Visiting Uncle John on the Anniversary of His Death

A gray sky casts a damper over Spotsylvania Court House today. The rain is not quite heavy enough to be a drizzle but too heavy to be a mist. The monument to John Sedgwick would be nearly the color of these clouds, but the rain has darkened the granite. It has weathered it unevenly, though, and in places, some carved letters are darker than others, depending on how the water has hit the monument’s face. In other places, water drips down like rivulets of tears—or blood—in an old black-and-white movie.

Today, May 9, is the anniversary of John Sedgwick’s death at the battle of Spotsylvania Court House in 1864. True to form, “Uncle John” was seeing to the welfare of some of his men. Artillerists along the front line were taking harassing fire from Kershaw’s brigade on the far side of the battlefield. Uncle John thought he might be able to sort things out a little by offering advice that might position his men more safely.

When I talk to battlefield visitors about Sedgwick, I always talk about him as a soldiers’ officer—someone who loved his men and who was loved by them in return. A day like today would be apt to send most officers for cover. One of the benefits of rank gave them headquarters tents to retreat to. But I think of Sedgwick on a day like today, circulating among his men, looking after their well-being, offering a word or two of encouragement even if there wasn’t anything he could do to get them out of the rain and mud.

The story of Spotsylvania would have plenty of rain and mud beginning on May 11, but by then, Sedgwick would be two days dead. The army sent his body back to Fredericksburg for embalming, and then it was quickly sent home to Connecticut, to the small hamlet of Cornwall Hollow. As a lifelong bachelor, Sedgwick had only his sister to wait for his corpse. The rest of his family—the VI Corps—continued its gruel through the Overland Campaign. Sedgwick’s chief of staff, McMahon, said the corps “seemed like an orphaned household.”

A ray of sun would do me good. This is a grim way to remember Sedgwick. Yes, I’m here to commemorate his death, and by its nature, that’s not a particularly happy subject. “His loss at this juncture is a sad national calamity,” The Hartford (CT) Courant declared. But in years past, I tend to show up here on the anniversary of his death and remember him as “Hail, fellow, and well met.”

That’s certainly how his men wanted to remember him, and how they wanted us to remember him. When they came to the battlefield in 1887 to dedicate the monument, thousands of veterans and citizens, northern and southern, white and black, turned out for the ceremony. The turnout was a testament to Sedgwick’s popularity.

As the afternoon wears on, the rain dissipates and the gray curtain lifts. The sun does indeed come out. We’re just two days into the two-week story of Spotsy, and hindsight and history let me know what’s about to unfold for those men Sedgwick left behind. But taking a moment to be in the moment reminds me of how tradgic Sedgwick’s death was on its own terms. The story of Spotsy is one of rain and blood and mud, but as Sedgwick reminds us, it’s full of individual sorrow beneath that larger, awful epic.

5 Responses to Visiting Uncle John on the Anniversary of His Death

  1. Nicely said, Chris. I wish I had you as my writing professor in college.

    1. Check the blog on May 10, the anniversary of his death. I’ll have some material posted for folks then!

  2. In a recent episode of Battle of Gettysburg Podcast, Jim Hessler and Eric Lindblade hosted Carol Reardon on Sedgwick and the topic of 6th Corps at Gettysburg(Part One). I enjoyed the content.

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