Sunday, May 13, 2012

John Sedgwick

His whole manner breathed of gentleness and sweetness, and in his broad breast was a boy's heart.
A Union officer

On May 9, 1864, at Spotsylvania, Virginia, a Confederate soldier was looking across the no-man's-land of the battlefield, watching his Yankee opponents, rifle in hand. Then, he saw the perfect target: an enemy officer. Grace steadied his rifle, aimed, and pressed the trigger. It was a hit.

What the Rebel could not have possibly known was that he had just killed Major General John Sedgwick.

It was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut on September 13, 1813 that John Sedgwick was brought into the world. The Sedgwicks were a typical New England family of the early 19th Century: Benjamin Sedgwick, John's father, was an extremely pious farmer who devoted much of his energy to tilling the land and the Congregationalist Church; his grandfather served in the Continental Army, fighting at Brandywine and suffering at Valley Forge. As a boy, John Sedgwick had the fortune to initially receive a public education, a concept that was very much in its infancy (it should be noted that at this time New England led the way in this field) and which was followed by a semester at private Sharon Academy. With all this knowledge, Sedgwick ended up teaching in Cornwall Hollow's one-room school house.
General John Sedgwick

That, however, did not mean that his formal education was over; an opportunity to receive an even higher education soon came when an almost 20-year-old John Sedgwick was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, he encountered fellow cadets who he would get to know in the antebellum army, the Mexican War, and, sadly, as enemies: Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, Jubal Early, and Joseph Hooker, who for a time would become his superior. Upon graduation, Sedgwick ranked 24th out of 50 members of the class of 1837.

Assigned to the artillery, Sedgwick first fought against the Seminoles in Florida and then helped remove the Cherokees from their native land in Georgia as part of the infamous "Trail of Tears." In the Mexican War, he first served under General Zachary Taylor, followed by General Winfield Scott; his service under both commanders allowed Sedgwick to see action in every engagement of that conflict. Wrote a fellow officer, "Sedgwick, under fire, was the coolest man I ever saw." Indeed, Sedgwick was brevetted captain for "gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco" and brevetted major for distinguishing himself at Chapultepec.

Then the dull monotony of peacetime returned. When the First Cavalry Regiment was established in 1855, Sedgwick joined the formation, being promoted to major, and like many soldiers of the antebellum years, he was sent to the West. There, he was participant in the 1857-1858 Utah expedition and fought against the Kiowa and Comanche in 1858-1860. It was out fighting the indigenous people of America and trying not to be stampeded by buffalo that Sedgwick showed the characteristics that would make him well-liked in the coming Civil War: slow to make a decision but determined in implementing it when he did decide and a fair man.

Lincoln's winning the presidency in 1860 found Sedgwick constructing Fort Wise in Colorado. Forty-seven-year-old bachelor John Sedgwick planned on resigning his commission in the spring of '61 and returning to Cornwall Hollow. He did not believe that the current arguments between the North and the South would result in war, hoping instead that a solution would be amicably found: "a remedy will be found to forge the links of the Union stronger than ever. All other evils compared with disunion are light."

Unfortunately for him, that was not so, and he was forced to put his plans for retirement on hold. "I had hoped to leave military life," he wrote his cousin, "but this cannot be now, for my country needs my service."

At first his country promoted him to a lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Second Cavalry was, like the First Cavalry, created in 1855 and was ironically a favorite of then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, now President of the Confederacy, who chose all of its officers. Not surprisingly, the Second came to be known as "Jeff Davis' Own."

He was not in Kansas for long. In February 1862, Sedgwick, now a Colonel and in Washington, D.C., replaced Brigadier General Charles Stone as commander of one of the Army of the Potomac's divisions. "I enter upon the duties with a great deal of diffidence," he told his sister. "It is a large command, [13,000 men] occupying an important position, and, I fear, above my capacity; however, I shall do my best."

In terms of getting along with the men under his command, Sedgwick exceeded all expectations. Wearing a plain uniform devoid of his rank and a straw hat, with a thick a beard and hair that was in curls, burly (he was over 200 pounds) Sedgwick insisted his headquarters be in a tent, not a house, with all its amenities. His preference to share in the miseries of camp life was endearing in the extreme to his troops, who returned the endearment by referring to their commander as "Uncle John."

On the battlefield Sedgwick proved to be a fighter. At Fair Oakes on the Peninsula, Sedgwick's division helped to stem the Confederate tide; at Glendale, sick with camp fever, he received two minor wounds. The first huge blow to him occurred at Antietam, where his division was badly mauled—indeed, out of all the divisions of the Army of the Potomac, it was his that suffered the most casualties—and Sedgwick was wounded in the leg, then the wrist, and finally the shoulder. Almost an hour after his first wound, Sedgwick left the disputed ground. While it was his superior, Second Corps commander Edwin Sumner, who bears the responsibility for leaving Sedgwick's division exposed, the episode scarred Sedgwick, making him even more cautious and lowering his confidence in himself.

After recuperating in his home town, Sedgwick returned to the Army of the Potomac—then in winter quarters around Falmouth, Virginia—on December 22, 1862. In January, the army had a new commander: Joseph Hooker, who placed Uncle John in command of the Sixth Corps, the army's largest corps. Like his previous commands, Sedgwick gained the admiration of his men with his amiability.

It was soon discovered that Uncle John, despite being a stern disciplinarian, was capable of small kindnesses. A soldier of his corps approached a man without a uniform, asking if he resided close to headquarters. Why, are you asking this question? the man responded. The soldier said he "wanted an order on the commissary for a canteen for some friends who had come to see him." "Well," the man replied, "the commissary is a friend of mine"; then, he took out an old letter, writing on its back and handing it to the soldier. At the bottom of the message the signature read "John Sedgwick," and instead of imparting it to the commissary, the soldier kept it as a memento.

Spring came, and with it also came a resumption of campaigning and fighting. While the rest of the army was at Chancellorsville, the Sixth Corps was across the Rappahannock in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, where it was assailed by the enemy. Sedgwick, a disciple of McClellan who followed his former commander's rule that the Rebels always outnumber the Yankees, withdrew across the river despite repelling all of the Confederates' assualts. Whether it was because he preferred specific orders instead of discretionary ones or that the incident at Antietam was too mentally damaging, Sedgwick proved in May 1863 that he was unable to handle a semi-independent command.

Sedgwick recognized his shortcomings, though. When asked if he would replace Joe Hooker, Sedgwick, who had no ambition for higher command and disliked the in-fighting in politics and among the top commanders, answered, "Meade is the proper one to command this army." Soon after Major General George Gordon Meade took the rein of the Army of the Potomac, he conveyed to Sedgwick to head to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with all possible speed. At least a day's march away from the town, Sedgwick pushed his men, reaching it after 18 hours and 30 minutes of hard marching that did not allow pauses for breakfast and lunch. Consequently, the Sixth Corps adopted the sobriquet "Sedgwick's Foot Cavalry."

In the Battle of Gettysburg, Sedgwick's Foot Cavalry was fed into the cauldron of fire peicemeal. John Sedgwick, therefore, sat out this struggle.

Back in Virginia, the remainder of 1863 was virtually inactive for the armies fighting it out in the American Civil War's Eastern Theater. Whenever Meade left, he placed Sedgwick in command. Suffice it to say Sedgwick felt that he made the right choice by refusing to be the successor of Hooker.

When May came, the war returned. First came the Battle of Wilderness, then the Battle of Spotsylvania. Both fights saw the Sixth Corps take a good beating.
General Sedgwick (standing with hand in coat) and his staff

It was at Spotsylvania on the morning of May 9, 1864 that Sedgwick noticed that some of his troops up in front was blocking his artillery. "That is wrong," he muttered, and with his chief of staff, Martin T. McMahon, he went walked over to his infantry to fix the problem. McMahon got them to move, but that incurred the wrath of lead from the Rebel sharpshooters. Bullets whizzed around the Yankees, several of them to seek cover... except for Sedgwick, that is. He simply laughed and exclaimed, "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 bullet whined close by, and a sergeant next to him dropped to the ground.

"What are you dodging at?" chided Sedgwick. "They can't hit an elephant at that distance."

The sergeant got up and saluted: "General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn't, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging."

Sedgwick laughed again, then replied, "All right, my man. Go to your place."

Then a shot rang out. Sedgwick fell on McMahon, a bullet having entered below his left eye. A doctor put canteen water on the bullet hole, but the blood kept flowing. Captain Richard Halstead felt for a pulse... nothing. Sedgwick's death had been quick and painless, his now lifeless countenance smiling.

George Stevens of the VI Corps summed up perfectly the general feelings among the officers and men had toward his passing: "Never had such gloom rested upon the army on account of the death of one man as came over it when the heavy tidings passed along the lines that General Sedgwick was killed." Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, couldn't believe the news: To his aide Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter he asked, "Is he really dead? Is he really dead?" Grant payed his friend the highest of compliments by stating that his death was comparable to that of an entire division.


Jones, Wilmer L. Generals in Blue and Gray. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2004. Print. 
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Print.

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