The Death of General Stevenson, As the Story Goes

Brig. Gen. Thomas Greely Stevenson

Brig. Gen. Thomas Greely Stevenson was “laying under a tree in the shade” —or “reclining on the grass,” depending on the account—chatting with his staff following a late breakfast. Others said it was an early lunch. In either case, all agreed there had been food involved and that Stevenson was out of harm’s way. They felt safe except for the occasional stray bullet kicking up dirt around them. “It was a part of our routine experience,” said one of Stevenson’s staffers, Edwin Rufus Lewis of the 21st Massachusetts.

It was morning, May 10, 1864, just outside Spotsylvania Court House. The IX Corps division commander had just finished an inspection of his lines and retired with his staff to finally have a meal.

Stevenson, chatting with his staff, was in the middle of issuing an order “for having proper care taken of the bodies” of dead Federal soldiers. Or, said another member of the conversation, Stevenson had “just spoken of getting some place for Headquarters which should be shady and also safe.” Whatever he was saying, he stopped dead in the middle of a sentence. Or not quite dead, not dead yet, according to other accounts. Some said “instantly,” while Lewis said “in an hour or so.” Stevenson’s adjutant, Charles Mills, said “two or three hours.”

What everyone does agree on, it seems, is that Stevenson was smoking his pipe and speaking and was in the middle of saying something when a bullet hit him in the head and cut off his speech. Then he slowly crumbled to the ground. And sometime within the span of “instantly” and “three hours,” he died.

Word quickly spread that a sharpshooter had killed him. Other rumors said it was a stray shot—a terribly unlucky, random accident.

Mills, present but not looking at the general, wrote a letter home within the hour in which he said, “Gen. Stevenson was killed this AM by a rebel sharpshooter. . . .” But Mills soon changed his assessment: “I don’t think that it was a sharpshooter, as I wrote you yesterday, but one of the occasional shots from rebel skirmishers which passed to our rear.” Several other witness accounts exist that suggest the same thing.

Stevenson’s fellow division commander Orlando Willcox reported to corps commander Ambrose Burnside that Stevenson was “hit by some chance shot,” but in his report of the battle, written on October 29, he said Stevenson “was killed by a sharpshooter.”

Burnside, in his official report of the battle, written from Providence, Rhode Island in November of 1864, recalled that Stevenson “was killed by one of the enemy’s sharpshooters.”

Grant, writing his memoirs in 1885, relayed the least reliable account. He placed Stevenson on the Po River—on the complete opposite flank of the army—involved in actions by Winfield Scott Hancock—the completely wrong corps: “General T. G. Stevenson was killed in this move.”

The sharpshooter story became dominant, I think, because it provided a rational explanation for what otherwise seemed like a random act of cruelty by the universe. “Why in heavens name could not it have selected some other spot, and even taken one of us?” Mills lamented.

A sharpshooter provides meaning, a reason, a story that makes sense. We want the world to make sense. That’s one reason we tell stories.

But as the stories around Stevenson suggest, it can be hard to get the story right. Details vary from person to person, from witness to witness, from first- to second-hand. In the old game of “Telephone,” as the message passes from speaker to listener to speaker to listener, details creep in the retelling.

As historians, we like to know who was closest in space and time to any event. Memory gets fuzzier over time, and all sorts of factors can influence a story teller, consciously and subconsciously. Second-hand accounts are never as good as first.

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

Stevenson’s death makes me reconsider John Sedgwick’s and, specifically, the question of whether Sedgwick died from a sharpshooter’s bullet or from random harassing fire that happened to hit him. An inscription on the Sedgwick monument at Spotsylvania says at least five Confederates claimed to be the one to fire the fatal shot—but skirmishers had been taking random potshots all morning, which is what took Sedgwick down there in the first place. Was it skill or dumb luck? Maybe Confederates “couldn’t hit an elephant intentionally at this distance.” Or maybe they could.

With Sedgwick, a sharpshooter was certainly possible. The open terrain would’ve provided a clear shot. Stevenson, by contrast, was on a series of terraces behind a ridge. A sharpshooter would’ve had to sneak behind the lines or been up in a redwood-sized tree to have a line of sight for a shot. Stevenson’s location made him a victim of descending topography, gravity, and a sharp firefight along the front.

Or so the story goes.


For a much more detailed account of Stevenson’s death, read Chris’s essay in Fallen Leaders, part of the Emerging Civil War 10th Anniversary Series from Savas Beatie.

For more on this part of the battle, see Chris’s forthcoming book A Tempest of Iron and Lead: Spotsylvania Court House, May 8–22, 1864available later this summer from Savas Beatie.

7 Responses to The Death of General Stevenson, As the Story Goes

  1. Some days Fate IS the Hunter. Lots of ways to get killed in that war. Any war for that matter.

    1. Indeed it is. But sometimes, people don’t like that as the answer. In the era of “the good death,” people yearned for death to have some sort of meaning or to be the culmination of a meaningful life. Random chance was a hard pill to swallow.

  2. Chris, I agree Sedgewick’s death, from a sharpshooter, makes sense because of the location, open terrain, numerous shots into the same area, and his large profile. The discrepancies in the death of Stevenson, his location, and the lack of preceding shots like Sedgwick more likely resulted from the random, violent, deadly nature of a battlefield that would steal thousands of lives in the next 48 hours. Combat with an armed enemy is random and violent by its very nature, which makes no sense, as does the entire deadly contest. Ernie Pyle’s close friendship with hundreds of troops came to an abrupt end. For what reason? General McNair, the US Army’s WWII Chief of Training, orchestrated filling the ranks with thousands only to be killed on a visit to the front during Operation Cobra 80 years ago next month. It’s random, no, but the results of failure to follow the direction of flight for bombing. However, it was random regarding his exact location but within the limits of “should not have happened.” Random and violent death does pass soldiers by, leaving them stunned and setting in motion an entire family line. While serving with the AEF during WWI, my grandfather was shaving in the front lines with a mirror attached to a tree when a German sniper shattered the mirror image and not him.

  3. Chris: Thanks for this informative post. I’d always heard the “sharpshooter” version but never looked into it. It’s interesting how many times the accepted version of an incident like this simply disregards the possibility of random bad luck as opposed to a deliberate act.

  4. Grant draws a pass doesn’t he? Wasn’t there an ECW Blog entry to the effect that by the time he got to that stage of the war in his autobiography, he didn’t have time to research details or go into details. It’s a numbers game, if you’re exposed to about 64,000 bullets, an inch is as good as a mile, but there’s only 63,360 inches in a mile.

  5. I agree with your comment: about that stray round being a “random act of cruelty by the universe” … but maybe not that random … in 2007 we just left the the dining facility in the early evening … in the distance, we could a hear a firefight … maybe 1-2 miles away, hard to tell …. about a minute after exiting, 8-10 rounds hit the wall of the building behind us — maybe a foot above our heads … one of those “there but for the grace of God go I” moments.

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