John Sedgwick was born in September of 1813 in the Litchfield Hills town of Cornwall, Connecticut. His grandfather had served as a General Officer during the Revolutionary War alongside George Washington. Originally commissioned into the Artillery, Sedgwick graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1837 with a class rank of 24th out of 50.
Sedgwick served in both the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars, earning brevet promotions to Captain and then Major. Afterwards, he transferred to the Cavalry and served in the Indian Wars concluding with a punitive expedition against the Cheyenne. By the onset of the American Civil War John Sedgwick was a Colonel serving in Washington DC.
Cholera nearly killed him early in the war. However, he recovered and was promoted to Brigadier General in the summer of 1861. What followed was a successful career involving a series of combat commands and ultimately promotion to Major General.
During the Battle of Antietam, the Union II Corps Commander MG Edwin Sumner threw Sedgwick’s division into a desperate assault against Confederate forces commanded by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson without proper reconnaissance. Sedgwick’s troops were engaged from three sides and summarily butchered. MG Sedgwick was himself shot three times–in the shoulder, leg, and wrist–and retired from the field with roughly half his command remaining.
MG Sedgwick was popular with his men. His troops affectionately called him “Uncle John.” However, quick to speak his mind, Sedgwick remained a reliably poor politician. He had thrown his weight behind such controversial figures as George McClellan and was a vocal critic of General Benjamin Butler. The Secretary of War Edwin Stanton felt that he should have been a more vigorous proponent of abolition and what was then viewed as the Radical Republican agenda.
By the Spring of 1864, Sedgwick was tired. He had by now been fighting for decades and had been seriously wounded multiple times. He had lost men in combat by the hundreds. He admitted in a letter to his sister that he wished to leave the Army and return home to New England. Despite some of his more unpopular political views, Sedgwick was granted command of the VI Corps holding the Union right during the Battle of the Wilderness in May of 1864 under LTG US Grant.
Fate, Valor, and Snipers
The Battle of Spotsylvania was the second major fight in Grant’s Overland Campaign against forces under Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Fighting went on for some thirteen days and resulted in 32,000 casualties on both sides. Spotsylvania was the bloodiest battle of the campaign.
On May 9, 1864, Sedgwick’s Corps was tepidly engaging Confederate skirmish lines vicinity the left flank of the Rebel defense. As was his custom, MG Sedgwick was at the front personally directing the placement of his organic artillery assets. John Sedgwick had begun his career as an artilleryman, and he had a gift for the employment of cannon.
As Sedgwick and his staff attended to the myriad tasks associated with preparing a Corps for battle, Confederate sharpshooters opened fire from 1,000 yards distant. Soldiers of this era were typically simply cogs in a gigantic machine, the purpose of which was to amass musket fire. Rank upon rank of synchronized fire is what won battles. Individual sharpshooters, particularly firing from such prodigious ranges, amounted to little more than harassment.
The Confederate sharpshooters this day were armed with expensive and rare British Whitworth rifles firing an elongated faceted 530-grain .451-caliber bullet. These heavy but accurate bullets made a characteristic whizzing sound as they passed nearby. Rebel snipers prided themselves on their ability to pick off gun crews at extreme distances. As the Union artillerymen and Sedgwick’s own staff scrambled for cover the General strode about upright and unprotected.
Survivors heard Sedgwick say, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”
Sedgwick’s men were indeed ashamed yet they persisted in flinching at the sounds of the Whitworth bullets flying uncomfortably nearby. The General continued, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” You can likely see where this is leading.
The British Whitworth rifle was a product of Englishman Sir Joseph Whitworth, a successful engineer, and businessman. Whitworth did his initial experimentation into polygonal rifling with large-bore brass cannon before shrinking the concept down into something more portable.
Whitworth visualized his eponymous weapon as a replacement for the general issue British 1858 Enfield then in use during the Crimean War.
The Whitworth did indeed significantly outperform the .577-caliber Enfield in both accuracy and range. However, Sir Joseph’s rifle cost four times what the Enfield did at the time. The Whitworth’s radical polygonal rifling was also markedly more prone to fouling than was that of the Enfield.
The hexagonal cross section of the Whitworth’s rifling combined with its unique elongated faceted projectile meant that the bullet did not have to bite harshly into the rifling as was the case for the more traditional Enfield. This meant markedly higher velocities. The Whitworth’s 1-in-20 twist was also appreciably tighter than the typical 1-in-78 twist of the contemporary 1858 Enfield. In the hands of a skilled marksman, the Whitworth was known to render accurate fire at up to 2,000 yards.
While the Whitworth barrel was radically revolutionary, the lock, trigger, and furniture were relatively conventional.
Some of these early Whitworths were fitted with rudimentary 4X Davidson telescopic sights and fired from log rests or forked sticks carried for the purpose.
In 1860 at the first annual meeting of the British National Rifle Association (apparently a real thing back then) Queen Victoria fired the opening shot through a Whitworth in a machine rest and connected within 1.25 inches of the bullseye at 400 yards.
Britain technically remained neutral during the American Civil War, but English companies were free to market their wares to the highest bidders. From 1862 until the end of the war, roughly 200 Whitworth rifles were sold to the Confederacy. It is estimated that there were never more than 20 of the Davidson sights in use during the course of the conflict.
Never Taunt Fate
As his staff wisely cowered nearby there was a sound described a “dull, heavy stroke” among all the characteristic whistling. One of the heavy Whitworth projectiles connected with the General on the left aspect of his face just underneath his eye. A shocked look on his visage, MG Sedgwick slowly turned to face one of his closest staff officers before falling forward involuntarily, a great gout of blood streaming from his massive wound.
Medical personnel were summoned immediately, but this wound at this time was invariably fatal. The General never regained consciousness though he continued to bleed for some while. I have myself attended gunshot wounds to the head that behaved similarly. Sometimes despite simply breathtaking damage to the central nervous system the human body nonetheless fails to get the memo for a while.
MG John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer to be killed during the American Civil War. Though he had a reputation for being unduly cautious at times in battle, Sedgwick was a soldier’s General who was widely respected. Upon notification of Sedgwick’s death US Grant purportedly asked repeatedly, “Is he really dead?”
Robert E. Lee was an old friend from before the war, and he expressed genuine sorrow at Sedgwick’s demise. Union General George Meade publicly wept at the news. LTG Grant later told his staff that Sedgwick’s death was a greater blow to the Union than the loss of a full division on the field.
There is a monument to John Sedgwick on the grounds at West Point that includes a massive statue of the General. The likeness was cast from metal harvested from Confederate cannon captured by Sedgwick’s VI Corps. The monument was funded by veterans under his command.
Legend has it that any cadet who approaches the statue in parade dress gray over white uniform at midnight under arms may spin the rowels of Sedgwick’s spurs and acquire good luck on any final exam. As a result, General Sedgwick’s influence is still respected within the storied halls of the Military Academy at West Point today.
The Whitworth rifle equipped with the Davidson telescopic sight was the world’s first dedicated sniper rifle. At the time these rigs cost up to $1000 a piece (about $16,000 today). Specially-selected Confederate marksmen were trained to use these precious resources sparingly against high-value targets.
On July 12, 1864, during Confederate General Jubal Early’s foray against Fort Stevens on the outskirts of Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln did himself come within moments of falling to a rebel sniper armed with a Whitworth. A Whitworth round killed a Union officer mere feet from the President just before a bystander yanked the lanky Chief Executive to safety. Had that sniper connected with the somber-looking gentleman in the tall top hat the entire history of the planet might have unfolded differently. However, fate is oftentimes like that.