General Sedgwick

17th September 2004 at 01:00
t's May 1864. For three years, young America has been tearing itself apart in uncivil war. Now the armies of North and South are lining up at Spotsylvania in the enslaved heartland of Virginia.

In charge of the Union army of the Potomac is General John Sedgwick.

"Uncle John" was popular with his men. They respected his courage - he liked walking the front line, proving his contempt for bullets - and they admired his honesty and lack of pretention.

The 51-year-old could not be bothered to cultivate influential friends and did not even dress as a general, often preferring a private's shirt, an old black hat and muddy boots. They also enjoyed his wit. "He was an old bachelor with oddities," one wrote, "addicted to practical jokes and endless games of solitaire."

The old bachelor was also a dreamer, looking forward to retiring home to a quiet Connecticut river valley. Sedgwick had seen plenty of blood, including his own. He was a veteran of the vicious struggles against the Indians and campaigns in Mexico. Early in the civil war he was badly wounded in the battle of Antietam. Despite having had two horses shot from under him, a bullet through the leg and a broken wrist, he refused to leave the field. He was finally carried from it unconscious. It took the general a long time to recover and he declared: "If I am ever hit again, I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds."

His wish was, alas, granted. At Spotsylvania, on the morning of May, 8 Sedgwick was sorting out his artillery positions. Asking some soldiers to move to the right, he noticed the men ducking as they walked to avoid sniper bullets. He gently chastised them: " What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Perhaps they would have missed the elephant, but they didn't miss Uncle John.

A few seconds after making the remark he was dead.

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