A sharpshooter’s bullet struck and immediately killed Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick around 9:30 a.m. on May 9, 1864. Throughout the rest of the day, grieving members of the VI Corps paid their respects to their fallen general as his body lay in state at George Meade’s headquarters. Major Charles A. Whitter, assistant adjutant general in the corps, took charge of the body that night with plans to bring it home from the Spotsylvania. Two other members of the Sedgwick’s staff assisted in the solemn matter. The trio slowly journeyed by wagon through Fredericksburg to Belle Plain Landing for the voyage to Washington and then onward to Connecticut.
One of the youngest members of the corps unexpectedly met the cortege as they all boarded the same boat on the Potomac River. Private William W. Perry, 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry, had been wounded at the Wilderness on May 6. The harrowing experience in his first battle is chronicled in this previous article. Years later, Perry compiled his wartime diary into a full journal of his military service. A lengthy entry for May 12, 1864, describes his challenges in finding proper care for his own wound as well as some brief thoughts on sharing the ride with his slain commander.
Arrived at Belle Plain Landing early this morning. I feel sore from laying on the ground last night. There are a number of boats in the river. I see some women busy making coffee and ask them if I can have something to eat. They say if I am wounded I can. I tell them I am and I get bread and coffee. After eating, one of them dresses my wound, gives me a clean shirt, washes my face, and combs my hair. My wound was in need of attention. This is the first time that it has been dressed since I received it on the 6th. They tell me that the two days battles 5th and 6th are now known as the Wilderness, it is well named for I saw nothing but woods.
After being cleaned up I leave the tent and go toward the river. They tell me I will have no trouble to get on the boat. I find guards in abundance, also surgeons to examine men to see that none pass, only the wounded. The two first surgeons and guards tell me to pass on. I come to the last surgeon and guard. They have a man sitting on a camp stool to see if he is wounded. After an examination they find he is not wounded but wants to get away from his regiment falsely. He is placed under arrest. The surgeon examines my wound, looks me in the face, and tells me to pass on. I go on the boat and find it full of wounded.
Shortly after going on the boat a number of men carry a box on board. I see the 6th Corps badge and ask them what officer’s remains they have in that box. They say Gen. Sedgwick’s, killed May 9th. Our corps loses its best officer in him. It fills me with sorrow to hear of his death. Having been at his headquarters all winter I loved him as an officer. He always had something kind to say to his men. Peace be to his ashes.
Rations are furnished us on board of the boat: meat, bread, and those having cups, coffee. I have a cup and get coffee and consume a considerable amount of time eating. The boat moves out further into the river and we are transferred to a larger boat where we have more room. I seat myself on a coil of rope and the boat steams for Washington. The boys are beginning to sing. I am glad I am out of the Wilderness. It is pleasant on the river this evening. I can hear the groans of the wounded. Thanks to those ladies my wound is feeling good.
A short distance below Mount Vernon we pass a boat load of soldiers going to the front. They have a brass band which plays patriotic airs. Their boat runs close to ours and there is a considerable amount of chaffing between them and the wounded men. We can see Mount Vernon in the distance on the left of the river but do not stop.
We pass on and about 5 o’clock anchor at the Sixth Street Wharf at Washington. As soon as the gang plank is put out ladies come on board with sandwiches and coffee. I get a couple and am soon engaged in eating them. After eating my lunch I go out on the wharf and sit down and watch the crowd. When Gen. Sedgwick’s body is carried off every hat is raised and the wounded of the 6th Corps gather around and form an escort to the street where it is received by a body of soldiers.
I return to the wharf and seat myself when a gentleman comes up and asks me if I am a Pennsylvania soldier, I answer I am. He then asks what county. I tell him Jefferson. He then asks my name, I tell him Perry. He asks if I am a son of Rob Perry’s of Ringgold. I tell him I am. He says he is well acquainted with Father and tells me he is glad to have the opportunity to help me and will see that I get to a good Hospital. He leads me to where the ambulances are loading up, the surgeon in charge seems to known him for he pays attention to his request and puts me in the ambulance and tells the driver to go to Carver Hospital. He tells me if he can get time he will call and see me. I ask him name, he tells me it is Scofield. He is our member of Congress.
I arrive at the Hospital and am assigned to Ward 78, Bed 33. My wound is considerably worse because of my trip. Besides wound in shoulder I have a buckshot in my right eye and upper lip. The surgeon comes in and examines my wound and says it is in bad condition and he can do but little this evening. I want to sleep but the pain of my wound is so that I cannot. The surgeon leaves me some powders for that but they don’t do no good. I am now at my journey’s end for some time. This is a large tent and about sixty men in it and all badly wounded. I have not lost heart or am not homesick but I feel this evening as though I did not care whether I lived or died but shall not give up, if I do I will surely die and I am not over anxious for that. The groans in the Ward are terrible and there must be a considerable amount of suffering among the men.
Perry spent more than seven months recuperating from his wound but returned to his regiment outside of Petersburg in late December, afterward participating in its decisive assault on the Confederate earthworks on April 2, 1865. Whittier meanwhile completed his escort of Sedgwick’s remains to Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut, where the general was laid to rest on May 15, 1864.
I gathered additional accounts from VI Corps soldiers describing Sedgwick’s death in an earlier blog article, an expanded version of which should be appearing later this year in the upcoming collection edited by Chris Mackowski, Fallen Leaders: Favorite Stories and Fresh Perspectives from the Historians at Emerging Civil War (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2022). Perry’s full journal is archived the special collections at the J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina.