With Sedgwick at Spotsylvania

Veterans gather at the Sedgwick monument (Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park)

Nothing like a monument dedication to spark some controversy. Subscribers to the National Tribune veterans’ newspaper or the Southern Historical Society Papers could expect a flurry of related articles immediately after a new monument appeared. John Watson Mauk, the Pennsylvania who shot A.P. Hill, only went public with his full side of the story after reading the false accusations against him in the leadup to the dedication of Hill’s statue in Richmond on May 30, 1892.

The death of Major General John Sedgwick, Mauk’s corps commander, on May 9, 1864, is most famous for the general’s supposed final words – “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Sure enough, the phrase frequently appears in 1887 articles, at which time the Sedgwick Memorial Association was erecting a monument marking the spot of his death on the Spotsylvania battlefield. It is improbable that every Union soldier who claimed to hear that line is telling the truth, but between the different versions of the story, we can piece together the details of the general’s last moments.

The elephant quote spread immediately, every major newspaper publishing a rendition. Just two days after Sedgwick’s death, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran its story. “General Sedgwick was shot through the head on Monday morning, whilst superintending the mounting of some heavy guns in an angle the men had just prepared. There was no skirmishing at the time, but occasionally a sharp-shooter sent a bullet in that direction which caused the cannoneers to wince and to dodge. General Sedgwick was near by, with some of his staff, and twitted the men about their nervousness. ‘Pooh, man, you can’t hit an elephant at that distance.’ Immediately after the ball struck him, and the blood began to ooze from his nostrils. He smiled serenely, and fell dead in the arms of his Assistant Adjutant-General.”[1]

“The Death of General Sedgwick” by Julian Scott (original in the Drake House Museum, Plainfield, New Jersey)

Lieutenant Colonel Martin Thomas McMahon cradled Sedgwick to the ground and his version is rightfully regarded as the most accurate. He wrote the details to James W. Latta, formerly of the 119th Pennsylvania Infantry and the president of the Sedgwick Memorial Association. An abridged version was later published in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. “I gave the necessary order to move the troops to the right, and as they rose to execute the movement the enemy opened a sprinkling fire, partly from sharp-shooters,” McMahon recalled.

Martin Thomas McMahon (Library of Congress)

“As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged. The General said laughingly, ‘What! 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.’ A few seconds after, a man who had been separated from his regiment passed directly in front of the General, and at the same moment a sharpshooters’ bullet passed with a long shrill whistle very close, and the soldier, who was then just in front of the General, dodged to the ground. The General touched him gently with his foot, and said, ‘Why, my man, I am ashamed of you, dodging that way,’ and repeated the remark, ‘they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.’ The man got up and saluted, and said, good-naturedly, ‘General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn’t dodged, it would have taken my head clean off. I believe in dodging.’

“The General and some of the men in the rifle pits who had heard the remark laughed, and the General replied ‘all right my man; go to your place.’

“Another of the same kind of bullets passed while I was standing talking to the General in a low voice, about something which I have never since been able to recall. Then a third time the same shrill whistle closing with a dull heavy stroke interrupted me, and I remember distinctively that I commenced to say, ‘General they are firing explosive bullets,’ when his face turned slowly to me and the blood spurting from his left cheek under the eye in a steady stream, brought to me the first knowledge of our great disaster. He fell in my direction, and I was so close to him that my effort to support him failed, and I went to the ground with him.”[2]

Members of Battery H, 1st New York Light Artillery, claimed Sedgwick was among their battery when Sedgwick was struck.[3] Most accounts, however, show the New Yorkers had been relieved from the position and replaced by a section of the 1st Massachusetts Light Artillery. Private Andrew J. Bennett, the battery’s historian, wrote in 1886:

“We had been perhaps two hours in position, there having been a more or less continuous interchange of artillery shots, as if both were employed in getting the range, and there had been considerable skirmishing in front; and during this time the sharpshooters on both sides were busy in the trees, picking off officers, when our corps commander, Gen. Jno. Sedgwick, came between the guns of our right section, evidently to superintend placing them in a different position. Seeing a man dodging a ball, he said: ‘Pooh! they can’t hit an elephant at this distance.’ These were the last words he ever uttered on earth. He fell between the guns of the right section of the First Massachusetts Battery.”[4]

Other competing claims arose, particularly with a wave of letters to the National Tribune in 1887 that started with a dubious tale. If I was a Tribune editor in need of new material, I’d have half a mind to intentionally make up an inaccurate article, confident that it would bring in an outpouring of corrections to publish in the paper. “I was present when Gen. Sedgwick was killed, and not 100 feet from him at the time,” claimed Private Henry Franklin Andrews, 16th Maine Infantry. “I saw him when he was hit, and saw him taken from his horse, and heard his last words.”[5]

Major General John Sedgwick (Library of Congress)

James C. Taylor, Jr., 14th New Jersey Infantry, wrote to correct Andrews, particularly that Sedgwick was on foot and did not say anything after being shot. “Our regiment at that time was supporting a section of the 1st Mass. battery,” Taylor claimed. “My company (B) was on the left and Co. G on the right of the two pieces of the battery. The earthworks at that point formed an angle. What regiment joined us on our left I cannot now say, but its right was as near to the spot where Gen. Sedgwick fell as was my company. The words uttered by the lamented Sedgwick I can remember as well as though it were but yesterday.”

“About the time Gen. Sedgwick came toward the front a member of Co. G was moving in a stooping position toward his company, in the breastworks. Sedgwick, noticing the comrade, smiled, and playfully raised his foot toward the cautious comrade, saying pleasantly and good humoredly: ‘What are you dodging for? They cannot hit an elephant that far.’

“Just as our noble and beloved old commander uttered these words he received the fatal shot, and fell not more than 25 feet from our rear.”[6]

Private George W. Bryant, 122nd Ohio Infantry, similarly recalled that Sedgwick “smiled at the boys for dodging the bullets, when one entered his head below the left eye, and passed directly through. The General never spoke afterward.” Captain Murray Samuel Cross, 87th Pennsylvania Infantry, claimed Sedgwick stood “not more than 15 feet in the rear” of his company. Cross wrote he “heard the ball strike him and saw him fall, and the whole scene is as vivid as if it occurred yesterday.”[7]

The National Tribune published additional snippets from Private Joseph P. Clark, 110th Ohio, who claimed Sedgwick was “walking with Col. McMahon in the rear of the works” and Private Edwin L. Havens, 14th New Jersey Infantry, who asserted he was only six feet away. “The General had a small riding-whip in his hand. A musket-ball entered under the left eye near the nose. Two Surgeons were immediately at his side, but could do nothing for him.”[8] Corporal Henry C. Hendrickson, of the same company, also wrote that he saw Sedgwick fall.[9] John W. Ford, possibly of the 11th New Jersey Infantry, wrote he “was one of the men who put Gen. Sedgwick into the ambulance.”[10]

First Lieutenant Erastus Snow Norvell, 6th Maryland Infantry, provided one of the more intriguing accounts. Norvell was in charge of his brigade’s pioneers and would have been working on entrenching the position when Sedgwick was killed. He claimed he was the “last man who ever spoke to him while living.”

“There was an old road which ran through the woods to a clearing in front of our line, and about 500 yards across the clearing stood an old chimney, which concealed the sharpshooter who fired the fatal shot that killed Gen. Sedgwick. While myself, with the pioneers of the Third Division, Sixth Corps, were engaged in throwing up works to plant a piece of artillery to shell the chimney, Gen. Morris, of the 6th N.Y.H.A. [and commanding a Sixth Corps brigade] was coming over our works from the left and was shot through the leg. Col. Schall and myself carried him back to Third Division headquarters, left him with the doctors, and went back to the works.

“A few minutes later Gen. Sedgwick came walking up the old road alone, and seeing myself and some pioneers standing behind trees, he told Ed. Reynolds., of Co. B, 6th Md., to go to work, as they ‘could not hit an elephant at that distance.’

“I spoke to him, and said, ‘General, don’t go up there, for there is a sharpshooter behind that chimney who just shot Gen. Morris.’

“He paid no attention to my warning, but walked about 20 paces, when I saw another puff of smoke at the chimney, and Gen. Sedgwick threw up both hands and fell backward, uttering one loud ‘Oh!’ When we got to him he was dead; the ball struck him in the face to the left of the nose.

“There were, I think, four or five more men shot by the same sharpshooter within half an hour. Then we got a piece of artillery in position behind the works just built, and a shell was thrown through the chimney that knocked it down, and I suppose killed the sharpshooter, as there were no more shots from that quarter.”[11]

Norvell’s article is a little suspect, as it mentions Sedgwick alone. McMahon is ubiquitous in nearly every other version. Perhaps there are some truthful elements in its other details. Parse through the different accounts and a clear picture begins to appear of the moment when Sedgwick was shot.

Alfred R. Waud – Spot where Genl. Sedgwick was killed (Library of Congress)

Doctor Ludwig Emil Ohlenschlager attended to the fallen general, but nothing could be done. The expression on Sedgwick’s lifeless face haunted McMahon. “The same smile remained upon his lips that he wore in the last moment of his mortal life.” Ohlenschlager poured water on Sedgwick’s face. “The blood still spurted upwards in a little fountain, and fell back in his hair, which was already saturated.”[12] Ohlenschlager would not survive the war. He was mortally wounded in the Shenandoah Valley on October 11th, ambushed by Mosby’s rangers while accompanying an ambulance to Winchester.[13]

Corporal Oscar Edmund Wait, 10th Vermont Infantry, had the most unique way of inserting himself into the story, claiming that he managed to get the canteen used to bathe Sedgwick and send it in a package home.[14] There are hundreds of such accounts and connections to Sedgwick’s death to explore. If all were true, the Confederate sharpshooter could not have drawn a bead on Sedgwick with half the Sixth Corps seemingly surrounding the general at that moment. The National Tribune articles are appealing because the newspaper served as a forum for the soldiers to argue the discussion.

One final witness is worth noting. John Mauk, the man who killed A.P. Hill, was also supposedly present for Sedgwick’s death. James Peebles Matthews, a pension official, helped coax out the story of Hill’s death. Matthews wrote that Sedgwick was mentioned during their interview. “Corporal Mauk was close enough to the group to hear the conversation with the dodging soldier, and he often repeated Sedgwick’s expression about the inability of a sharpshooter to hit an elephant at so great a distance.”[15]



[1] “The Death of General Sedgwick,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 11, 1864.

[2] Martin T. McMahon to James W. Latta, June 29, 1887, Sedgwick Memorial Association, 6th Army Corps, Spotsylvania Court House, VA., May 11, 12, and 13, 1887 (Philadelphia: Dunlap & Clarke, 1887), 78-79.

[3] “‘The Cannoneer’: Comrades Mingle Praise and Criticism of the Gunner,” National Tribune, April 17, 1890.

[4] A.J. Bennett, The Story of the First Massachusetts Light Battery, Attached to the Sixth Army Corps: A Glance at Events in the Armies of the Potomac and Shenandoah, from the Summer of 1861 to the Autumn of 1864 (Boston: Press of Deland and Barta, 1886), 151-152.

[5] H.F. Andrews, “Gen. Sedgwick’s Death,” National Tribune, March 10, 1887.

[6] J.C. Taylor, Jr., “How Gen. Sedgwick Fell,” National Tribune, April 28, 1887.

[7] “Gen. Sedgwick’s Death,” National Tribune, May 12, 1887.

[8] “Moving on Richmond,” National Tribune, July 21, 1887.

[9] “Information Asked and Given,” National Tribune, March 24, 1887.

[10] “A Fatal Aim,” National Tribune, October 3, 1895.

[11] E.S. Norvell, “Sedgwick’s Death: Maj. Norvell, 6th Md., Tells of the Sad Event,” National Tribune, June 16, 1887.

[12] McMahon to Latta, Sedgwick Memorial Association, 79.

[13] James J. Williamson, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion of Virginia Cavalry from its Organization to the Surrender (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909), 259.

[14] Don Wickman, ed., Oscar E. Wait: Three Years with the Tenth Vermont (Newport, VT: Vermont Civil War Enterprises, 2006), 79.

[15] James P. Matthews, “How General A.P. Hill Met His Fate,” Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 27 (Richmond, VA: Published by the Society, 1899), 38.

12 Responses to With Sedgwick at Spotsylvania

    1. Sedgwick’s men called him “Uncle John,” and one officer said that Sedgwick needed to badge of rank to command respect.

  1. Thanks for a great article. Do you know what Confederate regiment fired the shot?

    1. The credit is commonly given to the South Carolina sharpshooters serving in Anderson’s corps

      1. Comments made about a sharpshooter being behind a chimney at maybe 500 yards. And that he had shot quite a few folks, until an artillery round took care of that. Would this have been the farmhouse in the middle of Spindle field, or another house across the Brock Road?

    2. As could be expected, there are quite a few who claim to have killed Sedgwick. I haven’t dug deep enough into the Confederate accounts to give an opinion of my own, but Gordon Rhea identified Ben Powell, 12th South Carolina, and Thomas Burgess, 15th South Carolina, as possible shooters.

  2. So the chimney mentioned was the Spindle farm home site? It was about 500 yards from the General.

  3. Pingback: Emerging Civil War

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!