Couldn’t Hit an Elephant

by Fred Ray on May 9, 2006 · 3 comments

Today, May 9, is the 142nd anniversary of the death of Major General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania. Sedgwick was just one of hundreds killed by Confederate sharpshooters that day, who were able to give full rein to their destructiveness in the more open terrain around Spotsylvania. I won’t go into the details of the incident, but I do in Civil War Times , which has published my article “The Killing of Uncle John,” in their June issue (you will have to buy the magazine to read it unless they put it on line). In it I discuss who claimed to have done it, and how their claims hold up under historical scrutiny.

What I do want to go into, however, is what Sedgwick said just before being hit: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Did he really say that? After all, bogus quotes are common — the latest one making the rounds, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” being attributed to Thomas Jefferson (he never said it). And no one is more burdened with fake quotes than the Great Emancipator, Abe Lincoln.

Is this true of Uncle John, too? I think not.

Sedgwick’s chief of staff, Lt. Col. Martin McMahon, described the incident in detail in Battles and Leaders in 1887. “The general 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.'” Sedgwick repeated this a few moments later, just before he was hit in the face by a bullet, probably from a Whitworth or similar rifle.

One of the soldiers nearby, Private Simon Cummins of the 151st New York, confirmed the circumstances of Sedgwick’s death in his diary, including the use of the phrase “could not hit an elephant.” He added an anecdote of the Yankees using a rifled field piece to knock down a tree full of Rebel sharpshooters in retaliation.

Another soldier close by was Lt. Charles Brewster, the adjutant of the 10th Massachusetts, who wrote in a letter home “our Regt. was close to where Gen. Sedgwick was killed and the same party of sharp shooters succeeded in wounding 5 of our men at a very long distance as we lay resting on the edge of a piece of woods. The men where he was cautioned him that there were sharp shooters who commanded that place but he laughed and said they could not hit an elephant at that distance and had hardly said so when he was hit and killed almost instantly.” (David Blight, ed. When This Cruel War is Over)

Thus with two contemporary sources to back him up, I think McMahon’s account is pretty well vindicated.

PS: After re-reading McMahon’s account this morning, I wonder if the private he prodded may not have sealed his fate by saluting him, which would have identified him as an officer. In Vietnam, where I served, saluting was strictly forbidden in the field for exactly that reason.

Then too, Sedgwick and many of his fellow “Old Army” comrades seem to have been slow in realizing just how far those new rifles could shoot.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Russell Bonds May 10, 2006 at 8:24 am

Hi Fred–I enjoyed your post on Uncle John Sedgwick and look forward to your article. His demise is one of the all-time “famous last words” stories, and it’s interesting to see the tale corroborated. (I’m also interested since I wrote a similar article on the grisly end of Leonidas Polk in the May issue of CWT.) I enjoy your and Brett’s insights regularly–keep up the good work. –Russ Bonds


Brett S. May 10, 2006 at 5:31 pm


Thanks for the kind words. I’m about to start on my summary of the May issue of CWTI in the next couple of days. I look forward to reading your piece on Gen. Polk.

Brett S.


Fred Ray May 10, 2006 at 5:50 pm

Thanks, Russ. I always wondered myself whether the elephant quote was too good to be true, but it’s not.

Just got my copy of CWTI and am looking forward to reading your account of Gen. Polk, who also suffered an untimely demise.



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