John Sedgwick was born in Cornwell Hollow, Connecticut in 1813 and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1837. He served in the Mexican War and was a major in the 1st U.S. Cavalry at the outbreak of the Civil War. He rose quickly in rank, and was commissioned a brigadier general of volunteers on August 31st, 1861. As a division commander in the Union Army’s Second Corps during the Peninsular Campaign, he was wounded at the Battle of Glendale on June 30th, 1862. He was wounded again at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. This wounding was more serious; he was hit three times and carried unconscious from the field. In between these battles, he was promoted to major general.
On February 4th, 1863, Sedgwick assumed command of the Sixth Corps and led it at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Sedgwick was a bit more cautious and less aggressive than some of his fellow generals, but overall he was personally brave and a very good corps commander. He cared about the well being of his men, and that may explain his caution. He did not want to sacrifice his soldiers needlessly. He was popular with the men of the Sixth Corps, and they nicknamed him “Uncle John.”
In May of 1864, the Sixth Corps advanced into northern Virginia in Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. After the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5th and 6th, the Army of the Potomac marched towards Spotsylvania Courthouse. The Sixth Corps arrived at a cross roads near Laurel Hill late in the afternoon of May 8th and went into position in support of the already arrived Fifth Corps.
Early in the morning of the 9th, Sedgwick began to reposition his brigades and divisions to strengthen his line. At one point, Sedgwick remarked to his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Martin T. McMahon, that some infantrymen were overlapping an artillery position and both men moved toward the location to correct this. While the soldiers continued their repositioning, Confederate sharpshooters took a few shots at them from their locations about 500 yards away. McMahon recalled that Sedgwick “said laughingly, ‘What! 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.”
A few seconds later, a soldier passed in front of the general and hit the ground as a sharpshooter’s bullet whistled past. Sedgwick good naturedly teased the soldier for dodging the shot and repeated his comment about the shooters not being able to hit an elephant at this distance. “General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging” the soldier told Sedgwick. “The general laughed and replied ‘all right my man; go to your place'” McMahon recalled.
Most of the sharpshooters harassing the Sixth Corps were armed with standard .577 caliber Enfield rifles, but some were armed with more accurate longer range .451 caliber Whitworth rifles. The Whitworth bullets made a distinctive whistling sound when traveling through the air. As McMahon and Sedgwick resumed their conversation, another whistling round came in. This one hit Sedgwick below the left eye. A brigade surgeon was nearby and came immediately, but the wound was fatal and Sedgwick died at the scene. The popular general was mourned by both common soldiers and high ranking officers in the army. He is buried in his hometown of Cornwell Hollow.
- “The Death of General John Sedgwick” by Martin T. McMahon. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Underwood, editors. Reprint, Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1990.
- Generals in Blue: Lives of the Union Commanders
by Ezra J. Warner. Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
- If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania
by William D. Matter. Chapel Hill, North Caroliana: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
- “The Killing of Uncle John” by Fred L. Ray. Civil War Times, June 2006.