Major General John Sedgwick could not be said to be afraid of physical danger. Known to his troops as “Uncle John”, he rose to become a general of the Union Army in the American Civil War.
Under him, his corps dashed across the countryside from battlefield to battlefield, striving to always be where they could be most useful, and often where they were desperately needed. He fought at the Second Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Salem Church, and although he was late to the battlefield at Gettysburg he saw action there too.
Wounded three times as he led an assault at the Battle of Antietam, he would often be found at the very front, leading by example and demonstrating extreme bravery. But this bravery would get him killed, and in the most ironic way possible.
Out of Range
In 1864, Ulysses S Grant commenced his overland campaign, a series of battles fought in Virginia which aimed to seize control from the distracted Confederate forces under Genera Lee. The second battle in this campaign occurred at Spotsylvania.
Sedgwick’s corps were at the front from the very beginning, but the Union forces were still too late: Lee’s Confederate troops were already in place and dug in. Sedgwick was charged with scouting the enemy defenses and looking for weak spots.
Sedgwick’s role also involved placing artillery to eventually attack the Confederate lines, and with the artillery placed some 1,000 yards (900 m) away he was out of range of all but the very next Confederate sharpshooters. Nevertheless, some in his staff were concerned at the sound of bullets hitting the rocks and ground around them.
Noting this, and that the fire was also concerning his infantrymen, Sedgwick rounded on them, striding out into the open and mocking them for their cowardice. He was obviously concerned as to how his men would stand up in the heat of battle, berating them by saying “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”
When his men did not seem and more keen to stand upright and disregard the scattered enemy fire, he added “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Some say he never finished that last word, for at that moment he was shot in the head by a sniper.
He never finished his sentence, never led the attack which transformed Spotsylvania into one of the most bloody conflicts in the entire Civil War. He was the highest ranking Union officer to be killed in combat in the whole conflict, and Grant could not believe that he had been shot.
Segdwick may have been a great man, a Union hero and well loved by his troops. But today all he is really remembered for is his hubris. He was right, in a way: they couldn’t shoot an elephant at that distance, but a Union general would do very well.
Top Image: 1,000 yards (900m) from the enemy, but still not far enough. The spot where John Sedgwick was killed. Source: Waud, Alfred R. / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green