So fell “good Uncle John”

by Phil Spaugy

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Major General John Sedgwick. Courtesy NPS

….. wrote Colonel Theodore Lyman, in his book “Meade’s Headquarters, 1862-1865.”  While outside those who passion is the study of the American Civil War, the memory of Major General John Sedgwick is most often linked to his unfortunate choice of last words, I think it is important to remember him as one of the most accomplished and beloved combat officers of that conflict.

Born on September 13, 1813 in Connecticut, Sedgwick graduated  in 1837, his classmates included Braxton Bragg, Jubal Early, John C. Pemberton and Joseph Hooker. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery, serving against the Seminoles in Florida.

Sedgwick next saw service in the War with Mexico, serving under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, receiving three brevets for gallantry in action. After the war he served with the 1st U.S. Cavalry on the western frontier.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Sedgwick received a promotion to brigadier general of volunteers. He commanded a division in Sumner’s corps during the Peninsula campaign, were he was wounded in the arm and the leg at the Battle of Frayer’s Farm. He was promoted to major general of volunteers on July 4th, 1862.

At the battle of Antietam, he was again wounded three times, when his 2nd Corps division was surprised and nearly decimated in the fighting in the West Woods. Within 3 months he was back with his  command.

Upon his return  Sedgwick was promoted to command of the VI Corps.  During the Chancellorsville Campaign in May 1863, his men successfully stormed Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg  After a record-setting march to join the Army of Potomac on the field of Gettysburg, Sedgwick’s VI Corps was mostly held in reserve. However. the 6th Corps and its commander rendered good service in the fall campaigns of 1863, especially at the battle of Rappahannock Station in November, capturing four field pieces, eight stands of enemy colors and 1,700 prisoners.

Sedgwick lead his command in his typical steady manner across the Rapidan and into the Wilderness during the opening phases of the Overland Campaign. Near Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 9th, 1864  Sedgwick, [who had long before had earned the affectionate nickname of “Uncle John” for his examples of both leadership and personal concern shown to his men] was attempting to steady one of his soldiers who was coming under the scattered fire from confederate sharpshooters. Laying a firm hand on this soldiers shoulder in an attempt to calm him, “Uncle John” uttered his now famous last words “Why what are you dodging for? They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance !”  The words had hardly cleared his lips when Major General John Sedgwick fell dead, shot just below the left eye by a Whitwoth rifle armed, confederate sharpshooter.

“So fell good Uncle John” 150 years ago today.

What I would like you take from this blog post today, is to remember John Sedgwick as not the man whose life and career is oft times defined by his unfortunate choice of last words. But instead think of a much beloved American soldier. A veteran officer who saw much combat before the Civil War. Remember that he was wounded 5 times in action while leading his men, and above all remember a man who, in the hearts of those who mattered the most, his “Boys of ’61” was and always would be their beloved “Uncle John.”

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The badges of ” Uncle Johns” beloved Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac

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