GENERAL JOHN SEDGWICK, USA - History

GENERAL JOHN SEDGWICK, USA - History


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VITAL STATISTICS
BORN: 1813 in Cornwall Hollow, CT.
DIED: 1864 in Spotsylvania, PA.
(Just before the Battle).
CAMPAIGNS: Peninsula, Antietam, and Gettysburg.
HIGHEST RANK ACHIEVED: Major General.
BIOGRAPHY
John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut, on September 13, 1813. He attended Sharon Academy for a brief period and taught school for two winters before he obtained an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point. Graduating in 1837, he fought under Gen. Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, and spent the years before the Civil War in Indian campaigns. Promoted to brigadier general as of August 31, 1861, he led a division in the Peninsula campaign, and was made a major general to rank from July 4, 1862. Sedgwick was wounded at Antietam, then was placed in command of a corps after he recovered. He also took part in the Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Mine Run and Wilderness Campaigns. Considered a solid and dependable, yet modest leader; he was even rumored to be under consideration for command of the Army of the Potomac. On May 9, 1864, shortly before the Battle of Spotsylvania, Sedgwick was shot in the head and killed. He was buried in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut.

Early life [ edit | edit source ]

Sedgwick was born in the Litchfield Hills town of Cornwall, Connecticut. He was named for his grandfather, John Sedgwick (brother of Theodore Sedgwick), an American Revolutionary War general who served with George Washington. After teaching for two years, he attended the United States Military Academy, graduated in 1837 ranked 24th of 50, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army's artillery branch. He fought in the Seminole Wars and received two brevet promotions in the Mexican-American War, to captain for Contreras and Churubusco, and to major for Chapultepec. After returning from Mexico he transferred to the cavalry and served in Kansas, in the Utah War, and in the Indian Wars, participating in 1857 in a punitive expedition against the Cheyenne. Ώ]

In the summer and fall of 1860 Sedgwick commanded an expedition to establish a new fort on the Platte River in what is now Colorado. He was greatly handicapped with the non-delivery of expected supplies which were to be forwarded by wagon-train from the nearest fort in Kansas but managed to erect comfortable quarters for his men before cold weather set in. These buildings were constructed largely of stone with timber for roofs and doors. It is difficult to realize the remoteness of this post but there were no railroads west of the Mississippi River and communication with St. Louis and Kansas City was by river boat and west of that by wagon train or horseback. ΐ]


General John Sedgwick

John Sedgwick was born September 13, 1813 in Cornwall Hollow in the Berkshire Mountains of northwest Connecticut. He attended the Sharon Academy, and taught for two years himself, before receiving an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Sedgwick graduated in 1837, in the middle of a prodigious class that included Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, John C. Pemberton and Joseph Hooker. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery, and went on to fight the Seminoles in Florida and aid in the removal of the Cherokee Nation from Georgia.

Sedgwick performed admirably in the Mexican War. Serving under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, he was brevetted twice: first for his actions at the battles of Contreras and Churubusco, then again, three weeks later, at the storming of Chapultepec. Returning home, Sedgwick was assigned to the newly-created 1st Cavalry. In the 1850s, as the nation lurched inexorably toward Civil War he, like most in the regular army, was stationed on the western frontier.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Sedgwick reported to Washington D.C. to serve as acting inspector general of the city, and was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers in August. He commanded a division in Edwin “Bull” Sumner’s Corps during Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, and was wounded in the arm and the leg at the Battle of Frayser’s Farm (Glendale) on June 30, 1862. He was promoted to major general on the 4th of July.

At the battle of Antietam Sedgwick’s division was decimated by artillery and a powerful Confederate flank attack. Sedgwick himself displayed tremendous gallantry, however, and was wounded three times and had a horse shot from under him before being carried unconscious from the field. “Uncle John,” as his men affectionately dubbed him, reported back for duty less than 90 days later.

Following his return, with his former classmate Joseph Hooker now leading the Army of the Potomac, Sedgwick was given command of the VI Corps. During the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863, Sedgwick’s men successfully stormed Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg – which was defended by another of his West Point classmates: Jubal Early -- but were unable to prevent a disastrous Union defeat at Chancellorsville. Sedgwick’s VI Corps was mostly held in reserve at Gettysburg, but performed exceptionally at the battle of Rappahannock Station in November, capturing four field pieces, eight stands of enemy colors and 1,700 prisoners.

In the early summer of 1864, Sedgwick led his corps with typical reliability at the outset of Grant’s Overland campaign. At the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, he was personally directing artillery placements and forming his line when he uttered his last, now famous, words, “They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Just then, in a moment of profound irony, he was struck and killed by a Confederate bullet. When Grant heard the news he could hardly believe it, repeatedly asking, “Is he really dead?”

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union casualty of the war, and widely beloved by his soldiers and his superiors. He is buried near his home in Cornwall Hollow.


Photo, Print, Drawing [Major General John Sedgwick of 2nd Regular Army Cavalry Regiment in uniform] / Brady, New York.

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Photo, Print, Drawing Maj. General John Sedgwick and staff

The Library of Congress does not own rights to material in its collections. Therefore, it does not license or charge permission fees for use of such material and cannot grant or deny permission to publish or otherwise distribute the material.

Ultimately, it is the researcher's obligation to assess copyright or other use restrictions and obtain permission from third parties when necessary before publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the Library's collections.

For information about reproducing, publishing, and citing material from this collection, as well as access to the original items, see: Civil War Photographs (Anthony-Taylor-Rand-Ordway-Eaton Collection and Selected Civil War Photographs) - Rights and Restrictions Information

  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-34132 (digital file from original item) LC-B8184-B619 (b&w film copy neg.)
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Tools of the Trade

While the Enfield or Springfield muskets that were issued often came with little more than a bayonet or a sling, Confederate sharpshooters fortunate enough to possess a Whitworth required several vital accoutrements to maintain their precision arm.

Bullet Tins

The storage of Whitworth bullets prepared for shooting could take the form of containers like these reproductions of original Whitworth tins. Capable of holding lubricated/patched projectiles, wads and percussion caps—these tins aided in organizing and maintaining accurate ammunition.

Powder Flask/Combination Tool (Michael Williams and Doug Wicklund)

Powder Flask/Combination Tool

Exact powder charges could be thrown consistently using this leather-covered adjustable flask, increasing potential accuracy. If a heavier charge was needed, the flask tip could be adjusted to increase how much powder was thrown. A combination tool holding a percussion cone wrench, accessory screwdriver tips, and an oiler helped maintain a rifle at peak efficiency. Cone protectors could be fashioned in the field from a carved bullet.

Bullet Molds

Bullet Molds (Michael Williams and Doug Wicklund)

A limited amount of Whitworth ammunition was imported in the form of loaded cartridges and projectiles prepared in British factories. These paper cartridges were fragile and easily damaged in the field. Bullet molds were also included in each shipment of rifles. Confederate arsenals generally cast bullets, as the industrial machinery to swage hexagonal projectiles was not available. Cylindrical bullet molds were the most commonly encountered, but expedient hexagonal bullet molds could be constructed using a section of barrel. Markings on the mold would indicate the caliber and bullet weight. The lead–tin mixture used in casting would determine the hardness of the projectiles and also their weight. Whitworth bullet molds were similar in pattern to Enfield molds, being carefully constructed of bronze alloy, with an iron spruce cutter and base plug. –D.W. & M.W.

When issued, the rifles came with specific rules of engagement. The Whitworth sharpshooter would only use his gun against high-value targets. Artillery positions, cavalry scouts, exposed officers, and enemy sharpshooters were fair game. Furthermore, they were free to operate independently, choosing their own targets and locations on the battlefield. Some Confederate generals—especially Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne of the Army of Tennessee—consolidated their sharpshooters into dedicated companies, using them to divert enemy forces where needed.

While many high-ranking Union officers had fallen victim to sharpshooters armed with Whitworth rifles, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, in command of the 6th Corps at Spotsylvania, was the most noteworthy witness to their effectiveness. Sedgwick was no stranger to enemy bullets, having been wounded several times prior to Spotsylvania. Ironically, he was hit but not injured by a spent bullet on May 8, 1864. The next day, his luck ran out.

The conditions the morning of May 9 were practically perfect for a sharpshooter. Sedgwick’s headquarters near the fork of the Brock Road was just 100 feet behind the Union’s front line. There the Federal forces had pushed forward into a convex angle, until less than 900 yards separated the opposing armies. Artillery and infantry positions slowly adjusted as the two Union corps merged on the Brock Road, further enhancing the target-rich environment.

Sedgwick chided veteran soldiers with assurances that confederate shooters ‘couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance

Sedgwick was in the middle of it all. It was 9:15 a.m., and he had just sat down to breakfast—a simple cup of coffee. In a jovial mood, he joked with his staff, teasing a colonel laboring to fill his pipe.

Bullets from the Confederate infantry constantly whistled overhead, a handful of better-aimed shots striking closer. One hundred yards from Sedgwick, Colonel Frederick T. Locke was wounded by a sharpshooter, but Sedgwick evidently didn’t care. Generals Grant and Meade rode by and asked if he wanted to travel along the lines. Sedgwick declined, electing to stay with his men to adjust an infantry position that was in danger of overlapping his artillery.

As the general walked to the point of concern, the enemy fire intensified. Veteran soldiers nearby ducked for cover however, Sedgwick stood firm, chiding them with assurances that the Confederate shooters “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Ignoring pleas from his troops to leave the field of fire, the general stepped between two cannon of the 1st Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery and repeated his earlier observation: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

According to eyewitnesses, at 9:45 a.m., they heard the distinctive “whistle” of a Whitworth projectile, and next, the dull thud of the round hitting Sedgwick in the face. As he slowly slumped to the ground, the bullet hole was plainly visible below his left eye.

(Morey Milbradt / Alamy Stock Photo)


General John Sedgwick and His Last Words

Major Gen. John Sedgwick

On May 9, 1864, General John Sedgwick became the highest ranking United States soldier to be killed in the U.S. Civil War when a sharpshooter killed him at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. But despite Sedgwick’s leadership and his bravery, he is most known for his last words.

“They Couldn’t Hit An Elephant”

As his own men took cover while Confederate sharpshooters from 1000 yards away fired at the Union soldiers, Sedgwick stood tall. Trying to inspire his men, he asked, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” A few moments later, he was shot in the eye and killed.

Sedgwick had been involved in the Civil War from its very beginning, starting out as a colonel. He and his men saw action in places such as the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Chancellorsville, and at the Battle of the Wilderness.

Sedgwick’s death came a little less than a year before the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1965. Also, he died exactly one year before the official end of the war by proclamation on May 9, 1865.

Despite dying while questioning his soldiers, Sedgwick apparently was well-liked by his men, who called him “Uncle John.” Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. George G. Meade were greatly saddened at his death, as was his old friend on the other side of the war, Robert E. Lee.

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

There are a number of songs about guns and/or being shot, either literally or figuratively. For example, there is Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” (“shot through the heart. . .”), Eric Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.”

Other songs include The Clash’s “Tommy Gun,” Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” Beastie Boys’s “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man.” And there is David Lee Roth’s song that invokes the type of animal in Sedgwick’s last words, “Elephant Gun.”

One of the few songs, though, that takes the point of view of the person being shot is Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Dylan wrote the song for the 1973 movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

In Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, director Sam Peckinpah used the song about the last words of a wounded sheriff to accompany the death of Sheriff Colin Baker (played by Slim Pickens). Dylan’s song begins around the 2-minute mark in the following clip from the film.

Unlike the sheriff in “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” General Sedgwick had little time to contemplate the end of his life after he was shot in the head. Yet, his last words have had a lasting power.

Storytellers used Sedgwick’s last words for a number of purposes. Depending on how you look at his death, his last words illustrate courage, bravura, or stupidity.

You have to give some kudos to the guy, though, and many have. There is a monument to Sedgwick at West Point. And among other tributes, there are cities named in Sedgwick’s memory in Arkansas, Colorado, and Kansas. Colorado and Kansas also named counties after Sedgwick. Streets are named after him in New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, nobody remembers the name of the man who killed him. Several Confederate soldiers claimed responsibility, though many believe Benjamin Medicus Powell fired the fatal shot using a long-range Whitworth sharpshooter rifle (with telescope) from England.

What are your favorite last words? Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo via public domain.


The Killing of Uncle John

“I beg of you not to go to that angle,” said Lieutenant Colonel Martin McMahon. “Every officer who has shown himself there has been hit, both yesterday and to-day.” McMahon, Major General John Sedgwick’s chief of staff, was referring to a jog in the lines of the Union VI Corps near Laurel Hill, Virginia, where Confederate sharpshooters were particularly troublesome that May 9, 1864. One in particular “killed with every shot” and was “said to have taken twenty lives.” Casualties of rank that morning already included a staff officer, Colonel Frederick T. Locke, and one of Sedgwick’s brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. William Morris, who had been shot off his horse and severely wounded. “Well, I don’t know that there is any reason for my going there,” Sedgwick replied.

An hour later, however, smarting under the unceasing hail of lead, he ordered his own skirmish line to move farther out and sent McMahon up to supervise. A line of infantrymen soon filed into position near the point of the angle. “That is wrong,” said Sedgwick. “Those troops must be moved farther to the right I don’t wish them to overlap that battery.”

“Uncle John,” as his men affectionately called him, joined his chief of staff near the guns to oversee the deployment, forgetting his promise of an hour before. On the brow of a low hill 500 yards away, a Confederate rifleman, probably from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps sharpshooter detachment, noted how the others deferred to two men who had just arrived. He adjusted the sights of his Whitworth rifle and began gently squeezing the trigger.

All this Federal movement drew “a sprinkling fire” from their opponents. Mixed in with the popping of the service Enfields, however, was “a long shrill whistle” of another type of round. Although no one was hit, some of the men instinctively dodged. “What! What! men, dodging this way for single bullets!” said Sedgwick, laughing. “What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Another of the whistling rounds passed close by, even as the general prodded one of the men with his boot. “Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,” he said. He repeated that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” The soldier defended his actions: “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” Sedgwick, who was in a genial mood, chuckled and said, “All right, my man go to your place.” The sharpshooter, now sure of the range, touched the trigger once more.

John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall Hollow, Conn., in 1813. After a short stint as a teacher, he attended West Point, graduating 24th in his class in 1837, after which he began his military service as an artillery officer. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sedgwick gained plenty of combat experience prior to the Civil War, serving in the Seminole War and in Mexico, where he earned two brevets for gallantry. Transferring to the cavalry, he participated in various campaigns against the Indians in the West and in the Mormon Expedition.

In April 1861, Sedgwick was promoted to colonel and took over the 1st Cavalry when his commander, Robert E. Lee, resigned. Like many professional soldiers he saw the war as an opportunity to advance quickly through the ranks. By August, he had been appointed brigadier general of volunteers and had been given command of a brigade. That fall he took over a division in the Army of the Potomac after its commander, Charles P. Stone, was arrested, and as such took part in Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan’s Peninsula campaign of 1862. Wounded at Glendale, he received a second star that summer. At Antietam Sedgwick tangled with Stonewall Jackson in the West Wood and came off second best. His division was cut to pieces, and Sedgwick himself, hit by three bullets, was carried unconscious from the field. “If I am ever hit again,” he said, “I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds.”

When Sedgwick returned to duty late that year he was rewarded with a corps command. After a month at the helm of the II Corps, followed by three weeks in command of the IX Corps, he took control of the body of men that he was to be most identified with, the VI Corps, on February 4, 1863. Although he was a stout fighter and a consummate military professional, as a field commander Sedgwick tended toward caution. Given an independent mission at Chancellorsville the next spring, Sedgwick forced Marye’s Heights against Jubal Early but failed to effectively threaten Lee’s rear. Blocked by a single Confederate division at Salem Church, the VI Corps ended up having to ignominiously retreat across the Rappahannock the next night.

Still, Sedgwick’s professionalism, modesty and agreeable demeanor won him many loyal friends in an army often beset with ambitious intrigues and personal feuds. Although he was nominally a Democrat and a McClellan man, his lowkey approach to both Army and national politics endeared him to the Lincoln administration, which kept him in command of a considerably enlarged VI Corps when it reorganized five small corps of the Army of the Potomac into three large ones in the spring of 1864.

A lifelong bachelor who often amused himself with marathon bouts of solitaire, Sedgwick cared deeply for his men, who reciprocated with their undying affection and the title of “Uncle John.” In a move typical of the man, he made a brigadier general move his headquarters to accommodate a recently arrived brigade that would otherwise have had to bivouac in a muddy field. Unlike many of the Army’s glittering leaders, his personal appearance—“broad-shouldered, heavy-framed, with a full, brown, tangled beard”—was distinctly plebian. “Had it not been for his military surroundings,” said one of his men, “he would have been mistaken for a rough backwoodsman.” Soldiers in the VI Corps accepted Sedgwick’s strict discipline because he treated them fairly, handled them competently if not brilliantly and did not waste their lives.

The Overland campaign of 1864 began on May 4, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and clashed with the Army of Northern Virginia in the tangled thickets of the Wilderness for two bloody days on May 5 and 6. Posted at the right end of the Union line, the VI Corps’ campaign debut was not particularly auspicious. Late in the afternoon of May 6, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon had discovered an open flank and launched a devastating attack, scattering two brigades and shaking the entire corps. Darkness and confusion ended the fighting, and on May 7 both armies rested.

That evening Grant began shifting his army eastward toward the crossroads at Spotsylvania. The VI Corps, at the end of the line, had the longest march and did not close up behind the already-engaged Union V Corps on Brock Road until the next morning. The Confederates had narrowly won the race to Laurel Hill, the terrain dominating the crossroads, and had beaten off a series of poorly coordinated Union attacks on May 8. The VI Corps had been relegated to a supporting role, but by the next morning, Sedgwick was busy moving his men up to relieve the exhausted V Corps units. The Federal position straddled a fork of the Brock Road near the Alsop farm, with an artillery battery at the angle where the line changed direction.

The Confederate defenses, roughly 500 yards away on a low knoll, bristled with artillery and sharpshooters, whose slightly elevated position allowed them to rain bullets down on their opponents. The lines here were manned mostly by South Carolinians belonging to Longstreet’s First Corps. One brigade under Colonel John Henagan, part of Kershaw’s Division, held the ground east of the road, while Colonel John Bratton, in command of Jenkins’ Brigade from Field’s Division, held the western side. Colonel Frank Huger’s artillery battalion and Brig. Gen. Goode Bryan’s Georgia brigade were sandwiched between them, and Brig. Gen. William Wofford’s Georgia brigade lay in reserve. Just west of the knoll was the Spindle farm, where gray-clad sharpshooters waited in the charred ruins of the house and perched in the trees around it.

There, in the more open terrain near Spotsylvania, the new Confederate sharpshooter battalions began to demonstrate their effectiveness. Organized that spring, each of the Army of Northern Virginia’s infantry brigades now boasted a battalion of 180-200 sharpshooters, every man of which had gone through an intensive marksmanship program. Although most were armed with the highly accurate .577 Enfield, one or two men in each battalion now carried the deadly .451-caliber Whitworth rifle, a state-of-the-art weapon (some with telescopic sights) with a range in excess of a thousand yards. It was these men, crouched on the knoll, whose “dropping fire,” said one Union staff officer, “was making sad havoc with anything of ours in sight.”

The next man to fall, unfortunately for the Federals, was Uncle John himself. “For a third time the same shrill whistle,” said McMahon, “closing with a dull, heavy stroke, interrupted our talk.” Just as McMahon started to resume their conversation, General Sedgwick began to slowly collapse, “blood spurting his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream.” McMahon tried to catch him, and both men went down. A brigade surgeon, Dr. Emil Ohlenschlager, was nearby and quickly attended to Segdwick, but there was not much he could do but pour water from his canteen on the general’s face, where “blood still poured upward in a little fountain.” The soldiers, well aware of what was happening, watched silently from their nearby rifle pits. John Sedgwick’s spirit fled swiftly, one more among thousands that summer, without disturbing the smile that remained on his face. McMahon, ever the good staffer, quickly sent word to the army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George Meade, who appointed Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright to replace Sedgwick. The overall commander, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant, initially had a hard time with the unpleasant news, asking twice, “Is he really dead?”

The thoughts of the rank and file, however, quickly turned to revenge. The incensed Yankees sent infantry patrols to find the culprit and killed several Rebel riflemen in retaliation. Eventually they located nine Confederate marksmen in a tree and proceeded to do a little sharpshooting of their own with a rifled artillery piece. “The first shot,” chortled a Union soldier, “cut the tree off about 40 feet from the ground & down came Mr. sharp shooter head first.”

Nevertheless, Confederate sharpshooters continued to make the day miserable for the Federals, sending a “ceaseless and deadly fire” toward anyone who exposed himself. This led to a number of minor but intense picket line actions in which the Federals tried to drive away their tormentors. When pressed, the Confederates would simply fall back, often firing from the woods as they did so. These efforts culminated with a couple of brigade-sized fights in late afternoon near the Spindle farm. However, in each case the result was the same: Having taken the position and driven off the gray-clad marksmen, the Federals would find that they were too exposed and far from their main line and would have to withdraw.

That evening, however, there was time for grief. “His Corps weeps,” wrote one officer in a typical comment. “He was our Uncle John and we shall never see his equal. His loss is irreparable.”

Major General John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking officer to die during the Overland campaign in Virginia, and one of the highest-ranking of the war, a circumstance that generated significant controversy about who pulled the trigger for the fateful shot. No one made an immediate claim (it was, after all, in the middle of one of the bloodiest battles of the war), but several men came forward well afterward, while others were the source of speculation.

Before looking at individuals, however, we should first take a closer look at the Confederate sharpshooter units. As mentioned above, each infantry brigade now had a sharpshooter battalion armed primarily with Enfields, and at 500 yards the Union position was well within range of this less-powerful rifle. Most of the sharpshooters functioned not so much as snipers but as light infantrymen whose jobs included picketing, screening and scouting, and who thus stayed under tight tactical control. The Whitworth men, however, were given considerable leeway to roam the battlefield, subject only to general guidance from senior commanders. And while the general practice in Virginia was to leave the Whitworth shooters in the sharpshooter battalions, this seems to have not been the case in Longstreet’s corps.

The First Corps had spent the previous fall and winter in the Western theater, participating in the campaigns at Chickamauga and in eastern Tennessee, and had evidently adopted a somewhat different organization based on that of the Army of Tennessee. There, influenced by Maj. Gen. Patrick Cleburne, the Whitworth sharpshooters had been grouped together in a separate company at division level. Thus in the spring of 1863 Cleburne had organized a “Corps of Whitworth Sharpshooters” 46 strong, to be deployed at his personal direction, and Longstreet appears to have formed a similar group of riflemen at corps level that fall. Just how strong this outfit was we don’t know, but if it was allocated the same number of rifles as the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia (one or two Whitworths or the equivalent for each of its nine infantry brigades), then Longstreet’s corps of sharpshooters may have had as many as 18 of these long-range rifles. Laurel Hill would have been the logical place to employ them, and it would explain the intense fire that the Federals found themselves under. Unfortunately, no roster and only a few references to this shadowy unit have survived, one being the 1901 account of Colonel A.J. McBride, an officer in the 10th Georgia (Bryan’s Brigade), who described “a band of sharpshooters composed of the best shots in the [First] corps.” McBride credited one of these men, “Kansas Tom” Johnson (who was himself killed a few days later), with shooting Sedgwick. McBride gives no details, but if Johnson was in such a “band,” he probably had a Whitworth and would have been in the right area.

Another man said to have shot Sedgwick was Thomas Burgess of the 15th South Carolina (part of Jenkins’ Brigade). In a 1908 article in Confederate Veteran, V.M. Fleming gave an accurate description of the terrain at Laurel Hill, where Jenkins’ Brigade, commanded by Bratton, would have been on the left. Burgess, according to the account, was a picket who fired at a group of mounted men who rode out in front of the Federal lines, killing one of them. Burgess himself was always reluctant to claim having killed Sedgwick—like many other men in the 19th century, he regarded this method of warfare as something akin to murder. Burgess, whose weapon is unspecified, was certainly in the right place at the right time to have shot Sedgwick. However, the account is secondhand and the victim was a mounted man, which would fit for Brig. Gen. Morris but not Sedgwick, who was on foot.

The writer of the section on the 4th Georgia in Henry W. Thomas’ 1903 History of the Doles-Cook Brigade gave credit to Sergeant Charles Grace of that regiment: “General Sedgewick [sic] was superintending the construction of some redoubts, and, as he was more than half a mile from our picket line, considered himself perfectly safe. Sergeant Grace was a fine shot and was armed with one of the few Whitworth rifles in our army, which made the deed not only practicable but simple.” While there is ample evidence of Grace’s service as a sharpshooter, his regiment was part of Doles’ Brigade, which was with Rodes’ Division of the Second Corps. On May 9, the Georgians were at the base of what came to be called the Mule Shoe, separated from Sedgwick’s position by roughly a mile of densely wooded terrain. While a shot from a Whitworth might have accurately traversed that distance, it seems unlikely that it could have avoided the trees.

A final claimant was Ben Powell, a sharpshooter with the 12th South Carolina in McGowan’s Brigade. Powell’s service as a sharpshooter is well attested to, as is the fact that he was one of the unit’s two Whitworth marksmen. Powell made his claim personally in a 1907 letter to his wife, and both his fellow sharpshooter Berry Benson (in a 1917 article in Confederate Veteran) and the former commander of his sharpshooter battalion, Major William Dunlop, backed him up. In his 1899 book Lee’s Sharpshooters, Dunlop described the incident:

We discovered towards the right of the battalion, which brought a four gun battery with its infantry supports placed there for the defense of the salient, barely within reach of our long range rifles. And to these Ben Powell with his “Whitworth” and a few files on the right paid their respects. Presently an officer of rank with his staff approached the salient, and adjusting his field glasses began to take observations of the front. A few shots only had been fired at the group, when the ringing peal of Powell’s “Whitworth” was heard some distance to the right the officer was seen to stagger and fall and the brilliant career of that gallant and distinguished soldier, Maj. Gen. Sedgwick, commandant of the fifth [VI] Federal army corps, was closed and closed forever.

A minor problem with this narrative is that Sedgwick was not using field glasses at the time a very major one is that Dunlop’s sharpshooter battalion was nowhere near the scene on May 9. Dunlop’s battalion was part of McGowan’s South Carolina brigade of Wilcox’s Division, which was in turn part of the Confederate Third Corps. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox, makes it clear in his report that the division marched past Laurel Hill to Spotsylvania Court House, then took up positions just east of it. This would have put Dunlop, Powell, et al. something over two miles from the site of Sedgwick’s death. The sharpshooter battalions were integral to their parent brigades, provided for their security, and were seldom separated, and Wilcox makes no mention of this having been done.

Could Grace or Powell have gone to Laurel Hill on their own? Benson stated that the Whitworth-toting Powell and his comrade Oscar Cheatham “now became independent sharpshooters, to go where they pleased and carry on war at their own sweet will.” Laurel Hill was after all the hottest sector on May 9, and Powell could have walked the distance in well under an hour, Grace in half that.

But the Whitworth sharpshooters were not so footloose as Benson makes it sound. It seems very unlikely that these two men would have been shifted all the way to another corps’ area absent the kind of dire emergency that befell the Confederates during the heavy fighting on May 12. Thus, while Grace and Powell can’t be entirely ruled out as Sedgwick’s killer, they are less likely candidates than the men who were actually in the Laurel Hill sector.

It is also worth considering that all these claims were made 35 to 50 years after the fact, many were secondhand and none provide a clear picture of events that can be squared with Lt. Col. McMahon’s eyewitness account, which appeared as part of the Battles and Leaders series in 1887. It is also quite possible that Sedgwick’s shooter failed to survive the war or died soon after, as did “Kansas Tom” Johnson.

Then too, many men like Burgess were reluctant to boast about their exploits as sharpshooters, which went against Victorian attitudes about gallantry, or they may also have feared retribution after the war. Thus, unless new evidence comes to light, the shooter’s identity cannot be established with any certainty.

Still, we can make some conclusions and educated guesses about who it might have been. Given the distinctive sound of the round, a Whitworth rifle probably killed Sedgwick (no autopsy seems to have been performed). If so, the shooter would have been in a group of about 75 men in the Army of Northern Virginia equipped with this rare weapon. Unfortunately, no rosters exist for these men, and information about them is mostly anecdotal. Since the Confederate First Corps covered the Laurel Hill area, and Lt. Gen. Longstreet seems to have had a separate corps of Whitworth sharpshooters, it is most likely that one of these men killed Sedgwick. If an ordinary Enfield did the job, then the suspects are the ordinary sharpshooters of Bratton’s (Jenkins’), Bryan’s or Kershaw’s brigades, all of the First Corps.

Southern sharpshooters would continue to snuff out the lives of Union men high and low for the rest of the campaign. One of their last marks was Brig. Gen. Thomas Smyth, who died on the day of Lee’s surrender after being mortally wounded at Farmville two days before.

After lying in state until dark on May 9 at Army of the Potomac headquarters in a makeshift bier, John Sedgwick began his journey back to Cornwall Hollow, where he was buried. Mourners included not only his comrades in blue but also men— enemies at that time—who had served with him in the old Army. One was his old friend J.E.B. Stuart, himself destined to die a few days later at Yellow Tavern, who confided to a staffer that he would willingly have shared his blanket and last crust of bread with Sedgwick.

Fred L. Ray, who writes from Asheville, N.C., is the author of the recently released Shock Troops of the Confederacy: The Sharpshooters of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.


JOHN BANKS' CIVIL WAR BLOG

According to a source whom I promised complete anonymity — psst, it was our tour guide Saturday morning at the U.S. Military Academy — some cadets have a special affinity for Sedgwick during end-of-term exams. At midnight the night before tests, future warriors, in full dress, are said to venture to the major general’s statute on the West Point campus to spin rowels on spurs on his boots for good fortune.

The general views a snow-covered February landscape.
While I didn’t have the chutzpah to twirl the rowels on the good general’s spurs, I did brave sub-freezing weather to closely examine the outstanding statue for Sedgwick, West Point Class of 1837. An impressive bas-relief plaque of the mortally wounded general adorns the reverse of the granite pedestal for the bronze monument, reportedly made from three cannon captured by his VI Corps during the war. Dedicated in 1868, the monument is one of at least three to honor Sedgwick, fondly called “Uncle John” by his men. (You'll find another one in Gettysburg and another in Cornwall Hollow, Conn., near Sedgwick's old residence and across the road from his grave.)

For their $10,000 in contributions to create the life-sized statue of their former leader, Sedgwick's VI Corps veterans got a work of art.

"Taken as a whole," the New York Daily Herald reported on May 1, 1868, before the dedication at West Point, "the statue presents a very fine appearance the position of the body, with one foot a little in advance of the other and head and shoulders well thrown back, [sets] off to best advantage the splendid proportions of the General's form. No one who ever saw the original in life will fail to recognize in the statue in question a faithful likeness of the great commander of the 'Corps of the Greek Cross.' "

On dedication day on Oct. 21, 1868, a "half-hearted, undecided, feebly persecuting" drizzle led to a disappointing crowd. ". excluding cadets," the Hartford Daily Courant reported two days later, the gathering may not have topped 800 people. "It is a pity," the newspaper's correspondent wrote, "that the Sixth Corps could not have had a little sunshine for its celebration."

Presidential candidate Ulysses Grant, Sedgwick's superior officer during the war, and President Andrew Johnson were invited, but both skipped the big day. But "Little Mac" -- General George McClellan --- was there. So were former Union generals Horatio Wright, Abner Doubleday, William Franklin and Samuel P. Heintzelman, among others.

"While this illustrious company . were getting themselves into their chairs," the Daily Courant reported in its four-column-plus, Page 1 story, "the guns were unlimbered and the Cadets were marching around to the front of the stand, where they absorbed a large quantity of eloquence and rain water."

There was no mention in the newspaper account about anyone spinning the rowels on Sedgwick's spurs for good luck.

On the reverse of the monument, a bas-relief plaque of Sedgwick's mortal wounding
at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A late-morning view of the Sedgwick monument at West Point.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.

-- Hartford Daily Courant, Oct. 23, 1868.
-- New York Daily Herald, May 1 and 28, 1868.


Cannonball

Major General John Sedgwick was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Union Army to lose his life during the Civil War. He commanded the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac for much of the war until perishing at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, when a Confederate sharpshooter shot him in the head from across the lines.
Sedgwick, when warned of the danger only moments before and observing his men ducking when they heard rifle fire, reportedly sneered, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

After the war, several posts of the Grand Army of the Republic, the leading veterans’ organization for ex-Union soldiers, were named in memory of General Sedgwick. They included Post #4 in Keene, New Hampshire Post #12 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin Post #17 in Santa Ana, California and Post #37 in York, Pennsylvania.

A number of York’s leading citizens who were veterans, including wealthy industrialist S. Morgan Smith, actively participated in the John Sedgwick camp.

The John Sedgwick statue at Gettysburg National Military Park has long been a favorite of the oldest of my four grandsons and is a frequent resting place on hikes in the summer where we can watch the riders on the nearby park bridle trail.

John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall, Connecticut, on September 13, 1813. His great-uncle had been a general under George Washington in the American Revolution. As a young man, Sedgwick taught school and then attended the U.S. Military Academy, graduating in the Class of 1837. He served in the Mexican War, Utah War, Plains Indians War, and other conflicts before becoming a brigadier general in the first year of the Civil War. He commanded a division in the Peninsula Campaign in the summer of 1862 and was wounded three times at Antietam.
After recovering he commanded a corps at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, where his powerful Sixth Corps formed the army reserve in the center of the line. The statue at Gettysburg is along Sedgwick Avenue north of Little Round Top and the Wheatfield Road.
His death at Spotsylvania from a shot estimated at 1,000 yards away cast a pall on his officers and men. His replacement, Horatio Wright, proved to be a capable officer but Sedgwick’s memory carried over well after the war. Hence the reason for so many CAR posts being named in his honor.

In 1989 Alfreda Patton Davidson of the South Central Pennsylvania Genealogical Society published a small 95-page booklet entitled The GAR: Its Organization and the Men of Post #37 which includes membership rolls and registers, meeting minutes, and illustrations. For part of the Civil War, the members of the York Rifle Company served under Sedgwick’s command hence part of the rationale for naming the postbellum organization for the fallen general.

Prominent York County businessman and former Union officer William H. Lanius helped organize the GAR post in York in 1867 and was its first commander. Lanius’s family had suffered financial loss during the Gettysburg Campaign when their extensive lumberyard in Wrightsville was destroyed by an accidental fire started by flaming embers from the nearby Columbia Bridge (burned by retreating Union militia to prevent the Rebels from entering Lancaster County). Lanius represented Post #37 at several state and national encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic leadership.

Congress authorized a medal that could be worn by GAR members. Many examples exist and can be found frequently at Civil War relics shows, as well as regional ribbons, encampment proceedings, GAR hats, and apparel, etc. Harder to find are specific items related to the General John Sedgwick Post #37 at York, Pa.

Here is a snippet from George Prowell’s History of York County, Pennsylvania (1907).
“All honorably discharged soldiers and sailors, who have served in the army or navy of the United States are entitled to membership in the Grand Army of the Republic. Soon after the close of the Revolution, societies were formed which were composed of commissioned officers and their descendants.The most prominent of these was the Society of Cincinnati, which still has an existence. Army organizations of the War of 1812 and of the Mexican War have existed for social and convivial purposes, but none of these societies named have been based on the principle of mutual aid in time of need, or comprehended purposes so exalted as those embraced in the declaration of the Grand Army of the Republic, namely, ” Fraternity, Charity, Loyalty.” This society, whose purpose is to band together the men who wore the blue during the war, was originated in the west. To Colonel B. F. Stevenson, of Springfield, Illinois, is given the credit of being the first person who formulated the plans of its noble aims. The first post was organized at Dakota, Illinois, in1866. A State Department Encampment was organized in Illinois July 12 ,1866, under Colonel Stevenson. In the month of November of the same year a National Encampment was organized at Indianapolis, with representatives present from nearly all of the northern states. These encampments have since been held annually in various localities of the Union.

General John Sedgwick Post, Sedgwick No. 37 G. A. R., Department of Pennsylvania, was organized at York, May 8, 1878, with the following charter members:
William H. Lanius, Lewis H. Eppley, Henry M. Davis. Wellington G. Erwin, Hiram S. McNair, David E. Myers, Samuel I. Adams, Joseph W. Test, Abner W. Minnich, Thomas Minnich, George L. Koons, Robert Burrows, Henry T. Goodling, Samuel Simon, Samuel Myers, Samuel Everhart. George Horn, Edward R. Herr, Charles H. Busey, Lafayette H. Bastress, George Graybill, William F. Eichar, Andrew B. Jack, Matthew J. McKinnon, John Burg and August C. Steig.

The Post held its first meeting on the third floor of the Jordan building, Centre Square. Captain William H. Lanius, through whose efforts the Post was successfully organized, was chosen its first commander.

The Post grew in numbers rapidly and in 1907 there were about 700 names of comrades on the roll. During that year there were 250 active members. There are over 200 names on the Memorial roll, who have died since its organization. Some have been transferred to other posts. The Post Commanders in order of succession have been: Captain William H. Lanius. Charles Horn, Andrew A. Wasson, Captain Henry B. Wattman, William F. Eichar, Captain William I. Reisinger, Captain Edward L. Schroeder, T. R. Hendrickson, George L. Koons, George O. Luttman, James D. Miller, John Baymiller, Alfred W. Moore, Colonel James A. Stahle, Adam F. Strayer, George P. Spangler, Alexander A. Rodes, Herman Sauppe, Joseph W. Snave, William A. Cook, David W. Crider, Edward T. Lewis, Henry Tschop, David G. Foose, John T. Stark, George C. Worley, Jacob H. Rahn, George W. Augbenbaugh, Reuben S. Noist.”



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