One of Connecticut’s most influential Civil War figures, Major General John Sedgwick, was born in Cornwall on this day in 1813. After attending prestigious academies in Sharon and Cheshire, Sedgwick attended West Point and graduated as a member of the Class of 1837 alongside several other future generals who would serve on both sides of the Civil War, including Joseph Hooker for the Union and Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, and Jubal Early for the Confederacy.
Sedgwick was a career military officer, serving in several posts across the United States and its western territories in the decades leading up to the Civil War. He fought with distinction in the Seminole Wars in Florida and in the Mexican-American War before leading cavalry expeditions during the Indian Wars in the American west. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sedgwick led Union troops in actions throughout the eastern theater of the war and quickly achieved the rank of Major General. At the Battle of Antietam in 1862, he was shot three times and, after losing consciousness, had to be carried off the field by his men. After spending three months recuperating — with some of that time spent in his house in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut — Sedgwick returned to the field, commanding men at the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Second Battle of Fredericksburg, and the Battle of the Wilderness, in addition to numerous other, smaller engagements.
Sedgwick met his demise at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in the early morning hours of May 9, 1864, where he was supervising his men along the Union artillery line. His men were skittish, worried about incoming fire from Confederate snipers positioned 1,000 yards away. According to eyewitnesses, Sedgwick said to his men, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance,” moments before being fatally struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet. Despite his ironic and poorly chosen final words, Sedgwick was not an arrogant or reckless officer; he was beloved by the men under his command (who called him “Uncle John”) and admired as a reliable and experienced commander by his fellow officers. Major General John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War, and his death was considered a huge loss for the Union Army. General Ulysses S. Grant later remarked that Sedgwick’s death was “greater than the loss of a whole division of troops.” Today, Sedgwick is remembered with statues and monuments in Connecticut, West Point, and at Spotsylvania National Military Park.
“The Death of John Sedgwick,” American Battlefield Trust
“John Sedgwick,” Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, National Park Service
“John Sedgwick Monument, Cornwall Hollow,” ctmonuments.net