Killed by a Confederate sharpshooter during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, Major General John Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union combat casualty during the Civil War.
John Sedgwick was born at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut on September 13, 1813. He was the son of Benjamin and Olive (Collins) Sedgwick. He was named after his grandfather, John Sedgwick, an American Revolutionary War general who served under George Washington and survived the grim winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
After receiving his primary instruction at the local common school, Sedgwick attended nearby Sharon Academy and, afterward, Cheshire Academy. As a teenager, Sedgwick taught school for two years during the winter and worked on the family farm during the summer.
In 1833, Jabez Huntington, United States Senator from Connecticut, helped Sedgwick obtain an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Sedgwick entered the Academy on July 1, 1833. Among his classmates were future Confederate generals Braxton Bragg, John C. Pemberton, Jubal Early, and William H. T. Walker and future Union general Joseph Hooker. During his four years at West Point, Sedgwick proved to be an average student, graduating twenty-fourth out of his class of fifty cadets on July 1, 1837.
Following his graduation, Sedgwick was commissioned as a second lieutenant with the 2nd U.S. Artillery and sent to Florida for two years, where he participated in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Between 1838 and 1846, Sedgwick performed recruiting and garrison duty at numerous locations, mostly in the eastern United States. On April 19, 1839, he was promoted to first lieutenant.
Like many future Civil War general officers, Sedgwick participated in the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846-February 2, 1848). He first served with General Zachary Taylor's army in northern Mexico. He later served with General Winfield Scott's invasion force at the Siege of Vera Cruz (March 9-29, 1847), the Battle of Cerro Gordo (April 17-18, 1847), the Battle of Churubusco (August 20, 1847), the Battle of Molino del Rey (September 8, 1847), the Battle of Chapultepec (September 12‑13, 1847), and the assault and capture of the City of Mexico (September 13‑14, 1847). During the war, Sedgwick was brevetted to captain for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco, effective August 20, 1847 and brevetted to major for gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battle of Chapultepec effective September 13, 1847.
Upon returning from the Mexican-American War in 1848, Sedgwick served another seven years on garrison duty at various posts in the eastern United States. During that period, he was promoted to captain on January 26, 1849.
On March 8, 1855, Sedgwick was promoted to major with the 1st Cavalry and transferred west. While serving in the West, Sedgwick helped quell violence during the Border Wars in Kansas, campaigned against the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche Indians, and participated in the Utah Expedition against Mormon settlers.
As the national secession crisis intensified following the election of President Abraham Lincoln, Sedgwick was promoted to lieutenant colonel on March 16, 1861 and sent to Washington, DC. On April 25, he was promoted to the full rank of colonel and placed in charge of the 1st Cavalry after its commander, Robert E. Lee, resigned. Sedgwick participated in preparing defenses for the nation's capital from June to August 1861. On August 3, Sedgwick was transferred to the 4th Cavalry, and he briefly held the position of Acting Inspector-General of the Department of Washington until August 12, when he was given a command of the 2nd brigade of Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman's division in the Army of the Potomac. On December 5, 1861, the US War Department issued General Order No. 106, promoting Sedgwick to brigadier-general in the volunteer army to date from August 31, 1861.
Following the Union disaster at the Battle of Bull Run I (July 21, 1861), President Abraham Lincoln turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reorganize Federal forces in the East. By the spring of 1862, President Lincoln drafted his own reorganization plan for the Army of the Potomac. On March 8, he issued War Order No. 2, consolidating the army's divisions into five corps. Lincoln went on to name Major General Irvin McDowell, Brigadier-General Edwin V. Sumner, Brigadier-General S. P. Heintzelman, Brigadier-General Erasmus D. Keyes, and Major General Nathaniel P. Banks to command the five corps respectively. Dutifully, on March 13, 1862 a disgruntled McClellan issued General Order No. 101 (Army of the Potomac), confirming the President's selections. McClellan's order went on to appoint division commanders for each of the corps. Sedgwick was assigned to command the 2nd Division of Sumner's 2nd Corps.
During McClellan's ill-fated Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862, Sedgwick commanded his division at several major engagements, including the Siege of Yorktown (April 5-May 4, 1862), the Battle of Fair Oaks (May 31-June 1, 1862) the Battle of Savage's Station (June 29, 1862), and the Battle of Glendale (June 30, 1862), where he was wounded in the arm and leg. Five days later, on July 4, 1862, Sedgwick was promoted to major general of volunteers. His promotion was confirmed in General Order No. 181, issued by the United States War Department on November 1, 1862.
When McClellan withdrew from the Virginia Peninsula during the summer of 1862 following the failed Peninsula Campaign, Sumner's Corps was sent to northern Virginia in support of Major General John Pope's Army of Virginia. The 2nd Corps, including Sedgwick's division, arrived in the vicinity of Manassas but not in time to participate in the Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run II (August 28-30, 1862).
Following Pope's defeat, Robert E. Lee decided to take the war onto Northern soil, marching the Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland on September 4, 1862. An anxious President Lincoln reluctantly turned to Major General George B. McClellan to reinvigorate the Federal forces and to stop Lee's advance. On September 2, 1862, Lincoln placed McClellan in command of, "the fortifications of Washington, and all the troops for the defense of the capital." McClellan merged the Army of the Virginia with his Army of the Potomac and moved to halt Lee's incursion. Sumner's corps was held in reserve during the Union victory at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862). Three days later, on the single bloodiest day of fighting in American military history (September 17, 1862), Sumner ordered an ill-conceived and uncoordinated attack by Sedgwick's division that contributed to the high casualty total at the Battle of Antietam (September 16-18, 1862). Sedgwick himself was severely wounded, being struck by three bullets during the engagement, and was forced to go on sick leave from September 18 to December 22, 1862, as he recuperated. Sedgwick's injuries caused him to miss the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862).
When Sedgwick returned to active duty in December 1862, he was elevated to a corps commander. He was placed in charge of the 2nd Corps for one month and of the 9th Corps for three weeks. On January 26, 1863, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 20, announcing that President Lincoln had replaced Major General Ambrose E. Burnside with Major General Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. On February 5, 1863, Hooker issued General Orders, No.6 (Army of the Potomac), announcing the appointment of seven corps commanders, including Sedgwick as commander of the 6th Corps, the unit with which his career is most identified.
In early May 1863, Hooker initiated an offensive against Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia near Chancellorsville, Virginia. Hooker ordered Sedgwick to launch a diversionary attack against Lee at Fredericksburg on May 2, while Hooker tried to march the bulk of his army around Lee's forces and attack from the rear. Sedgwick's assault during the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30-May 6, 1863) came one day late, enabling Lee to focus his attention on Hooker. Sedgwick's men belatedly drove Confederate General Jubal Early's defenders off of Marye's Heights above Fredericksburg on the morning of May 3, at the same time that Lee was repulsing Hooker's assault. With Hooker disposed of, Lee turned his attention to Sedgwick on the next day, pushing the 6th Corps back across the Rappahannock River.
At the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), Sedgwick's Corps was positioned far from the initial fighting. After a forced march of twenty hours, his men reached the fighting on July 2. Due to their exhausted state, most of the 6th Corps was held in reserve during the decisive Union victory.
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. With the assistance of Major General George G. Meade, Grant immediately set about reorganizing the Army of the Potomac. Under the new structure, Sedgwick maintained his position as commander of the 6th Corps.
When Grant launched his Overland Campaign (May 5-June 24, 1864), Sedgwick's corps was heavily engaged at the initial conflict, the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-7, 1864). Following the Confederate victory, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House. Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade's army between Lee's army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. On May 9, Sedgwick came under fire from Rebel sharpshooters armed with highly accurate Enfield and Whitworth rifles as he was personally overseeing the placement of an infantry line in anticipation of the coming battle. As his soldiers began dodging bullets, Sedgwick admonished them, reportedly exclaiming, "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." After a brief exchange with one of his soldiers, just seconds or minutes later (depending upon the account) a bullet struck Sedgwick below the left eye, killing him almost instantly. The sharpshooter's bullet made "Uncle John," as his soldiers affectionately referred to him, the highest ranking Union combat casualty of the Civil War.
Sedgwick's remains were returned to his hometown of Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut, where they were buried at Cornwall Hollow Cemetery.
Cite this Entry
"John Sedgwick," Ohio Civil War Central, 2021, Ohio Civil War Central. 15 Jan 2021 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1403>
"John Sedgwick." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved January 15, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1403
- Abraham Lincoln
- Ambrose E. Burnside
- Army of the Potomac (USA)
- Army of Virginia
- Battle of Antietam
- Battle of Bull Run I
- Battle of Bull Run II
- Battle of Chancellorsville
- Battle of Fredericksburg
- Battle of Gettysburg
- Battle of Glendale
- Battle of Savage's Station
- Battle of the Wilderness
- Braxton Bragg
- Edwin V. Sumner
- Erasmus D. Keyes
- General Orders, No. 181 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 20 (U.S. War Department)
- General Orders, No. 96 (U.S. War Department) (1863)
- George B. McClellan
- George G. Meade
- Irvin McDowell
- John Pope
- Joseph Hooker
- Jubal Early
- Mexican-American War
- Nathaniel P. Banks
- Overland Campaign
- Peninsula Campaign
- Robert E. Lee
- Samuel P. Heintzelman
- Siege of Yorktown
- Ulysses S. Grant
- Winfield Scott
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