I first got to know John Sedgwick during the Chancellorsville campaign. Back in the early 2000-teens, Kris White and I were working on Chancellorsville’s Forgotten Front: The Battles of Second Fredericksburg and Salem Church. Sedgwick, as commander of the Federal forces on that eastern front, played a starring role, so Kris and I spent a lot of time with him.
Prior to that, I of course I knew Sedgwick from Spotsylvania. His unfortunately ironic last words have turned him, over 150+ years, into one of those amusing anecdotes that every buff knows and loves to recite, even if they don’t know anything else about him.
“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” Sedgwick said, twice, just before getting fatally shot below the left eye. No, John, they couldn’t hit an elephant—but they apparently could hit a major general. I use the cheap laugh line with roundtables and tour groups because it’s the one thing about Sedgwick they usually know. (If you want to know more, read the account of Sedgwick’s death by his staff officer, Martin T. McMahon.)
People might know Sedgwick from Antietam, too, which is where I first met him. At the time, he was just one of a dozen generals whose names I’d heard over the course of my first battlefield visit. Only later did I come to appreciate what he went through in those terrible West Woods.
I’ve not scrutinized Sedgwick’s life the way I have Jackson’s or Grant’s, but I do have a great fondness for him—so much so that I refer to him as “Uncle John” in conversation, the same way his men did. Fifty years old and a consummate bachelor, he had no sweetheart at home to write to, but he kept up a diligent correspondence with his sister, Emily Sedgwick Welch. Kris introduced me to these letters during the course of researching Forgotten Front, and how thankful I am that he did. What a wonderful portrait they provided of the man.
Sedgwick was a soldier’s soldier who slept out under the stars with his men when they were on the march. He lacked any razzle-dazzle to his personality-wise or on the battlefield, which is why he probably stands out to buffs the way taupe stands out as a paint color. But if he was uncreative and deliberate, he was also stalwart, dependable, and competent. His men’s devotion to him was such that, when Sedgwick was killed at Spotsylvania, Ulysses S. Grant equated his loss to the loss of an entire division.
Each May 9th, I try to pay my respects to Uncle John by visiting the spot of his mortal wounding. Today, I took my 8-week-old son, Max, with me. After a stop at the monument, where I explained Sedgwick’s story to my nearly napping son, we went on a stroller walk along the Grant Drive toward the Bloody Angle and back. It could not have been a more beautiful day to walk along the shade-dappled road.
But juxtaposed against that, I thought of Uncle John—not just at Spotsylvania, where his road came to an end—but on the evening of May 3, 1863. It is my favorite Sedgwick moment. After successfully storming Marye’s Heights and then hitting a stouter defense at Salem Church a few hours later, Uncle John discovered that Joe Hooker was essentially abandoning the VI Corps to fend for itself.
“[W]ith the dead of the day’s fighting strewn across the landscape before him, the VI Corps commander looked agitated,” Kris and I wrote in Forgotten Front. I can almost see Uncle John as he pondered his options, with the dead and wounded littering the landscape in front of him and Joe Hooker somewhere in the lost distance firing off panicked dispatch after panicked dispatch.
I know his decision. I know how the battle ends. I know where his story goes. I know where his road ends.
It’s better, just for a bit, to keep him suspended there in time. Spotsy will come soon enough.