Hand color tinted photo of General John Sedgwick
John Sedgwick (September 13, 1813 – May 9, 1864) was a teacher, a career military officer, and a Union Army general in the American Civil War. His death at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is often considered a well known tale of irony.
Sedgwick was born in the Litchfield Hills town of Cornwall, Connecticut. He was named for his grandfather, John Sedgwick (brother of Theodore Sedgwick), an American Revolutionary War general who served with George Washington. After teaching for two years, he attended the United States Military Academy, graduated in 1837 ranked 24th of 50, and was commissioned a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s artillery branch. He fought in the Seminole Wars and received two brevet promotions in the Mexican-American War, to captain for Contreras and Churubusco, and to major for Chapultepec. After returning from Mexico he transferred to the cavalry and served in Kansas, in the Utah War, and in the Indian Wars.
In the summer and fall of 1860 Sedgwick commanded an expedition to establish a new fort on the Platte River in what is now Colorado. He was greatly handicapped with the non-delivery of expected supplies which were to be forwarded by wagon-train from the nearest fort in Kansas but managed to erect comfortable quarters for his men before cold weather set in. These buildings were constructed largely of stone with timber for roofs and doors. It is difficult to realize the remoteness of this post but there were no railroads west of the Mississippi River and communication with St. Louis and Kansas City was by river boat and west of that by wagon train or horseback.
At the start of the Civil War, Sedgwick served as a colonel and Assistant Inspector General of the Military Department of Washington. He missed the early action of the war at the First Battle of Bull Run, recovering from cholera. Promoted to brigadier general on August 31, 1861, he commanded the 2nd brigade of Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman’s division in the Army of the Potomac, then his own division, which was designated the 2nd division of the II Corps for the Peninsula Campaign. In Virginia, he fought at Yorktown and Seven Pines and was wounded in the arm and leg at the Battle of Glendale. He was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862.
In the Battle of Antietam, II Corps commander Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner impulsively sent Sedgwick’s division in a mass assault without proper reconnaissance. His division was engaged by Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson from three sides, resulting in 2,200 casualties. Sedgwick himself was hit by three bullets, in the wrist, leg, and shoulder, and was out of action until after the Battle of Fredericksburg.
From December 26, 1862, he briefly led the II Corps and the IX Corps, and then finally the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which he commanded until his death in 1864. During the Battle of Chancellorsville, his corps faced Fredericksburg in an initial holding action while Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s other four corps maneuvered against Robert E. Lee’s left flank. He was slow to take action, but eventually crossed the Rappahannock River and assaulted Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s small force on Marye’s Heights. Moving west slowly to join forces with Hooker and trap Lee between the halves of the army, he was stopped by elements of Lee’s Second Corps (under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, following the death of Jackson) at the Battle of Salem Church, forcing his eventual retreat back over the Rappahannock.
At the Battle of Gettysburg, his corps arrived late on July 2 and as a result only few units were able to take part in the final Union counterattacks in the Wheatfield. In the 1864 Overland Campaign, the VI Corps was on the Union right at the Battle of the Wilderness and defended against assaults by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps.
Sedgwick fell at the beginning of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, on May 9, 1864. His corps was probing skirmish lines ahead of the left flank of Confederate defenses and he was directing artillery placements. Confederate sharpshooters were about 1,000 yards (910 m) away and their shots caused members of his staff and artillerymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick strode around in the open and was quoted as saying, “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.” Although ashamed, his men continued to flinch and he repeated, “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Just seconds later he fell forward with a bullet hole below his left eye.
Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union casualty in the Civil War. Although James B. McPherson was in command of an army at the time of his death and Sedgwick of a corps, Sedgwick had the most senior rank by date of all major generals killed. Upon hearing of his death, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant repeatedly asked, “Is he really dead?”
Sedgwick’s reputation was that of a solid, dependable, but relatively unaggressive general. He was well-liked by his soldiers, who referred to him affectionately as “Uncle John”. His death was met by universal sorrow; even Robert E. Lee expressed his sadness over the fate of an old friend. George G. Meade wept at the news. Ulysses S. Grant characterized Sedgwick as one who “was never at fault when serious work was to be done” and he told his staff that the loss for him was worse than that of an entire division.
John Sedgwick is buried near his birthplace of Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut. An equestrian statue honors him and the VI Corps at Gettysburg National Military Park.
There is a statue of John Sedgwick at the United States Military Academy. Local legend has it that a Cadet who spins the spurs of the statue at midnight while wearing full dress uniform will have good luck on his or her exams.
Sedgwick County, Colorado, Sedgwick County, Kansas (Wichita), John Sedgwick Junior High School, (Port Orchard, Washington), and Sedgwick, Arkansas, were named in his memory.
Presumably the fictional Fort Sedgwick John Dunbar was assigned to command in the movie Dances with Wolves was named after General Sedgwick. This may have been inspired by the fort General Sedgwick built in Kansas in 1860.