I’ve long wanted to get an excuse to drop in and pay my respects to John Sedgwick, who is buried in Cornwall Hollow Cemetery in northwest Connecticut. It’s a tiny rural cemetery in the middle of nowhere. Sedgwick lies beneath a granite obelisk, one of the most prominent monuments here. On the other side of Rt. 43 from the cemetery is a fairly impressive monument to Sedgwick, with a granite obelisk, bronze profile, cannon, and stacks of cannonballs at the corners. I wonder how many people who drive past it have any idea who Sedgwick was.
John Sedgwick commanded the VI Corps under Meade. He was a dependable general, if perhaps too cautious. This, of course, is a criticism that is often used against Meade, but Sedgwick could make Meade look positively reckless in comparison, as witnessed by his activities at Chancellorsville and during the pursuit of Meade after Gettysburg.
Here’s a bit of what I had to say about Sedgwick in Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg.
Sedgwick was a Connecticut native who had graduated from West Point two years after Meade. A lifelong bachelor, he was “married” to the army and enjoyed passing the time playing long games of solitaire. War correspondent George Smalley called him “one of the best generals we had: a man of utterly transparent honesty, simplicity, and truth of character; trusted, beloved, ardently followed by his men; a commander who had done great things and was capable of greater.” His men loved him and called him “Uncle John.”
If there were a Famous Last Words Hall of Fame, Sedgwick would hold a place of honor. On the morning of May 9 outside Spotsylvania, he was near the Union front lines when he noticed some of his artillerymen dodging sharpshooters’ bullets. He chastised them for their fear. “Why, what are you dodging about?” he asked. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” Just then a bullet struck him below his left eye. His chief of staff, Col. Martin McMahon, was standing next to him when the bullet hit. Sedgwick turned toward him, and McMahon saw blood spurting from the wound like a fountain. Then the general fell, knocking McMahon to the ground, too. Sedgwick died almost instantly, a smile still on his lips.
Poor Sedgwick! “We bore him tenderly to an ambulance, and followed it to army headquarters where an evergreen bower had been prepared, and there he lay in simple state with the stars and stripes around him,” remembered Major Thomas Hyde, whom the general had been good-naturedly teasing just before he died. “All who came remained to weep; old grizzled generals, his comrades for many years; young staff officers, and private soldiers: all paid this tribute to his modest greatness.”
Meade was bothered by the fact that he had been sharp with Sedgwick at their last meeting the night before. Meade thought Sedgwick had been relying too much on Warren’s judgment, so he snapped at him, saying he wished “he would take command of his own corps.” It was the last time they spoke. “I feel more grieved at his death because we had not parted entirely in good feeling,” he told Theodore Lyman. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright took over the VI Corps.