September 13: The Highest-Ranking Union Officer Killed in the Civil War


One of Connecticut’s most important Civil War figures, Major General John Sedgwick, was born in Cornwall today in 1813. After attending prestigious academies in Sharon and Cheshire, Sedgwick attended West Point and graduated in the Class of 1837 with several other future generals who served on both sides of the Civil War. These included Joseph Hooker for the Union and Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, and Jubal Early for the Confederacy.

Sedgwick was a career military officer. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, he served in posts across the United States and its western territories. He fought with distinction both in the Seminole Wars in Florida and in the Mexican-American War. He was also noted for leading cavalry expeditions during the Indian Wars in the American west.

During the Civil War, Sedgwick led Union troops in actions throughout the eastern theater and quickly achieved the rank of Major General. At the Battle of Antietam in 1862, he was shot three times and had to be carried off the field by his men, after losing consciousness. Following three months of recuperation — some of that time spent in his home 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 many other, smaller engagements.

Sedgwick died at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in the early morning hours of May 9, 1864, while supervising his men along the Union artillery line. His troops were skittish, worried about incoming fire from Confederate snipers positioned 1,000 yards away. According to eyewitnesses, Sedgwick sought to calm his troops, saying, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Seconds later, Sedgwick was fatally struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet. Despite his ironically poor choice of final words, Sedgwick was nether an arrogant nor a reckless officer in practice; 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.

Further Reading

The Death of John Sedgwick,” American Battlefield Trust

John Sedgwick,” Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, National Park Service

John Sedgwick Monument, Cornwall Hollow,”