After the death of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds on Gettysburg's first day, Meade had two highly esteemed corps commanders in the Army of the Potomac. One was the Second Corps's Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock. The other was Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick of the Sixth Corps, a grandson of a Revolutionary War officer who served under Washington at Brandywine and Valley Forge. Born on a farm in the Connecticut Berkshires, he had been robust, strong-willed, and a natural leader from boyhood.
Sedgwick had a manner which belied his prestige; he dressed plainly and his mien was placid and unpretentious. He had a pointed Yankee wit that distinguished him from the other rather humorless senior officers. "He was an old bachelor with oddities," one of his men wrote, "addicted to practical jokes and endless games of solitaire." A weathered-looking man fifty years of age, he was sketched by Frank Haskell at the meeting of generals at Gettysburg: "short, thick-set, and muscular, with florid complexion, dark, calm, straight looking eyes, with full, heavyish features, which with his eyes, have plenty of animation when he is aroused, -- he had a magnificent profile, -- well cut, with the nose and forehead forming almost a straight line, curly short chestnut hair and full beard, cut short, with a little gray in it. He dresses carelessly, but can look magnificently when he is well dressed. Like Meade, he looks, and is, honest." In the field, Sedgwick was frequently found close to the firing line in a distinctly unmilitary-looking get-up: a red shirt underneath a blue coat with the epaulets stripped off--sometimes he even wore a private's blouse--with an old black slouch hat on his head and muddy boots on his feet.
He may not have been a picture-book general, but Sedgwick was a soldier to the core. He had probably seen more action in his lifetime than any man in either army. Since his graduation from West Point in 1837, the army hadn't fought many battles that he hadn't been in. He had seen action at Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, Churubusco, and Chapultepec during the Mexican War; his bravery winning him three promotions there. He had fought the Seminoles, fought the Cheyennes, fought the Kiowas, fought the Comanches, assisted in moving the Cherokees west of the Mississippi on the Trail of Tears, joined the Mormon expedition, and served in "Bleeding Kansas." Through them all, he liked to be in front showing his men how to be contemptuous of bullets.
Like others in the Army of the Potomac, Sedgwick did not owe his high position to great accomplishments on the battlefield. When the Civil War broke out he served with the cavalry for the first few months, then was given a general's star in August 1861 and put at the head of a volunteer infantry brigade in the Army of the Potomac when it was organized into divisions that fall. Early in 1862 he took over command of the Second Division, Second Corps (under Gibbon by the time of Gettysburg) after its first commander, Brig. Gen. Charles Stone, was arrested as a scapegoat for the Union debacle at the battle of Ball's Bluff. In the army's first full campaign, on the Peninsula in the summer of 1862, he led the division in nearly bloodless engagements at Yorktown and Seven Pines. Ill with camp fever, he was unable to sit in his saddle at the beginning of the Seven Days' Battles on June 27. On June 29, still sick, he mounted and rode with his men. On June 30, at the battle of Glendale, he was slightly wounded twice--the first bullet struck his arm, then his leg was grazed. While he recovered, he was promoted to major general on July 4, 1862.
Sedgwick returned to the army in time for the Battle of Antietam in September, where he and his division were led into a trap by corps commander "Bull" Sumner. The division was struck on three sides and virtually destroyed in less than half an hour, the greatest disaster to befall any division in the army's history. In those few minutes, a bullet went through Sedgwick's leg, then another fractured his wrist. He refused to go to the rear, and remained on his horse even though he couldn't control it due to his broken wrist. Then a third bullet hit him in the shoulder, and he was carried away unconscious. Again he convalesced, returning to the army three months later, before his wounds had fully healed. He was forced to spend two more weeks in Washington, and said, "If I am ever hit again, I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds." He was restored to his division after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Then suddenly, in February 1863, he was placed in command of the biggest corps in the Union, the 23,000-man Sixth Corps, when its previous commander, Maj. Gen. Franklin, was removed after a feud with army commander Burnside.
There were some who doubted his ability to lead a corps. Marsena Patrick, the army's top provost officer, wrote, "Sedgwick, I fear, is not good enough a general for [corps command]. He is a good honest fellow and that is all." Maj. Gen. Joe Hooker's doubts were more specific, claiming Sedgwick suffered from an "utter deficiency in the topographical faculty, and consequently [has] great distrust in exercising on the field important commands." In his first action with the Sixth Corps, at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Sedgwick was given the responsibility of relieving the pressure on the main body of the army by breaking through the Rebel lines at Marye's Heights--the same spot where the Union army had come to grief at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Sedgwick, after waffling for precious days, finally accomplished the capture of the Heights, but was then stopped at Salem Church by a lone Confederate division and eventually forced to withdraw across the Rappahannock. His failure highlighted his inability to perform under discretionary orders, and the memory was still bitter as he approached Gettysburg less than two months later.
The dry recitation of Sedgwick's wartime exploits tells only part of the truth about the man, however. Such a resume does not include a hint of what made Sedgwick what he was: the most deeply loved of all the high officers in the Army of the Potomac. The men had nicknamed him "Uncle John," a sure sign of affection. "A pure and great-hearted man," one staff officer called him, "a brave and skillful soldier. From the commander to the lowest private he had no enemy in this army." Descriptions like Morris Schaff's were common: "His whole manner breathed of gentleness and sweetness, and in his broad breast was a boy's heart." Sedgwick the bachelor had no family except his enlisted men. He had an abiding attachment to them, and made it a point to take good care of them. One day one of his brigades--Wheaton's--marched into camp thoroughly soaked from a cold, miserable rain, and discovered that all the good campsites had already been taken. The only space left was a muddy field, with no trees to shelter the men from the elements and no wood for campfires anywhere for miles. There was a grove nearby which provided an ideal campsite, but it had already been claimed by a brigadier whose regiments had arrived earlier. While Wheaton's dripping men stood contemplating their grim prospects, a thickset, muddy horseman in a cavalry coat rode up and splashed to a stop--it was Sedgwick. He saw his men's plight at a glance, rode over to the grove, sought out the brigadier and ordered him to move his men out, and ordered Wheaton to move his brigade into the vacated site under the sheltering trees. "Uncle John's" solid presence gave the men a feeling of reassurance. He was a wellspring of confidence and strength. His professionalism never let his paternal feelings for his men erode into slackness or emotionalism, however. His affection for them was masked by a stern aloofness. "I have heard that a smile occasionally invaded his scrubby beard," one major testified, "but I never saw one there."
Sedgwick never campaigned for promotion like many glory-hungry generals in the Army of the Potomac. He preferred to stand on his record as a soldier, contemptuous of officers who spent much of their time lining up patrons at the White House and the Capitol Building. Many in the army thought that he could have succeeded Burnside as commander of the army if he had made any effort to cultivate friends in Washington. Secretary of State Chase was backing Hooker, and Chase's opponents considered Sedgwick as an alternative candidate. But Sedgwick was a McClellan admirer who thought the army should be returned to that man, and refused to campaign for the job. After Hooker collapsed at Chancellorsville, Sedgwick was approached again about leading the army, but replied "Why, Meade is the proper one to command this army." Meade was chosen.
At heart John Sedgwick was a peaceful man, who dreamed in letters home about retiring to the quiet Connecticut River valley. He was not the general to ask for daring decisions. He was a McClellan disciple, constitutionally careful, cautious and conservative. He was effective only when carrying out direct orders. But he was a hard fighter of imperturbable strength whose men would do anything him.
Sedgwick's horse was named "Cornwall," for his home.
In the three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, out of a desire to prevent Lee from slipping around his army and threatening Washington, Meade advanced the Army of the Potomac cautiously on a wide front. It wasn't until Lee struck on July 1 that Meade realized that Gettysburg was where the army needed to concentrate, and at that point Sedgwick and his big Sixth Corps were at least a day's--maybe two days'--march away to the southeast in Manchester, Maryland.
Meade sent a dispatch to Sedgwick to hurry his men to Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 1, while the First and Eleventh Corps were already fighting Lee's army for control of the high ground around that town. Sedgwick got his corps moving at 7:30 P.M. that evening. The Sixth Corps trudged on all night through the darkness and all the next day under the merciless July sun. They marched--sometimes with bands playing to breathe life into the weary columns, sometimes with the men singing in a 10,000-strong chorus, sometimes in silence--thirty-four miles in all. It was one of the epic marches of the war, and one of the most crucial--the lead elements of the Sixth Corps marched onto the battlefield by way of the Baltimore Pike at 5:00 on the afternoon of July 2, and freed the Fifth Corps just in time to help blunt Longstreet's assault on the Union left. Sedgwick heard the boom of cannon from miles away as he approached, and when he reached the field with his lead division he headed it toward the sound of the heaviest fighting without a rest. One brigade, Nevin's, arrived on the front line near Little Round Top in time to take part in turning back the Confederates' last lunge of the day.
On July 3, Meade treated the Sixth Corps as the reserve manpower pool for the army, plugging in Sedgwick's units wherever help was needed along the entire line. Six Sixth Corps brigades were concentrated north of Little Round Top, but Sedgwick exercised no control over them. He felt useless, having nobody under his command except for a few orderlies. As his brigades were parceled out and put under other officers, Sedgwick observed "he might as well go home." It was a huge disappointment for a man who at Chancellorsville had commanded two more corps and a division beside his own. It was also a serious waste of ability--Sedgwick was one of the very few Union generals with experience at commanding multiple corps.
Only 242 men from the entire Sixth Corps fell as casualties at Gettysburg, less than many regiments. Never directly engaged, the corps's casualties were practically all from picket activity and long-range shelling.
Sedgwick retained command when the five Union corps were reduced to three in March 1864. On May 9, 1864, while placing his artillery at Spotsylvania, he was hit by a sharpshooter's bullet just under the left eye and killed instantly, just after telling his gunners "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."
For further reading:
Round, Harold. "'Uncle John' Sedgwick." Civil War Times Illustrated 5, Dec 1966
Sedgwick, John. Correspondence of Major-General John Sedgwick. 2 vols. New York, 1902-3
Winslow, Richard E., III. General John Sedgwick: The Story of a Union Corps Commander. Novato, 1982