Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Major General John Sedgwick's death: 'Like an electric shock'

Veterans gather at John Sedgwick's monument at Spotsylvania Courthouse, perhaps on  May 12, 1887,
 the day it was  dedicated.  (Sedgwick monument images: 
Emerging Civil War blog  via Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania National Military Park.)
Early 20th- or late 19th-century image of Sedgwick monument.
An iron fence surrounded the Sedgwick monument in this late 19th- or early 20th-century view.
  That fence has long since been removed.)
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Shortly after a sharpshooter's bullet crashed into John Sedgwick's left cheek, killing him at Spotsylvania Courthouse (Va.) on the morning of May 9, 1864, word of the beloved major general's death spread "like an electric shock" throughout the Army of the Potomac. George Meade and other officers wept, and Ulysses Grant's aide-de-camp recalled years later that the only time he saw the general as upset was when he received a telegram that President Lincoln had been assassinated.

Martin T. McMahon, a lieutenant colonel in
 1864, said in a speech in 1892 that a "great
 loneliness fell  upon the hearts of all" after
 John Sedgwick's death.
(Library of Congress)
Perhaps the best description of Sedgwick's death came from Martin T. McMahon, the VI Corps chief of staff and close witness to the killing. After he was shot, Sedgwick toppled into the 26-year-old soldier and fell to the ground, blood spewing from just beneath his eye like a "little fountain."

"The same smile remained on his lips," McMahon recalled, "that he wore in the last moments of his mortal life."

Another witness, Lieutenant John G. Fisher of the 14th New Jersey, recalled decades later that after Sedgwick fell into the undergrowth, "blood spurted from the wound at least a foot and a half and saturated the bushes." Fisher even saved a souvenir of the gruesome incident, cutting down a bush upon which Sedgwick bled, letting it dry in the sun, slicing off a five-inch section that formed a "Y" and carving into it the date "May 9." After the war, he kept it on his mantle, "a reminder of the cold-blooded manner in which our gallant commander was killed." Four hours after the VI Corps leader was killed, Frederick T. Dent, Grant's aide-de-camp, plucked a violet from the spot where Sedgwick lay and saved it in a book.

At a Memorial Day event in 1892 at Sedgwick's grave in rural Cornwall Hollow, Conn., McMahon spoke of the reactions of men in the ranks in the immediate area of the general's death -- and later at VI Corps headquarters -- and of the love soldiers had for the 50-year-old officer.

"The men knelt still in the trenches," he said of the U.S. Army soldiers, "and their hearts were filled with great sorrow; but such was the force of discipline that not one wandered from his place, although all knew that a terrible blow had fallen on them, and the silence that follows a great tragedy descended on the woods of Spottsylvania on that morning of saddest memories."

John Sedgwick (second from right) and George Meade (tall man in foreground) in a photograph taken 
at Brandy Station, Va., in February 1864.  Meade wept upon hearing  news of Sedgwick's death. 
 (Library of Congress collection)

Regarding his visit to headquarters shortly afterward, McMahon said during his oration:
"When I reached general headquarters, in the tent of the Adjutant-General of the army, the much-beloved Seth Williams, I found Gen. Williams and Gen. [Henry] Hunt, the chief of artillery, and Col. [Edward] Platt, the Judge-Adocate General of the Army, and other veteran officers who had served through many years of warfare. As they saw me marked with blood, Gen. Williams started forward, and said but one word, 'Sedgwick?' I could not answer. Each one in that tent, old-gray bearded warriors, burst into tears, and for some minutes sobbed like children mourning a father."
Image believed to have been shot at Sedgwick
 monument dedication on May 12, 1887.
Sedgwick's body was taken to General Meade's headquarters, where a bower of evergreens was placed over the bier on which the general's body lay. Soldiers paid their respects until Sedgwick's remains were sent to Washington to be embalmed.

In flowery language common for the era, McMahon said at the 1892 Memorial Day event that Sedgwick was "modest as a girl, unassuming, gentle, just, pure in heart and in word, he endeared himself to the men who followed him, and was loved by all with a love surpassing the love of women.

"No picture that I can draw," he added, "can give to you who knew him not an adequate conception of how lovable he was."

The spot where Sedgwick was shot apparently remained unmarked until 1874, when Andrew Humphreys, the former Union general, placed a "rough boulder" on the site. Sixth Corps veterans who visited the battlefield over the next 13 years were dismayed that their former commander was not honored there, leading the Sedgwick Memorial Association to raise funds to purchase a monument and an acre upon which to place it.

On May 12, 1887, more than 300 VI Corps veterans, including Sedgwick successor Horatio Wright, returned to the site of their commander's death to dedicate a monument in his honor. It took the party more than three hours to make the short journey from Fredericksburg to Spotsylvania Courthouse because the roads, as they were in 1864, were "still detestable," according to this 1887 account of the event. Thousands from Spotsylvania County as well as Virginia governor Fitzhugh Lee, the former Rebel cavalry general, attended the dedication of the first formal monument on the Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield.

"Those scenes and tragic activities of our young lives, once so familiar and so real," Vermont Gov. Samuel Pingree, a Union veteran, said during his short dedication speech, "are now beginning to seem like a dream of long ago."


-- Gold, Theodore Sedgwick, Memorial Day Exercises in Memory of John Sedgwick, May 30, 1892, Cornwall, Conn., The Case, Lockwood and Brainard & Co., Hartford, Conn., 1892.

-- McMahon, Martin T, General John Sedgwick: An Address Delivered Before the Vermont Officers' Reunion Society, Nov. 11, 1880, Rutland, Vt., Tuttle and Co., Official State Printers, 1880.

-- Sedgwick Memorial Association; 6th Army Corps, Spottsylvania Court House, Va., May 11, 12 and 13, 1887, Dunlap & Clarke Printers, Philadelphia, 1887.

Veterans at the monument about 1888.

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


  1. Anonymous12:05 PM

    Very nice post! I've done some posts about Sedgwick's death, too, on www.Searching4Meade.

  2. Love the editorial “Whew”! I think I remember reading somewhere that Lee was visibly upset when he heard of Sedgwick’s death. Does that sound right to you?

  3. Great post--I have visited the memorial spot a few times,and once made a trip to his grave and his house in Cornwall Hollow--the latter is a lovely spot.

    --Chris Barry