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Civil War Trust

The Death of John Sedgwick

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House - May 9, 1864
Don Pfanz

John Sedgwick
John Sedgwick

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was one of the most experienced and competent officers in the Army of the Potomac. He was also greatly respected and beloved by his men. Born in 1813, he graduated from West Point in 1837, later serving in the Seminole War, the Mexican War, and at various posts in the West. He became a brigadier general at the beginning of the Civil War and led a division at Antietam, where he was seriously wounded. Returning to duty in 1863, Sedgwick was placed in command of the Sixth Corps, which he led at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. By the Overland Campaign, he was the army’s highest ranking officer after only Meade.

The Sixth Corps arrived at Spotsylvania on the afternoon of May 8 after a severe march. After dark, it took its place in the center of the Union line, its right flank resting on the Brock Road. Warren’s Fifth Corps was on Sedgwick’s right, and Hancock’s Second Corps would eventually extend the line to the left. Sedgwick established his headquarters 100 feet or so from this spot. Two guns of Battery H, 1st New York Artillery, stood where two branches of the Brock Road met.

Confederate sharpshooters had been peppering the area all morning on May 9, wounding, among others, General William Morris. Staff officers cautioned Sedgwick not to approach the road, but he forgot their warnings a few minutes later when he walked over here to untangle a snarl in his line. When his men warned him to take cover, Sedgwick responded by joking, "They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance." Just then, a sharpshooter’s bullet crashed into his skull, right below his left eye, killing him instantly. When Grant heard the news, he could hardly believe it. "Is he really dead?" he asked, later remarking that Sedgwick’s death was "greater than the loss of a whole division of troops."

Sedgwick Monument at Spotsylvania
Monument commemorating the death of Sedgwick at Spotsylvania Court House. (Douglas Ullman, Jr.)


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