The Civil War did not engulf him until 1864 when he joined the Navy and saw service of a none too bellicose nature on a Mississippi gunboat. He was commissary officer and would freely admit in later life that he had never been under fire. The usual aura of glory and glitter of gallantry which gradually encrust most wartime memories were no part of Reed's. "What a charming life that was, that dear old life in the Navy," he would say when others took to recalling the war, "when I kept grocery on a gunboat. I knew all the regulations and the rest of them didn't. I had all my rights and most of theirs." He was to repeat the method and gain the same result in Congress.
When admitted to the bar in Maine in 1865, Reed was a tall, strong young man of twenty-five with a square handsome hard-boned face and thick blond hair. During the next ten years he served as City Counsel for Portland, was elected to the state Legislature and then to the state Senate, was appointed Attorney-General for Maine, married, and grew fat. He had two children, a son who died young and a daughter. His hair thinned until he was almost bald, his figure bellied out until, as he walked down the streets of Portland, he resembled "a human frigate among shallops." Silent, impassive, with an inward-turned eye, noticing no one, he moved along with the ponderous, gently swaying gait of an elephant. "How narrow he makes the street look!" a passer-by once exclaimed.
In 1876, Reed, now thirty-six, was elected to Congress in place of Blaine, who moved up to the Senate. As a member of the committee formed to investigate the Democrats' charges of electoral fraud in the Hayes-Tilden election, his cross-examination of witnesses drew spectators for its forensic artistry and made him nationally prominant. In subsequent Congresses he became a member of the all-important Rules Committee and chairman of the Judiciary Committee while session by session perfecting his knowledge of House procedure and parliamentary device.
A body of rules had grown up "calculated better than anything else," as a colleague said, "to obstruct legislation," a body as full of "intricacies and secrets" as the armamentarium of a medieval cabalist. Reed mastered it. "In my opinion there never has been a more perfectly equipped leader in any parliamentary body at any period," said a professional observer, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who had served with him for seven years in the House. Reed not only knew parliamentary practice and law but "understood as few men do the theory and philosophy of the system." Whether consciously or not, he was preparing for the time when as Speaker he would be able to impress upon the House a sense that no one on the floor could compete with the Chair in command of the rules.
Even with this he could not have imposed his authority if he had not also been "the finest, most effective debater," in Lodge's opinion, "that I have ever seen or heard." He never used an extra word, never stumbled in his syntax, was never at a loss, never forced to retreat or modify a position. He was instant in rejoinder, terse, forcible, lucid. He could state a case unanswerably, illuminate an issue, destroy an argument or expose a fallacy in fewer words than anyone else. His language was vivid and picturesque. "Hardly time to ripen a strawberry," he said to describe a lapse of two months. He had a way of phrasing things that was peculiarly apt and peculiarly his own. In an argument over which of two members, Berry or Curtis, was the taller, he asked them to stand up and be measured. When Berry uncoiled slowly to his full height, Reed said, "My God, Berry, how much of yourself to you keep in your pockets?" His epigrams were famous. "All the wisdom in the world consists in shouting with the majority" was one. "A statesman is a politician who is dead" was another. He rarely made a gesture when speaking. "When he stood up," said Lodge, "waiting for an opponent to conclude, filling the narrow aisle, with his hands resting upon the desk, with every trace of expression banished from his face and looking as if he had not an idea and barely heard what was being said, then he was most dangerous." After one retort which left its victim limply speechless, Reed, looking about him sweetly, remarked, "Having embedded that fly in the liquid amber of my remarks, I will proceed."" The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman, pgs. 119-122.