Death of Major General John Sedgwick
Major General John Sedgwick, known as “Uncle John,” to his troops, was shot and killed by a Confederate sharpshooter using a Whitworth rifle at a distance of about 500 yards.
The highest ranking Union officer to die on the battlefield during the Overland Campaign, Sedgwick commanded the VI Corps at Spotsylvania, and after his death General Wright took command.
Confederate sharpshooters had been harassing Union troops here the entire day, and the day before. Lieutenant Colonel Martin McMachon asked General Sedgwick not to go to this location, and Sedgewick replied that there was no reason for him to go here. That same morning, sharpshooter had hit a staff officer, and had shot Brigadier General Morris off his horse.
But the constant activity demanded adjustment in the Union line, and unhappy with what he saw, Sedgwick moved up personally to direct the placement of the infantry alongside the battery.
As he directed troop placement, General Sedgwick, as was typical of commanders at this point in the war, made a point of not responding to distant enemy gunfire, and laughingly chided the soldiers who dodged when they heard the long shrill whistle of a Whitworth bolt cutting through the air.
“What! What! men, dodging this way for single bullets!” said Sedgwick. “What will you do when they open fore along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
A second Whitworth round whistled by, and a soldier spoke up and tole the general he believed in dodging, for he had once dodged a shell that would have taken his head off otherwise. Good naturedly, Sedgwick told the man to take his position.
And now, the third shot from the .451 caliber Whitworth rifle came whistling in, as staff officer McMahon resumed talking to General Sedgwick. According to McMahon, “For the third time the same shrill whistle, closing with a dull, heavy stroke.”
General Sedgwick began to fall, and McMahon tried to catch him, the two men falling together. Blood spurted out from a wound just below General Sedgwick’s eye, on his left cheek. Sedgwick died quickly, apparently still with a smile on his face, but his men, watching the scene, were incensed. A need for revenge burned deep, and infantry patrols were sent out toward Laurel Hill to punish the sharpshooters, and a rifled artillery piece was turned upon them, but the Confederates simply melted back into the woods, and reappeared when the Union troops returned to their line.
While it isn’t known for sure which Confederate sharpshooter actually killed General Sedgwick, the most likely to me seems to be “Kansas Tom” Johnson, who himself died a few days later in battle. But the question has never been wholly resolved, partly due to the reluctance at the time for anyone to claim credit for it.
Major John Sedgwick was mourned by soldiers on both sides of the war, especially men who had served with him before in the old Army. J.E.B. Stuart, about to be killed in action within a few days at Yellow Tavern, told a staffer that he would have gladly shared a blanket and his last crust of bread with him.