Who Killed Uncle John (and John Reynolds)?

A popular activity for the Civil War buff is trying to figure out who killed certain generals. To help I have posted my article “The Killing of Uncle John” that originally in Civil War Times in June 2006. In it I look at the contemporary and eyewitness accounts of the death of Major General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864; who was there and how they were organized; and later claims to have done the deed by various men. One of these days I will annotate it, but for now you can look at some of the claims here.

I also discuss the organization of the sharpshooters in Longstreet’s First Corps, which appears to have been a bit different than Second and Third Corps. Longstreet spend a good bit of time in the West in late 1863 and early 1864 and appears to have concentrated his Whitworth men into a single body like those in the Army of Tennessee, unlike the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia where they were distributed two to a sharpshooter battalion. It was probably one of these men (and we have no rosters) that did in General Sedgwick.

“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 day of 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, Brigadier General 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 incessant 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.

Read the rest of the article, and feel free to poke around the rest of the site and find out more about the sharpshooters.

Since we are on the subject I would be remiss if I did not recommend J. D. Petruzzi’s excellent article on the killing of General John Reynolds at Gettysburg. While it’s always possible that Reynolds was hit by a stray bullet, I think the best bet was one of the sharpshooters (and here I mean one of the skirmishers advancing up the pike) of Archer’s brigade.


3 responses to “Who Killed Uncle John (and John Reynolds)?”

  1. Jim Schmidt Avatar

    Fred – As always, thanks for the great posts on TOCWOC…on a related note of “who shot/killed which general” – my very first “Medical Department” column in The Civil War News, back in Sept 2000, was an interview with two surgeons who used scientific, medical, and historical evidence to place the responsibility for the accidental wounding of James Longstreet in The Wilderness in May 1864. The article is posted on my blog at:


    Keep up the great work!

    jim Schmidt

  2. Fred Ray Avatar
    Fred Ray

    Thanks, Jim. Nice article on Longstreet. As for Sedgwick, we know that the bullet entered thru his cheek and a soldier who was there said it came out the back of his head. This probably took out his medulla oblongata, which would explain why his face did not change expression. The only real remaining question is whether the sharpshooter was on the picket line or further back on Laurel Hill.

  3. […] I’ve looked a Civil War controversies regarding the shooting of various generals, including John Sedgwick and John Reynolds, only the find that the facts are considerably murkier than most stories would […]

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