The Killing of Uncle John Sedgwick – 150 years ago today

One hundred and fifty years ago today the bloody battle of the Wilderness was over and the even bloodier battle of Spotsylvania Court House just beginning. One of those who fell this day was was the commander of the Union Sixth Corps, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick.

Here’s an article that I wrote about the incident a few years ago.

“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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *