The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864 during the American Civil War was a bitterly fought conflict. Over 12 days of intense fighting, Union troops suffered 18,000 casualties while the confederates counted 11,000 dead or wounded. But the fate of one senior Union officer in particular is well remembered, principally because of what Major General John Sedgwick said just before his death.
John Sedgwick was born in 1813 in Connecticut’s Cornwall Hollow, a town set amid the outstanding natural beauty of the Litchfield Hills. His parents were Benjamin and Olive but Sedgwick was named after his grandfather, a general who fought with George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.
Sedgwick studied at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut in the years 1830 and 1831 and went on to spend two years working as a teacher. Following that, he enrolled at the United States Military Academy, known as West Point. He graduated from the academy in 1837 and joined the Field Artillery Branch of the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.
Sedgwick first saw action in the Second Seminole War which ran from 1835 to 1842. The U.S. Government wanted to forcibly remove the Seminole people from their home in Florida to an Indian territory outside the state. The Seminoles resisted this with guerrilla tactics as well as larger skirmishes.
In what was hardly a proud moment in U.S. history the Seminoles were eventually defeated, their settlements destroyed and their main leaders treacherously captured during an ostensible truce. By the end of the war almost all of the Seminoles had been killed fighting, died from disease and starvation or had been removed from their land.
After the defeat of the Seminoles, Sedgwick now fought in the Mexican-American War that raged between 1846 and 1848. This conflict arose after the U.S. annexed Texas. The Mexicans believed that Texas belong to them. The war ended in 1848 to the advantage of the Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Texas was now part of the U.S.
Sedgwick distinguished himself during the Mexican-American War and was rewarded with two promotions, first to captain and then to major. After that conflict, Sedgwick now joined the cavalry and saw action in the Utah War, suppressing a rebellion by Mormons. In 1857 he took part in an action which saw the U.S. army attack the Cheyenne.
Then came the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861. At that time, Sedgwick held the rank of colonel and was on the staff at Washington’s Military Department. He didn’t serve in the earliest battles of the war as he was convalescing after a bout of cholera.
Then, in August 1861, Sedgwick was promoted to brigadier general in charge of his own division. In 1862, his division was directed to take part in the first major Union push in the Eastern Theater of operations in southeast Virginia. Sedgwick and his men now fought at the battles of Savage’s Station and Glendale. In June, Sedgwick took wounds to his arm and leg at Glendale and the following month was promoted to major general.
Sedgwick’s division next fought at the major Battle of Antietam. His commander, Major General Edwin V. Sumner ordered Sedgwick and his troops on the attack without apparently having properly assessed the military situation. This ill-considered command was to have disastrous consequences.
Sedgwick’s division came up against a strong force led by the famous Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson. Jackson’s men attacked the Unionists on three sides of their formation. The result was a general rout. The Sedgwick division beat a disorderly retreat, with their strength reduced by something like half.
And Sedgwick himself did not get off lightly from this ill-advised attempt at an attack. He sustained bullet wounds to his shoulder, leg and wrist in the chaos of the battle. On top of that, Sedgwick’s horse was shot while he was still on it. Unconscious, he was finally carried from the battlefield by his men. In fact, it’s been said Sedgwick was highly popular with his own troops who called him “Uncle John.”
Despite the Major-General’s wounds, Sedgwick was back on duty after just 90 days of recuperation. Nevertheless, this absence meant that he missed the Battle of Fredericksburg. This was probably just as well, since that battle ended badly for the Unionists. The Confederates occupied positions on the heights above the Union troops and as a result the Unionists sustained three times as many casualties as their opponents.
But Sedgwick had recovered in time to take part in the Second Battle of Fredericksburg in May 1863. Now he and his men were able to take the Marye’s Heights that had been occupied by the Confederates, the very heights that had caused the Union forces so much grief in the first Fredericksburg engagement.
In a strange twist of fate, the Confederate general who had commanded the troops on Marye’s Heights was Jubal Early. Early and Sedgwick had been in the same class together at West Point. Having bested Early, Sedgwick now maneuvered his troops with the aim of trapping Confederate General Lee’s men but this plan was stymied by strong opposition at the Battle of Salem Church.
After fleeting involvement in the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the next major engagement Sedgwick took full part in was the second Battle of Rappahannock Station in November that year. This was a great success for the general and his men. The battle resulted in the capture of 1,700 prisoners, eight sets of colors and four Confederate cannon.
Now, on May 9, 1864, came the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. During the battle, Sedgwick was in the process of directing the fire of his artillery as his men cautiously advanced, testing the strength of the Confederate resistance. Confederate snipers were in position just about half a mile from Sedgwick.
Shots from the Confederate sharpshooters were enough to make the men around Sedgwick duck in apprehension. Shelby Foote quotes Sedgwick’s words in his 1974 book, The Civil War: A Narrative. Apparently irritated by his men’s skittishness, perhaps understandable under live fire, Sedgwick said, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”
Apparently, Sedgwick’s reproachful words had little effect on his men, who still displayed a nervous reaction to the bullets whistling by them. Sedgwick, standing in the open in a complete absence of cover, now remonstrated with them again. This time he said, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
It was almost at that precise moment that a bullet from a Confederate Whitworth rifle tore into Sedgwick’s cheek, just under his left eye. He fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. Although medics were quick to attend the general, he died from his wounds. As a candidate for the most striking last words ever uttered, those of Major General John Sedgwick take some beating.