John Sedgwick was a career soldier in the United States Army who fought in many of the great battles of the Eastern Theater of the Civil War until his death at the Battle of Spotsylvania in 1864.

Union General John Sedgwick
Major General John Sedgwick

Early Life

John Sedgwick was born in Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut on September 13, 1813. He was named after his grandfather, who was lieutenant colonel of a regiment of Connecticut militia in the Revolutionary War. He attended two local academies until 1831, then taught for two years. In 1833 he was appointed to the United States Military Academy, and graduated with the West Point Class of 1837, ranked 24 out of 50 cadets.

Early Army Cereer

On July 1, 1837 John was promoted to second lieutenant in the Second United States Artillery. He was sent to Florida to serve against the Seminole Indians and took part in a skirmish at Fort Clinch on May 20, 1838. He was then assigned to transferring the Cherokee Nation to the west on their “Trail of Tears” before spending two years onRecruiting Service.

On April 19, 1839 John was promoted to first lieutenant and stationed on the Canadian border during the Border Disturbances. He was assigned to Fort Niagra, New York, and at Buffalo, in the garrison of Fort Monroe, Virginia from 1841 to 1841, at Fort Hamilton, New York from 1842 to 1843, at Fort Columbus, New York until 1845, and at Fort Adams, Rhode Island, from 1845 to 1846.

Mexican War

During the Mexican War Sedgwick was assigned to Winfield Scott’s army. He took part in the Siege of Vera Cruz from March 9 – 29, 1847 and in all of the battles of Scott’s march on Mexico City:

Battle of Cerro Gordo, Apr. 17‑18, 1847
Skirmish of Amazoque, May 14, 1847
Capture of San Antonio, Aug. 20, 1847
Battle of Churubusco, Aug. 20, 1847 – Awarded Brevet Captain, Aug. 20, 1847, for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct”
in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco
Battle of Molino del Rey, Sep. 8, 1847
Battle of Chapultepec, Sep. 12‑13, 1847 – Awarded Brevet Major, Sep. 13, 1847, for “Gallant and Meritorious Conduct”
Assault and Capture of the City of Mexico,  Sep. 13‑14, 1847

Between the Wars

After the Mexican War Sedgwick was assigned to Fort Columbus, New York in 1848, to Fort Monroe, Virginia from 1848 to 1849, to Fort McHenry, Virginia in 1849 and 1851, where he was promoted to full captain and took command of Battery A, Second United States Artillery. He was back at Fort Monroe from 1851-1852, returning to Fort McHenry from 1852 to 1855.

On March 8, 1855 John Sedgwick was promoted to major and assigned to the newly created First United States Cavalry Regiment at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They took part in trying to quell the Kasas Border Disturbances, then in 1847 joined the Cheyenne Expedition. They fought an action at Solomon’s Fork of the Kansas on July 29, 1857, followed by a skirmish near Grand Saline on Aug. 6, 1857

From 1857 to 1858 Sedgwick and the First Cavalry were part of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston’s Utah Expedition. They were stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1858 and at Ftort Riley, Kanansas from 1858‑60.

In 1860 Sedgwick was given command of the Kiowa and Comanche Expedition, which established a fort on the banks of the Platte River. They were then stationed at Fort Wise, Colorado, until 1861. On March 16, 1861, Sedgwick was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry Regiment.

Early Civil War Career

In June Sedgwick returned east and was assigned to the Defenses of Washington D.C. as as Acting Inspector-General of the Department of Washington. On April 25, 1861 he was promoted to colonel of the First Cavalry Regiment, taking over from Robert E. Lee, who had resigned his United States commission to go South on April 20.

Sedgwick’s duties exposed him to the cholera that was sweeping the army, and he missed the Bull Run (Manassas) Campaign recovering from the disaease. On August 3 he was given command of a brigade of infantry in the defenses, and on August 31 was promoted to Brigadier General in the U.S. Volunteers.

On February 20, 1862 Sedgwick was given command of a division in George McClellan’s rapidly growing Army of the Potomac. Sedgwick’s Division (formerly Stone’s Division, before he was arrested) guarded the Potomac River near Poolesville. When the army was organized into corps for the Penninsular Campaign on March 3, 1862 this became the Second Division of Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Second Corps.

Peninsular Campaign – 1862

Sedgwick commanded the Second Division throughout the fighting on the Penninsula:

Siege of Yorktown, Apr. 5-May 4, 1862
Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862
Action of Peach Orchard, June 29, 1862
Battle of Savage Station, June 29, 1862
Battle of Glendale, June 30, 1862 – Sedgwick was wounded

General Sedgwick and Colonels Colburn and Sackett
General Sedgwick (r) and Colonels Colburn and Sackett during the Peninsular Campaign

The Army of the Potomac returned from the Penninsula in June, where much of it joined John Pope’s Army of Virginia for the Northern Virginia Campaign. Sedgwick rejoined his division, which had not taken part in the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) at Washington D.C.

Maryland Campaign

John Sedgwick was promoted on July 4, 1862 to Major General of United States Volunters. He led his division on the Maryland Campaign, where the reconstituted Army of the Potomac took on Lee’s invading Army of Northern Virginia:

Battle of Antietam, Sep. 17, 1862 – Sedgwick was badly wounded in the leg, shoulder and wrist while leading his division in a mass attack which his corps commander, Major General Edwin Sumner, had launched without adequate reconnaissance. Sedgwick’s division was counterattacked from three sides and routed, losing almost half its men.

John Sedgwick would not return to the army until December 22, 1862, after the Battle of Fredericksburg. He briefly commanded the Second Corps from December 26 to January 16, and then the Ninth Corps from January 16 to February 5. He then took comman of the Sixth Corps, which he would lead until his death.

Chancellorsville Campaign – 1863

John Sedgwick played a major role in Major General Joseph Hooker’s plan for the Battle of Chancellorsville. While Hooker led most of the Army of the Potomac on a march around Lee’s flank, Sedgwick with a reinforced 6th Corps would keep Lee’s troops pinned at Fredericksburg for as long as possible to give Hooker a clear path. When it was evident that Lee had pulled troops out of Fredericksburg to meet Hooker’s attack, Sedgwick would cross the Rappahannock, assault Marye’s Heights, and follow Lee’s forces in an attempt to box them in between the two parts of the Army of the Potomac.

This worked relatively well up to a point. Lee was forced to leave a significant number of meny behind in Fredericksburg, and when he did go after Hooker, the Storming of Marye Heights (sometimes called the Second Battle of Fredericksburg) by Sedgwick’s men on May 3, 1863 was successfull. Sedgwick pushed towards Lee’s army, fighting the Battle of Salem Church on May 3‑4, 1863. But by this time Hooker had stopped attacking and had gone into defensive mode, leaving Sedgwick outnumber and vulnerable to Lee’s full force. Fortunately he was able to skillfully pull his men back to safety on the north side of the Rappahannock.

Gettysburg Campaign – 1863

Sedgwick – or “Uncle John,” as many of his troops called him – continued to command the Sixth Corps into the Summer. During the pursuit of Lee into Pennsylvania which scattered the Army of the Potomac, the Sixth Corps ended up farthest from the future battlefield.

Battle of Gettysburg, July 2 & 3, 1863 – The Sixth Corps received word of the Union disaster of the first day of Gettysburg on the night of July 1. They began an epic march to reach the battle, with many units covering 30 miles or more. They arrived late on July 2, just as Longstreet’s attack on the southern flank wound down. Only a few units took part in counterattacks in the Wheatfield. Nevertheless the arrival of these strong reinforcements – the Sixth Corps was the largest of the Union corps at that time – was very welcome after the nearly successful Confederate assault.

The Sixth Corps was not kept together after its arrival, but was split up and its elements detached and sent to reinforce the Union lines all over the battlefield. Sedgwick complained that he had no troops to command.

Monument to Major General John Sedgwick at Gettysburg
Monument to Major General John Sedgwick at Gettysburg

In 1913 the State of Connecticut erected an equestrian statue of Major General Sedgwick mounted on his horse, Handsome Dan, along Sedgwick Avenue.

Pursuit of Lee to Warrenton, Va., July, 1863
Combat of Rappahannock Station, Nov. 7, 1863 – Sedgwick’s 6th Corps performed exceptionally at the Second Battle of Rappahannock Station in November, capturing four field pieces, eight stands of enemy colors and 1,700 prisoners in a daring and rare night attack.
Operations at Mine Run, Nov. 26 to Dec. 3, 1863

Overland Campaign

The Army of the Potomac was reorganized in March of 1864.

Battle of the Wilderness, May 5‑6, 1864
Battle of Spottsylvania Court House, May 9, 1864 – John Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter.

Monument to Major General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania
Monument to Major General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania

A monument to Major General Sedgwick is on the Spotsylvania battlefield at the location where he was killed.


Sedgwick was killed at the beginning of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. His Sixth Corps was probing skirmish lines ahead of the left flank of Confederate defenses and he was directing his men and placing artillery. Confederate sharpshooters were about 1,000 yards away, and their shots caused members of his staff and nearby infantrymen to duck for cover. Sedgwick walked around in the open saying, “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?” The men continued to flinch and he said, “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Moments later he was hit under the left eye and mortally wounded by a Whitworth rifle bullet. His chief of staff Martin T. McMahon tried to catch him as he fell, and both men went to the ground. Sedgwick never regained consciousness.

Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer killed in the Civil War. Upon hearing of his death, a stunned Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant repeatedly asked, “Is he really dead?” Grant spoke of Sedgwick as “never at fault when serious work was to be done” and felt Sedgwick’s loss was worse than an entire division. Major General George Meade wept at the news; he had just quarreled with Sedgwick and lamented, “I wish we could have parted on better terms.” Even Robert E. Lee, his old commanding officer from the pre-war days in the Second Cavalry Regiment, mourned the loss of his friend.

Burial and Memorials

John Sedgwick is buried in Cornwall Hollow Cemetery, Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut. He never married.

A bronze statue of John Sedgwick was erected on the West Point parade ground and unveiled on Oct. 21, 1868. It was cast from the metal of melted cannon captured by the Sixth Corps. According to legend, if a cadet in full dress and under arms visits the monument at midnight before final exams and spins the rowels on the Sedgwick’s spurs, the cadet will pass the test.

The following were named in Sedgwick’s honor:

  • A city and county in Colorado
  • Camp Rankin near Julesburg, Colorado was renamed Fort Sedgwick in 1865,
  • A City and county in Kansas
  • A fort in the Union siege line during the Siege of Petersburg 1864–65.
  • Streets in Chicago, New York City, and Washington D.C.
  • Grand Army of the Republic posts in Milwaukee, California, Santa Ana, California, and York, Pennsylvania.
  • A junior high school in Port Orchard, Washington.