Saturday, February 03, 2018

Meet Major General John Sedgwick, good luck charm

Army cadets are said to spin the rowels on General John Sedgwick's spurs for good luck before exams.
Statue of John Sedgwick on the U.S, Military Academy campus in West Point, N.Y.

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In life, John Sedgwick was a beloved commander in the Army of the Potomac, a general so highly regarded that a jolt "like an electric shock” coursed through Union ranks when he was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864.

In death, he’s a good luck charm.

According to a source whom I promised complete anonymity — psst, it was our tour guide Saturday morning at the U.S. Military Academy — some cadets have a special affinity for Sedgwick during end-of-term exams. At midnight the night before tests, future warriors, in full dress, are said to venture to the major general’s statute on the West Point campus to spin rowels on spurs on his boots for good fortune.

The general views a snow-covered February landscape.
While I didn’t have the chutzpah to twirl the rowels on the good general’s spurs, I did brave sub-freezing weather to closely examine the outstanding statue for Sedgwick, West Point Class of 1837. An impressive bas-relief plaque of the mortally wounded general adorns the reverse of the granite pedestal for the bronze monument, reportedly made from three cannon captured by his VI Corps during the war. Dedicated in 1868, the monument is one of at least three to honor Sedgwick, fondly called “Uncle John” by his men. (You'll find another one in Gettysburg and another in Cornwall Hollow, Conn., near Sedgwick's old residence and across the road from his grave.)

For their $10,000 in contributions to create the life-sized statue of their former leader, Sedgwick's VI Corps veterans got a work of art.

"Taken as a whole," the New York Daily Herald reported on May 1, 1868, before the dedication at West Point, "the statue presents a very fine appearance; the position of the body, with one foot a little in advance of the other and head and shoulders well thrown back, [sets] off to best advantage the splendid proportions of the General's form. No one who ever saw the original in life will fail to recognize in the statue in question a faithful likeness of the great commander of the 'Corps of the Greek Cross.' "

On dedication day on Oct. 21, 1868, a "half-hearted, undecided, feebly persecuting" drizzle led to a disappointing crowd. "...excluding cadets," the Hartford Daily Courant reported two days later, the gathering may not have topped 800 people. "It is a pity," the newspaper's correspondent wrote, "that the Sixth Corps could not have had a little sunshine for its celebration."

Presidential candidate Ulysses Grant, Sedgwick's superior officer during the war, and President Andrew Johnson were invited, but both skipped the big day. But "Little Mac" -- General George McClellan --- was there. So were former Union generals Horatio Wright, Abner Doubleday, William Franklin and Samuel P. Heintzelman, among others.

"While this illustrious company ... were getting themselves into their chairs," the Daily Courant reported in its four-column-plus, Page 1 story, "the guns were unlimbered and the Cadets were marching around to the front of the stand, where they absorbed a large quantity of eloquence and rain water."

There was no mention in the newspaper account about anyone spinning the rowels on Sedgwick's spurs for good luck.

On the reverse of the monument, a bas-relief plaque of Sedgwick's mortal wounding 
at Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9, 1864. (CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
A late-morning view of  the Sedgwick monument at West Point.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.


-- Hartford Daily Courant, Oct. 23, 1868.
-- New York Daily Herald, May 1 and 28, 1868.

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