battalion in 1863. Muster sheets indicate that several of the men in the unit as being among those captured at Mace’s Hole in 1861. Under the command of Gen. Douglas Cooper, Wells’s Battalion made its way into New Mexico and Colorado Territories in 1864, and it was under Cooper’s orders that the Reynolds Gang appeared in South Park.
The Reynolds Gang in Colorado
In the summer of 1864, during the waning stages of the Civil War, local newspapers began referring to a group of bandits plundering towns and stagecoaches in South Park. The bandits were actually a group of Confederates from Company A of Wells’s Battalion. Led by James Reynolds, the group had official orders to disrupt Union supply trains and gather Confederate recruits from the mining camps. Soon after the group’s first few stagecoach robberies—near Kenosha Pass, Como, and Fairplay—local papers dubbed the group the Reynolds Gang and started blaming them for every missing penny, distant gunshot, or unexplained bump in the night. Accounts of what the gang stole range widely—from a few jars of gold dust and a pocket watch to several hundred thousand dollars in coins, paper money, arms, and jewelry. Some accounts state that the plunder was to be funneled back to the Confederacy, while others claimed the loot went to the gang members themselves.
Union forces in Colorado became aware of the gang after it robbed stagecoach driver Abner Williamson, who relayed the tale of the robbery to anyone within earshot. Following the robbery of the stage station at Kenosha Pass, a posse of angry citizens and law enforcement officers from Fairplay, Jefferson, and Montgomery was formed to apprehend the gang. On July 31, 1864, the posse stumbled upon the gang, tipped off by the flickering flames of their campfire along a creek near present-day Grant. A shootout ensued, and members of the gang fled on foot and on horseback.
At daybreak, the posse discovered that one outlaw died in the skirmish. The identity of this man has been debated over the years, but whoever he was, the posse from South Park severed his head and carried it around as a trophy of their exploits. The rest of the gang had split up and disappeared into the hills. Several days later, five gang members had been located and captured. At least two more members—some say three—including John Reynolds, made their escape into New Mexico Territory, last seen by the troops of the Third Colorado Territorial Cavalry heading south from the Spanish Peaks. The escaped bandits’ trail soon went cold, and it was accepted that they had escaped to New Mexico Territory. Meanwhile, the five captured members of the gang were beaten, interrogated, and put on trial in Denver. Accused of rape, murder, and robbery, the men were found guilty only on the charge of robbery and ordered to march to Fort Lyon for sentencing.
End of the Gang
The original plan was for the five Confederate prisoners to await the return of the commanding officer at Fort Lyon, who would issue their sentences. But this was apparently not enough for Colonel Chivington, who colluded with his subordinate officers to make it seem like the prisoners brought about their own execution. Some thirty miles south of Denver, in present-day Douglas County, Sgt. Alston Shaw, the ranking officer of the escort, ordered the prisoners blindfolded and shackled together around the trunk of a large tree near an old springhouse. Shaw then ordered his men to execute the prisoners, but they refused, protesting that the captives were military prisoners of war, guilty of only robbery and placed under their protection. Shaw again ordered his troops to fire. This time, all but one soldier raised their rifles into the air and fired over the heads of the shackled prisoners. Only one prisoner fell dead, killed by cavalry guard Abner Williamson—the stagecoach driver who had earlier been robbed by the band. With his men clearly unwilling to carry out his orders, Shaw himself shot the next prisoner in the head at point-blank range, but then he reportedly became sickened at the sight and refused to kill another. Williamson finally took over and murdered the rest of the prisoners.
Per Chivington’s orders, official reports claimed the prisoners were shot for attempting to escape. But word of the Reynolds Gang’s execution soon traveled to Confederate sympathizers in the region, including the famous Colorado trader “Uncle” Dick Wooton, who set out to find the bodies of the dead men. Upon reaching Russellville, Wooton found the decomposing corpses of the five men shackled hand-in-hand around a tree. Outraged, Wooten demanded to know how five men could be shot while attempting to escape if they were shackled to a tree. An inquiry was opened, and testimony by members of the escort described the true events of the day, not the “escape” story fabricated by Chivington. Recently discovered documents show that on February 6, 1865, the convictions of the captured Confederate soldiers of the Reynolds Gang were overturned, and the men were posthumously pardoned. Chivington was found to have acted alone and against orders when he directed Shaw to carry out the executions. Chivington had all his personal records regarding the case destroyed shortly before his death in 1894, partly explaining why the true story had been silenced for more than a century.
In 1871, seven years after the shootout near Grant, two men were involved in a gunfight near Taos, New Mexico, following an attempted cattle theft. One of the men was named John Reynolds, and on his deathbed he confessed a tale of buried treasure in the hills west of Denver. He described the 1864 shootout in detail and drew a crude map of the approximate location of the plunder. Without a doubt, this was the same John Reynolds who escaped the posse in July of 1864 and fled south into New Mexico.
It is said that “history is written by the victors,” and in the case of the Reynolds Gang, this is very true. Described as brigands, rapists, and murderers in history books today, long suppressed documents now tell a different story. We now know that the Reynolds Gang was an official group of Confederate soldiers acting on direct military orders to disrupt Union supply lines in Colorado Territory. In summer 1864, these Confederate soldiers were captured, tried, found guilty of robbery, and then unlawfully executed. Their case was reviewed, and their convictions overturned. Unfortunately, to this day the victor’s version of events is still told, and the bodies of these Civil War soldiers lay in unmarked graves somewhere in Colorado, vilified by history and forgotten by time.
Adapted from “Exonerating ‘The Reynolds Gang’—Debunking Colorado’s Greatest Outlaw Legend,” Life . . . Death . . . Iron (blog), April 26, 2015.